Once upon a time, many years and many jobs ago, I was assigned to be class advisor for a grade. I don’t even remember which grade. What I do remember is that I was told I had to organize my students to serve a Thanksgiving meal to the rest of the school, dressed up as “Pilgrims and Indians.” What?! I simply could not do it. But the meal itself would still happen, and “my” class had to do something for it. Instead, I had the students research foods indigenous to the Americas and design centerpieces to show what this hemisphere has contributed to the world’s cupboards.
It is often quite surprising to people how many items that they thought were iconic to a country or region in another part of the globe — such as tomatoes in Italy or potatoes in Ireland — are relatively recent “imports” from this part of the world. That so many of these fruits and vegetables have taken hold in so many places and cuisines shows how wonderful they are and what a debt we owe to those who first cultivated them, allowing them to be shared across cultures and borders.
Potatoes show up in cuisines around the world, and one well-known preparation is the traditional Hanukkah latkes. The recipe is not difficult, but because it involves frying it can get messy. In addition, perhaps the most important step, in order to get the crispy latkes we all love, is to wring out as much liquid as possible from the shredded potatoes, another messy job. I have an old dish towel I have saved specifically for this purpose, and I pull it out once a year!
Because this method of cooking is so tasty, recipes abound for latkes made with other vegetables, or a combination of potatoes and something else, but I’m a bit of a purist. I also think they need not be limited to Hanukkah celebrations. So every year we have a big latke-making session, frying up a double recipe. What we don’t eat that first night I freeze on a half sheet pan in layers, separated by foil or wax paper. Once frozen they can be stored in zipper bags. They reheat best directly from frozen and are a wonderful side dish to have on hand. I like mine with sour cream and homemade applesauce, while others prefer ketchup.
This year the Festival of Lights is “early” (due to the fact that the Hebrew calendar is lunar), and so right after Thanksgiving we will be lighting candles and enjoying these crispy fried treats which commemorate the miracle of the oil. And we should also remember that Hanukkah is but one of myriad observances at or around the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, when we look forward toward a return to light, which in these challenging times is something we can all hope and pray for.
Makes about 16
4 medium potatoes, about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, peeled if desired, but not necessary
3 medium onions, about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds
3 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup matzah meal or flour or fine unflavored bread crumbs
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling after cooked
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Canola oil for frying
Grate the potatoes and onions on the large holes of a food processor or a box grater. Any large pieces that don’t get shredded should be discarded. In several batches, take a large handful or two of the grated mixture and place on a clean dish towel. Over the sink, wring out as much liquid as possible, then place in a large bowl. Continue until all the grated mixture has been wrung out.
Add the eggs, matzah meal, salt, and pepper and mix well.
Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a large skillet over medium-high to high heat. Using a large spoon, drop about 1/2-cup portions of the potato mixture into the pan and flatten gently to the desired size. You can certainly make more smaller latkes if desired, although bigger are difficult to turn. Fry until brown on the first side about 4 to 5 minutes, turn and fry on the other side until golden brown. Moderate the heat as needed if they seem to be browning too fast. (Any small pieces that come off or latkes that fall apart are the cook’s treat!) Remove the latkes to a half sheet pan or large tray lined with a brown paper bag or paper towels to drain any excess oil. Sprinkle the hot latkes with salt on one side. (No need to salt both sides.) Add oil as necessary as you continue to fry batches of latkes. Try to remove any stray pieces between batches as they will burn.
Serve warm with applesauce, sour cream, or ketchup.
If you plan to freeze latkes, you need to make sure you have enough room to freeze them flat on a half sheet pan or in a large roasting pan. Line the pan with foil or wax paper, and you can freeze several layers of latkes on one pan, if you separate them with more foil or wax paper. Once frozen, pack them in plastic zipper bags or containers to conserve freezer space.
To reheat, preheat oven to 375 F. Place frozen latkes on foil-lined half sheet pan and bake until heated through. The timing will vary depending on the thickness, so keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t start to burn.