A Whole Latke Love

Contrary to the frequently perpetuated oversimplification, latkes are not potato pancakes. They’re not hash browns nor patties, neither nuggets, tots, nor home fries. “Shredded potato clusters” don’t quite do them justice, but it’s hard to explain such a disarmingly simple dish. Sometimes it easier to describe what they aren’t, rather than what they are- Or ought to be. Strong opinions exist about what makes a proper latke, but in my family, that only means one thing: thin, crispy, silver dollar disks of starchy ribbons, all bound together with a scant handful of matzo meal and a whisper of yellow onion for seasoning. Deeply browned around the edges with a tender interior, some more so than others to appease a diverse crowd, they’re made by the pound and scaled up by tens; never trimmed back, never turned down. Rarely do leftovers survive the main meal, no matter how many buttery Yukon golds press through those sharp spinning grates.

For as long as I can remember, Hanukah has meant the smell of canola oil wafting through the house come midday, long before the menorah comes out or the table is set. My parents work in concert to sling the edible oily miracles well in advance of arriving guests to hide the laborious demands of each painstakingly shaped round. My mom stands guard inside the kitchen, cutting down armies of potatoes to form the raw fuel for this fire. Conveying them in heaping stock pots to my dad, he then dutifully, patiently shallow fries them outside on the grill. Through the bitterly cold winds, freezing rain, hail, snow, and thunderstorms, he faces the elements with steely resolve. There’s no Hanukkah celebration without the latkes, and they’re not about to cook themselves.

I’ll start by assembling my plate daintily, politely spearing two or three small clusters to save enough for the crowd, but after the first bite, proper manners quickly fall by the wayside. Seconds consist of a half sheet tray of the potato gems, shamelessly slathered with enough sour cream to sink a ship, if not lavished with a truly decadent crown of seaweed caviar. From age 3 to 30, if I don’t end the night with grease stains on my shirt and crispy potato shrapnel tangled in my hair, then it isn’t a real holiday dinner with my family.

Latkes aren’t the point here, despite their dominance on festive menus and historical authenticity- Or lack thereof. Latkes are about symbolism, taking on whatever meaning you assign them on this holy, yet entirely ordinary winter day. Latkes are whatever you want them to be, but the only way I’ll ever want them is back east in the house where I grew up, my parents lovingly slinging them from dawn to dusk. No recipe on Earth could ever recreate that kind of experience.

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I Have a Little Latke

Chanukah celebrations already well underway, we approach the sixth of eight nights this evening, bringing the holiday ever nearer to a close. Before many people have even had the chance to drag an evergreen tree into their living rooms or sing one carol, menorahs will be cooled and put away for another year. Crazy how fast it’s sped by this time around! I’m still struggling to keep up, injecting extra holiday cheer into what seem like otherwise ordinary winter days. That’s why I’d make the argument that it’s not at all too late for latkes- In fact, the early date of Chanukah means that these luscious potato pancakes should be fair game through the rest of the month, while everyone else is still celebrating Christmas, too.

Hopefully no one expects an average latke out of me by now. This year, my starchy spud cakes are thick, tender on the inside with a crisp exterior, perfumed throughout with rich Indian spices. Inspired by a favorite takeout dish, Bombay Aloo, this nontraditional take on the standard Chanukah staple will make it hard to go back to plain potatoes. Brightened with piquant jalapeno and a complex blend of garam masala, they’re just spicy enough to add excitement without setting the most timid of palates on fire. Pairing beautifully with the standard sour creme, you could also embrace the theme and switch out the typical applesauce for a sweet and savory apple chutney instead. Whatever you do, don’t let this opportunity to enjoy latkes pass you by.

Bombay Aloo Latkes

2 Pounds Yukon Gold Potatoes, Peeled and Shredded
1/2 Small Yellow Onion, Shredded
1 Medium Fresh Jalapeno, Finely Minced
1 1/2 Tablespoons Grated Fresh Ginger
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 1/4 Teaspoons Garam Masala
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seeds, Toasted
3/4 Teaspoon Turmeric
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 1/2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Potato Starch or Cornstarch

About 1/4 Cup Canola Oil, for Frying

After running both the potatoes and onion through the shredder (the food processor attachment is easiest, in my opinion) place both in a strainer and press down firmly, extracting as much liquid as possible. No need to get too crazy, but you should be able to remove about 1/3 cup starchy potato water. This will help the shreds hold together better while cooking.

In a large bowl, mix together the minced jalapeno, ginger, garlic, spices, salt, and tomato paste until smooth. Add in the drained potatoes, drizzling them first with the lemon juice before tossing with the seasonings. Stir well to blend the paste throughout, getting in there and using your hands as needed. Sprinkle the cornstarch over last, tossing to coat and evenly distribute throughout the shreds.

Heat about half of the oil in a medium-sized skillet over moderate heat. Once the oil is shimmering, it’s hot enough to start cooking up the latkes. For large, thick potato pancakes, I use about 1/3 cup of firmly packed shreds, using the measuring cup to mold them into an even round. Press the potato puck out lightly, so that it’s about 1 cm thick. For more dainty latkes, use closer to 1/4 cup of loosely packed shreds, flattening them out to about 1/2 cm thick. Cook no more than 3 latkes at one time, giving them all enough space to comfortable flip when the time comes.

Allow the latkes to sizzle undisturbed for about 3 – 5 minutes on each side, flipping only once. When they’re golden brown on both sides, remove the latkes to paper towel-lined plates to drain. Add more oil to the skillet as needed for additional latkes.  Serve immediately, or transfer to a wire rack and store in a 250 degree preheated oven until they’re all cooked and ready.

Makes 10 – 12 Thick Latkes, 16 – 18 Thinner, Smaller Latkes

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