Traditional Hanukkah foods are all about oil. This is great because it’s the one time of year when we are not only permitted to eat fried foods, but are supposed to do so. The reason for this is that the original historic and religious reason to celebrate Hanukkah — beginning on the evening of Dec. 24 this year — has to do with a few miracles, including one having to do with oil.
I went through a phase of trying to saute latkes, as they are nicknamed, instead of frying them, in an attempt to make them lower in fat. They always turned out to be disappointing because you can’t get potato pancakes really crisp if they’re not fried. And crispness is the point. After years of foolishness, I decided just to give in and fry. Hot oil, and plenty of it, is key. (A bread cube should bounce on contact.)
Then, keeping the heat high, leave the pancakes on each side for longer than you think you should (5, 8, even 10 minutes, as long as they are not turning black). Crisp won’t begin to describe them.
Traditional potato pancakes
1½ pounds potatoes (any kind)
1 medium onion (about 6 ounces)
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt (rounded measure)
2 large eggs, beaten
High-oleic safflower oil or coconut oil for frying (these two kinds work best)
Mixed fruit compote (recipe follows)
Use a hand grater or the fine grating attachment of a food processor to grate potato and onion together. (Peeling potatoes is optional.) Transfer grated vegetables to a medium-size bowl and sprinkle in flour and salt. Add beaten eggs and stir until thoroughly combined.
Place a large, deep skillet over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add enough oil to make an 1/8-inch-deep pool in the pan. Wait another minute or two to heat the oil. When oil is hot enough to instantly sizzle a bread cube, use a 1/4-cup measure with a handle or a large spoon to scoop batter into the pan. (Go slowly so you don’t splash hot oil.)
Spread each pancake out so it is very thin. Fry the pancakes on each side for about 7 or 8 minutes (possibly a bit longer) or until deep golden and crisp. Line a platter with a triple thickness of paper towels. Remove pancakes from pan, using a slotted metal spatula, and hold each over the pan for a moment to drain off excess oil. Place pancakes in a single layer on prepared platter for a few minutes before serving. You can keep them warm in a 200-degree oven.
Just be sure not to pile them up, or they’ll get soggy. Continue with remaining batter, making sure pan stays hot and adding more oil as needed. Serve hot or warm with any or all of the suggested toppings. (Leftover potato pancakes can be reheated in an ungreased, preheated skillet over medium heat.) Makes 12 to 14 medium-size pancakes or 4 to 6 servings.
MIXED FRUIT COMPOTE
2 pounds fresh fruit, cut into 11/2-inch chunks (peeling is optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
A dash or two of salt (optional, for underripe fruit)
Dried fruit (up to 1 cup), optional
Honey or pure maple syrup, optional
Sweet spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ground ginger, nutmeg, cardamom or coriander, optional
Place fruit in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook slowly, checking every 5 minutes or so and giving it a stir. (If you’re cooking stone fruit or Bosc pears, add small amounts of water as needed.) After about 30 minutes, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, salt and dried fruit, if desired.
Cover and cook for another 10 minutes or so, then taste and add more lemon juice, if desired. You can sweeten it with honey or maple syrup to taste, add spices, or just leave it plain.
You also can cook it even softer and mash it, or keep it textured. Serve at any temperature. Makes about 5 cups, about 6 servings.
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