Gut yontef! Happy Chanukah! As we kindle our menorahs for the Festival of Lights, we also fire up our frying pans to honor the miracle of the oil with plates full of fried potato latkes.
Much has been written in both Jewish and non-Jewish publications about the mystery of the potato latke. How is it that a 2,200-year-old holiday is celebrated so universally with food made from South American tubers that weren’t known to most Jews until some 1,700 years into the holiday observance?
Latkes have not always been potatoes, nor are they always served with sour cream or applesauce, or both. Traditions are as numerous as there are candles lit each night of Chanukah, and they grow and multiply just the same.
Early versions of latkes, levivot, seem to center around curd cheese, which is an excellent way of preserving milk that would otherwise spoil awaiting other uses. Shtetl Jews in the Middle Ages would have had access to such cheese and the flour could be milled from whatever grains they farmed. Pairing cheese with fruit is a natural choice and, at this time of year for Northern Hemisphere Jews, that means some kind of preserves.
CHEESE LATKES WITH CHERRY PRESERVES
Yield: 20-40 latkes, depending on size; 1 pint of preserves
16 oz. large-curd cottage cheese
1½ oz. (by weight) honey
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract or vanilla paste
9¾ oz. (by weight) all-purpose flour
3 oz. (by weight) granulated white sugar
2½ tsp. baking powder
Canola oil for frying
1 lb. frozen pitted cherries (or fresh cherries, pitted, and weighed out to 1 lb. of cleaned cherries)
½ cup Granny Smith apple (about 1 medium-sized apple), peeled, cored and chopped
½ cup honey
¼ cup water, plus more as needed
- Combine all ingredients in a saucepan large enough to hold them over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a bare simmer and cook until the mixture is very syrupy and the juices have cooked down at least by half. Mix frequently to prevent scorching and burning as the sugars cook down and periodically mash with a potato masher or similar utensil.
- When the liquids have reduced significantly, dip a clean metal spoon into the pot to see how thickly the preserves coat the back of the spoon. Can you make a clean swipe through it with a fingertip and leave a line with no liquid or does it run right in again? If you can make a clean line, allow your preserves to cool. Store in a tightly covered container in your refrigerator for up to a week.
- Combine the flour, sugar and baking powder in a container that will be easy to pour from and mix well with a whisk to combine the three dry ingredients. No sifting needed if no clumps are present.
- In a large bowl, mix the cottage cheese, honey, salt and vanilla extract with a spatula or spoon, mixing carefully to combine these ingredients well. Fold in the flour, sugar and baking powder by thirds; this should create a relatively slack paste, somewhat like very chunky peanut butter. If it’s too stiff and doughy, it won’t mix well; add a couple tablespoons of water, mix again and check the consistency. Ensure that all ingredients are mixed, but don’t overworking the batter.
- Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula, mix well and cover the bowl, refrigerating for 30-45 minutes minimum, and up to two days before use.
- Prepare for frying. If you’re using Bubbie’s countertop electric skillet, set it to about 365 degrees and add about ¾ to 1 inch of oil. Otherwise, heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium, and use a good thermometer to monitor the temperature.
- Scoop the batter into the fryer using a large spoon; aim to get about 2 tablespoons in each latke. Push down slightly with the spoon to flatten them out, and fry until they float and are evenly golden brown on the side that’s down; flip them over and keep cooking. They’ll take on a fairly dark color before the inside fully cooks, so cook a few to get used to your method, about 5-7 minutes. Don’t overcrowd the fryer and it’ll go faster.
- As the latkes come out of the fryer, place them on a clean brown paper bag or on a pile of paper towels to drain, then into a bowl to await finishing as you cook more. Make sure to drain as much oil off the latkes into the fryer before you put them in the landing zone.
Serve latkes with a generous dusting of powdered sugar and a dish of preserves for dipping or drizzling.
FRIED MAMALIGA WITH ROASTED GARLIC SAUCE
Yield: a very large pile of fried mamaliga (Romanian polenta) and about 1 cup of dipping sauce
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup cold water
1 Tbsp. salt
Pepper, black or white, to taste
3 cups milk
1 stick butter, cut into pieces, room temp, if possible
1 pint of fresh cheese (ricotta, farmer’s cheese, etc.)
