Frying Off the Shelves

Hang on to your stockings and buckle in for a wild ride. There’s hardly time to breathe between holidays this year, coming in rapid succession one after the other. Before we can even fully digest the big Thanksgiving feast, it’s time to dive head-first into Hanukkah, looming just three days away.

Don’t panic. We can do this. I have the secret that will solve your Black Friday shopping crisis, furtive menu planning, and straining elastic waist pants all at once.

Get an air fryer.

Still the hot gift that everyone wants this season, you have no shortage of promising choices with competitive prices right now. It’s easy to understand the craze; it’s healthier than deep frying, easier to make small batches for smaller celebrations, and both quicker and crispier than conventional baking.

Once you’ve checked those presents off your list, don’t forget to save one for yourself. You’ll need it for making the best latkes ever.

Made with some smart shortcuts, prepared shredded hash browns and dried onion flakes allow almost instant gratification. These Hanukkah staples are no longer a celebration of oil, but a miracle of light; lighter choices, that is. Still, no concessions are made for flavor or texture, which remain as satisfyingly savory and crunchy as ever.

If that’s not fancy enough for you, go all out with luscious cashew creme and lentil caviar to seal the deal. No one will believe that such a luxurious take on the classic potato pancake could be so healthy. The good news is that they don’t have to; everyone will eat them up, no questions asked.

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Purple is the New Black

Potato salad is like the little black dress of dishes; it’s suitable for all gatherings and occasions, never going out of style. Potato salad is better than a little black dress, however, because it’s infinitely adaptable, rather than being restricted to the same basic routine for years on end. Not to mention, potato salad always fits.

Riffing off the classic creamy chilled spuds, this tropical twist makes a colorful splash with vibrant Okinawan sweet potatoes. More than a bland starchy base, these tender cubes are naturally sweet, like orange yams. As the name might suggest, they’re originally from the southernmost island of Japan, but were also cultivated by Polynesians in Hawaii, where it thrived in the rich volcanic soil. That’s what inspired the tropical flair for the rest of the chilled salad.

Crisp, buttery macadamia nuts are a key ingredient to making this simple recipe shine. That crunchy contrast against the tender flesh of the potatoes, paired with the creamy twang of tart coconut yogurt, sets it apart from average humble spuds.

Next time you need a quick dish for a gathering, no matter the season, think of potato salad and more specifically, purple potato salad, if you really want to wow your friends and family. Everyone will remember this dish long after memories of fashion trends are forgotten.

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Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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Next-Level Latke

Scaling down holiday plans for socially distant celebrations will require a number of sacrifices, but certain things are not negotiable. If nothing else, there absolutely must be latkes. Trimming a standard recipe down to two or three servings would be simple enough, but the trouble is the amount of effort the process still demands. My parents go through great pains to make the very best latkes, which strikes me as an entirely overwhelming ordeal to go through for one solo meal.

I’m taking it easy for Hanukkah and making a single, giant latke that takes far less work than your typical potato pancake. Frozen hash browns are the real power players here, cutting prep time and reducing the number of dishes by at least a quarter. Using a liberal amount of oil to properly honor the biblical miracle, the whole mixture goes into the skillet all at once.

Practically cooking itself without any fuss, it takes only one decisive flip, searing to a darkly golden, impeccably crispy finish on both sides. Tender potatoes flecked with onion bind together in this grande galette, which might alternately be considered a torte, rosti, or a jumbo hash brown. At least for me, it strikes the pitch-perfect notes for latke nostalgia.

Slice into wedges to serve as a side, or use the whole thing as a base to pile high with all the toppings your heart desires. Beyond the main festive event, it would be great as a breakfast option, lavished with some carrot lox. You could even serve it a bit later in the month as New Year’s hors d’oeuvres, sliced into elegant, thin fingers and crowned with vegan caviar.

There is one good thing to come of these solitary celebrations… No need to share.

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Potatoes for President

Like many strangely compelling trends, it all started as a silly hashtag.

#Potatoesforpresident was a random phrase that popped into my head during the previous election cycle, a small nod to my frustration over lackluster candidate options. Tinged with a whiff of frustration and the omnipresent craving for comfort, potatoes just stood out as the spuds for the job.

Potatoes themselves are diverse, proliferating across the globe in all colors of the rainbow. Far beyond white waxy varieties, purple, orange, yellow, and more speak to a wider range of flavors than just basic bland starch.

Endlessly adaptable, versatile, and accommodating, most potatoes can be eaten either cooked or raw, hot or cold. Spiralized, roasted, boiled, steamed, baked, scalloped, simmered, sauteed, mashed, fried, dried, juiced, distilled, blended, or stuffed, your humble potato is there for you, ready for the job.

Persevering through the bleakest of harvests, they’ve withstood the test of time. Unlike most fresh produce, they’ll keep at room temperature for months in the right conditions, good as the day they were unearthed. Potatoes are there for you when you need them, no matter what.

It’s never been more important to vote, so make it count. I’ll still be going to the polls to cast a real ballot on November 3rd, but at home, I’m always going to back this culinary campaign. #Potatoesforpresident, until we get someone in the Oval Office with even slightly more of a brain.

Here are a few of my favorite spuds to keep you company in the meantime.

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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.