Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We Represent the Latke League

If Susie Bright hasn't already changed your life, her blog post from December 23rd will now. Headlined The League of Amazing Latkes, Susie's recipe should have anyone with the slightest inclination toward fried foods longing for latkes, even five days after the lighting of the last Hanukkah candles of the year. But it's always a good time for latkes, and now that I have Susie's magic technique to go with my own recipe*, I...MuST...FRY....

Except that I'm not going to use my Cuisinart to shred the potatoes. Back when I used to cram 25 people in my Valencia Street studio for the Anuual Latke Party, well-meaning friends would periodically chase me away from the stove and insist that I take a break from frying to socialize. They would then start grating the next batch in the Cuisinart, and the potato shreds always, always came out too skinny. Anyway, people make too much of a deal about hand grating. Three cups or so of grated potato is what, 3 big Idahos? It just doesn't take that much time or muscle to put the tater through the shredder. Grating the onion the same way is less fun, because of the sting, but as Bob Crachitt says, it's only once a year, sir.

And, well, I probably won't go out and buy a potato ricer when I can do the same job with my own two hands. (Perhaps the same reason why I don't own a vibrator...) But I will spread Susie's gospel, and if you make latkes her way, you owe your mouth's pleasure to her and you should throw some money at her always smart, impassioned, and informative blog.

*Now, I'd hate to think of myself as one of those fussy writers who loathes for any editor to lay a glove on her golden prose, and normally, I'm not-- it's just journalism, not the Great American Novel or the Great Poem of My Soul, and eternal gratitude is due to the many editors who have labored selflessly over the years, improving my wandering prose when it needed it most (thanks, Miriam!). But in this case I'd be very embarrassed if you thought I actually wrote--for money!-- such a limp opening line as was posted under my name with that recipe. The following is how I'd rather it read:

A religious celebration that mandates fried food? Now that's our kind of holiday! During Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights, eating foods fried in oil is a happy way of commemorating the holiday's central miracle, in which a single vial of consecrated oil burned for eight days.

And in communities with roots in Eastern Europe, no treat is more typical than the potato pancakes known as latkes. If you're putting together a full holiday feast, latkes make a great match for Pot Roast with Porcini and Beer or Cabbage Borscht with Caraway. Unlike the heavy beige disks you'll find in the freezer section of a Jewish deli, these latkes are mostly all delectable brown crunch, with just enough oniony-potato goodness inside.

So what does it take to make a crisp, light latke? Squeezing the excess water out of your potatoes is one very useful trick; so is whisking the egg whites to a stiff froth and folding them in just before frying. Speed, however, is the true friend of the latke maker. For best results, your potato mixture should go from the bowl to the frying pan to your plate without any hanging around. The latkes will be at their crunchiest straight out of the oil, but if necessary, you can keep a well-blotted batch or two warm on a baking sheet in a 250 F oven for up to 20 minutes.

Sour cream and applesauce are the traditional accompaniments. You might think you could serve them with mango chutney or hot salsa instead, but you'd be wrong. At least try them with the applesauce and sour cream first—odd as it may sound to the uninitiated, the combination really does work.

And just to digress--because what is a blog but a safe haven for digression?--just as Hanukkah is greatly overwhelmed by the socio-religious juggernaut of Christmas, so the real miracle of Hanukkah wasn't so much the 8 days' oil but the triumph of the scrappy Macabees over the much better armed and equipped Persian soldiers, who were intent on destroying the temple and driving out the Jews. After the battle, the Jewish fighters went back into their nearly-trampled temple to clean up and reconsecrate it. The first order of business was the rekindling of the Eternal Light, the flame that burns in front of the ark where the Torah is kept in every temple. According to legend, there was only one tiny vial of sacred oil left--enough for perhaps one day of light, but instead, that single vial burned for 8 days, enough to fetch a new supply to the temple. So Hanukkah is a festival of lights, where candles are lit for 8 days and eating fried foods is a must.

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