1 head garlic
1 cup olive oil plus 2 Tbsp., separated
1 Tbsp. pasteurized egg yolk (or 1 egg yolk)
1 Tbsp. lemon juice, freshly squeezed and strained
1 tsp. honey
Salt, pepper and your choice of seasonings
Canola oil for frying
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a 4-quart casserole dish and set aside for later. You may line the dish with greased parchment paper. Use butter or a cooking spray oil.
- Bring the milk to a boil over medium-high heat in a 3-quart saucepan and add the salt. While this is heating, roast the garlic: Slice the head of garlic in half along its equator, roughly, then place both halves in aluminum foil and drizzle with the 2 Tbsp. of olive oil. Wrap them up loosely into a pouch, close tightly and place in the preheated oven. Leave until your kitchen smells amazing.
- Stir the cornmeal mix and pour it into the boiling liquid, stirring with a whisk as you add it. Break up any clumps. Turn the stove to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently. Make sure the bottom doesn’t scorch. After 15-20 minutes, when the mixture pulls away from the side of the pot, you’re almost done. Taste to make sure it’s not undercooked; go for another few minutes if the cornmeal still has some significant tooth.
- Stir in the butter and cheese and mix until both are incorporated fully. Taste and adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled thoroughly.
- While the mamaliga is chilling, your roasted garlic might be done. Does your kitchen smell really fragrant? If so, carefully remove the garlic from the oven, allow it to cool a bit, then open the foil packet up. Are the cloves of garlic dark brown, soft and fragrant? If so, you’re set. If not, pack them back up and continue cooking for 10-15 more minutes at least, then check again.
- Squeeze all the roasted garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Add the egg yolk and pulse to blend, then add the lemon juice and honey. Pulse again, then turn on the food processor and slowly drizzle the olive oil in a stream about the size of a pencil while the processor runs. Watch for an emulsion, not just a mess of liquid. Slowly, you’ll notice a thicker consistency forming. If not, slow down your oil addition or stop altogether and let things mix. Once all the oil has been added, season with salt and pepper to taste, then store in a tightly sealed container in your fridge for up to three days.
- Remove the chilled mamaliga from the fridge and turn it out of the greased container. Cut into 1-inch-wide slices, then cut those into 1-inch-wide sticks — you’re looking for something like a giant french fry shape.
- Heat about ½ inch of oil in a skillet to 350-365°F. In a large, shallow bowl or dish, combine a generous cup of flour with a good amount of salt, pepper, and other seasonings (here I might use a bit of paprika, dried basil and onion powder.)
- Dredge the sliced mamaliga in the seasoned flour, covering it completely. Shake off any excess flour, then carefully place the mamaliga in the oil. Repeat until the pan is about half full, then fry until the exteriors are becoming golden brown and crispy. Turn and continue frying until evenly browned and warmed through. This should take about 5 minutes. As the fried mamaliga comes out of the oil, allow it to drain well and land it on a pile of paper towels or clean brown paper bags. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat this process with remaining pieces.
- Serve fried mamaliga with a generous side of the roasted garlic sauce for dipping and enjoy.
ZUCCHINI AND GARLIC LATKES WITH YOGURT-LEMON-DILL SAUCE
Yield: 16-20 latkes and 1 pint sauce
2 lb. zucchini, grated on the large side of a box grater
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. onion, grated or minced
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup matzah meal
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbsp. salt
Several grinds of pepper, to your liking
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp. dried dill weed or 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Toasted slivered almonds, optional as garnish
Oil for frying
- Grate the zucchini into a bowl. Add the 2 Tbsp. salt and mix well to coat. Let this sit for 10 minutes on the counter. Then, working in batches, wrap about 1-2 cups of the zucchini shreds in a towel and wring out all the moisture you can. Wring the liquid into a container, then place the zucchini shreds into a second bowl, and repeat until you’ve done them all.
- Add the garlic, onion and pepper to the bowl with the zucchini. Mix well and allow to mingle for a few moments. Add the matzah meal, flour and egg, then mix well to combine everything. If the mixture seems dry, add a bit of the zucchini liquid back in; if there’s a lot of liquid in your mix, add a little more flour or some potato starch, if need be.
