For generations at Hanukkah, it was always the same: Mealtime meant potato latkes. Made large enough for a supper side dish or dainty enough for hors d'oeuvres, these pancakes of grated potato, sparked with onion and fried to crisp delectability, have been the quintessential food for the holiday.
But in recent years, the latke has moved upscale. Tomorrow night, as Jewish families prepare to mark the beginning of Hanukkah -- an eight-day celebration of the 164 B.C. victory of the Maccabee rebels against Syrian conquerors -- what's on the dinner table may come as something of a surprise.
Plain old potato pancakes? Forget it. Try them with caviar, with curry powder, with goat cheese, with chilies. Or add a soupcon of Old Bay seasoning.
In her 1994 cookbook, "Jewish Cooking in America" (Alfred A. Knopf), Washington-based food writer Joan Nathan offers recipes that range from the ordinary to the haute; the latter she refers to as "designer latkes" and "high fashion potato fritters." The brand new "The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher" (Vital Media, 1996) gives the latke even more cachet, with recipes from the nation's finest and most famous professional cooks.
You don't have to be Jewish to like the latke. In fact, it has always been a cross-cultural food: "Every Central European culture had something similar," says Nathan. "And everybody loves potatoes."
Everybody loves them fried, too.
And, as latke eaters know, the point of potato pancakes isn't the potatoes -- which didn't begin to appear on holiday tables in the Old Country until they had been discovered and shipped back from the New. Rather, it's the oil -- a reminder of the story of a small cruse of purified oil found by the victorious Maccabees in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was just enough to burn in the candelabrum for one day, but, miraculously, it burned for eight, until new oil was prepared.
Hence, Hanukkah's other name -- the Feast of Lights.
And the eight lights in the Hanukkah menorah.
And the custom of eating crisp, fried, satisfying latkes
Potato and chicken latkes with tomato corn relish
Yields 3 to 4 servings
1/4 cup butter or margarine (see note)
1 1/2 cups frozen white corn
6 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
corn starch and water, optional
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
2 cups shredded potatoes, fresh or frozen
1 green onion, chopped
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter or margarine (see note)
In medium skillet, heat butter on medium-high heat. Add relish ingredients and saute 20 minutes. Add cornstarch and water to thicken, if desired.
In a large bowl, mix latke ingredients until thoroughly blended.
Heat butter on medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet. Drop potato batter by soup spoons, flattening slightly with a spatula. Cook on low to medium heat until brown on both sides.
Place relish in center of individual serving plates. Arrange latkes on top of relish.
Note: To make this recipe in a kosher way, use nondairy margarine.
(This prize-winning recipe was created by chef Sterling Burpee of J. W.'s Steakhouse in the Philadelphia Marriott, for a contest sponsored by McCormick & Co. in July 1995)
Crisp potato cake with goat cheese
Makes 4 servings
2 peeled Idaho potatoes
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Slice the potatoes into very thin, fine julienne-style strips, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 inches long by 1/16 of an inch. Do not wash or put the potatoes in water, which would remove the starch. The starch is needed to keep the potatoes together. Squeeze all the moisture from the cut potatoes and season with salt and pepper.
Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a large skillet. Lay out a thin layer of potato, forming a circle (2 1/2 -inch diameter). Spread 1 ounce of the goat cheese on the mound of potato, sprinkle with finely chopped chives. Cover the goat cheese with another thin layer of potato, making sure that the goat cheese is completely enclosed. Repeat the same operation, making a total of 4 pancakes.
Add the remaining tablespoons of olive oil to the large skillet and, over medium heat, let the potato turn into a golden crust on one side. Carefully turn the potato pancakes over and cook to a golden brown on the other side.
(Recipe by chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, in "The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher. Keller suggests serving it on a bed of mixed baby lettuces, as a salad or cheese course.)
Curried sweet potato latkes
Yields 16 3-inch pancakes
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk (approximately)
peanut oil for frying
Grate the sweet potatoes coarsely. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin and salt and pepper.
Add the eggs and just enough milk to the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter. Add the potatoes and mix. The batter should be moist but not runny; if too stiff, add more milk.
Heat 1/4 -inch of peanut oil in a frying pan until it is barely smoking. Drop in the batter by tablespoons and flatten. Fry over medium-high heat several minutes on each side until golden. Drain on paper towels and serve.
Note: For an Asian touch, add some freshly grated ginger to the pancakes.
(From "Jewish Cooking in America" by Joan Nathan)
Green apple and potato pancake with caviar
Makes 24 quarter-sized pancakes
1 onion peeled
1 Idaho potato
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup peanut oil
1 ounce kosher caviar
1 Granny Smith apple
1/4 cup sour cream
Chop the onion very finely. Peel both the apple and potato. Grate them separately on an old-fashioned hand grater; they will cook better than way.
Rinse the grated potato in cold water. Add the apple, egg, flour and onion. Season with cinnamon, salt and pepper.
In a saute pan, heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat. Using a teaspoon, drop quarter-sized pancakes into the oil. Brown the pancakes well on one side, then turn and cook crisp on the other. Set aside on paper towel to absorb any excess oil.
Top each pancake with a dollop or sour cream and sprinkle with caviar.
(Recipe by chef Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in Miami Beach, Fla., for "The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher")
Pub Date: 12/04/96