- Heat about ½ inch of oil in a skillet to 350-365°F. Scoop in about ¼-cup of latke mix and flatten down slightly.
Repeat until the skillet is about half full; don’t overload it. As the latkes become browned and crispy, flip them over and continue to cook until they’re done: brown on the outside, crispy and fully cooked inside with no visible wet egg/zucchini mix at the center. Remove finished latkes from the skillet, drain excess grease back into the skillet, and transfer to paper towels or clean brown paper bags. Season with salt and pepper before the oil dries completely, as it’ll adhere better. Repeat with remaining latke mix, frying in as many batches as needed.
Zest the lemon (with a microplane, if you have one) into a bowl easily able to hold at least 3 cups. Once fully zested, juice the lemon and strain out any seeds or large chunks of pulp. Add that to the bowl with the zest. Add the dill, a pinch of salt and a bit of pepper, then mix well. Once these ingredients are combined, add the yogurt, stir well and season to taste with more salt and pepper.
- Serve latkes on a platter, sprinkled with almonds as garnish and with the yogurt sauce.
WHITE BEAN AND KASHA LATKES WITH FRESH HERB OIL
Yield: about 16-20 latkes and about 1¼ cups oil
1 cup kasha (groats)
1 Tbsp. oil
2 oz. Just Egg (or an amount of your preferred egg substitute equal to 1 egg)
2 cups water
Salt and pepper
2 cups cooked white beans, some liquid reserved (canned is fine)
½ cup onion, grated into a bowl, juice retained
½ cup matzah meal
4 oz. Just Egg (or an amount of your preferred egg substitute equal to 2 eggs)
Salt and pepper
Herb Oil Ingredients
1 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh chives, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh garlic, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
½ tsp. black pepper, ground
Oil for frying
- Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, turn off the heat and cover tightly to have hot water ready when needed.
- Pour your “egg” into a bowl and add the kasha. Mix well to coat the groats and allow the mix to sit for a moment to allow for maximum absorption.
- Meanwhile, heat a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbsp. oil and swirl to coat the pan. Allow it to heat for a moment, then mix up the kasha well again before pouring it into the hot pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the egg cooks off, the grains look dry, and your kitchen smells toasty and like the signature smell of buckwheat. Immediately pour the hot water over the kasha, stir well and cover tightly. Reduce the heat to the lowest simmer possible and cook for 25-30 minutes, until the kasha is cooked through but not completely mush. Check periodically to make sure the liquid is absorbing, and the kasha isn’t overcooked. If need be, some liquid may be strained off the finished kasha.
- For the herb oil: Combine chopped herbs, garlic, lemon zest, black pepper and olive oil in a blender. In the shortest amount of time possible, blend thoroughly until the herbs are as chopped down as they’ll get in your blender. Don’t let this go so long that it heats up, you should only need 20-30 seconds of blending. Pour the oil into a container, cover tightly and refrigerate for 2-3 days. (After this, the flavor will be much different.)
- Once cooked, uncover the kasha, allow it to sit for 10 to 15 minutes undisturbed, and then fluff it up and allow it to cool off somewhat. Meanwhile, mash the white beans with a potato masher or other similar implement. You don’t need to completely destroy their texture, but you’re looking to make a fairly even mash. Add some liquid as needed to ease the process, but we’re not making soup here, so be careful.
- Combine the cooked kasha, mashed beans, onion and matzah meal and fold together a few times. Pour the 4 oz. “egg” over the latke mix, season with a good pinch of salt and pepper, and continue mixing until evenly combined.
- Heat about ½ inch of oil in a skillet to 350-365°F. Scoop in about ¼ cup of latke mix and flatten down slightly. Repeat until the skillet is about half full, and don’t overload it. As the latkes become browned and crispy, flip them over and continue to cook until they’re done: brown on the outside, crispy and fully cooked inside with no visible wet mixture in the very center.
Remove finished latkes from the skillet, drain off excess grease back into the skillet and transfer to paper towels or clean brown paper bags. Season with salt and pepper before the oil dries completely, as it’ll adhere better that way. Repeat with remaining latke mix, frying in as many batches as needed.
- Serve latkes drizzled with the herb oil; let the oil come to room temperature before serving and shake well to get lots of fresh herbs onto the plate.