- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

When I was growing up in Washington, Hanukkah was the occasion for a lively family celebration. The same was true later when I lived in Israel.

Unlike other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah did not call for multicourse dinners. Instead, we had Hanukkah parties with a pile of gifts for the children and lots of singing, laughter and games. Of course, there was good food, and the star was potato latkes, traditional Hanukkah pancakes.

In our family, my mother was considered the expert latke maker, and I always marveled at how easily she whipped up a batch. Usually she grated the potatoes and onions on the large holes of a box grater.

Then she mixed in eggs, seasoned the mixture with salt and pepper, and added a little flour so the batter wouldn’t be too thin. She fried heaping spoonfuls of the batter in oil, and they turned into lacy latkes.

Not everyone in my family made latkes her way. My Uncle Herman, the latke maven on my father’s side of the family, used a blender to mix the batter from chunks of potato and onion, as well as eggs, salt, matzo meal and baking powder.

His latkes were less crunchy and less lacy because the potatoes were not in long strands. But the pancakes were more tender. This style definitely has its fans and is practical for making big batches of batter for large gatherings.

My mother and I always enjoyed cooking together, particularly for holidays. Although she was a staunch traditionalist, she liked experimenting with me in the kitchen and was open to other ways to make latkes.

As long as we had latkes for Hanukkah and they tasted good, that was OK with her.

When I pointed out that we could shred the potatoes more rapidly with the grating disk of a food processor, she approved of the results. Once, when we were in a rush, we used frozen hash browns and the latkes came out fine. After all, the frozen package contained only uncooked shredded potatoes and saved us the time of peeling and grating.

One year, when I lived in Santa Monica, my mother came from her home in Jerusalem to spend Hanukkah with me, and we celebrated the eight-day holiday together … just the two of us. On the first night, we feasted on potato latkes the time-honored way, topped with sour cream and applesauce.

After that, we wanted lighter latkes. As much as we love potato latkes, we saw no reason why we shouldn’t use other vegetables. After all, the Hanukkah miracle had nothing to do with potatoes, which didn’t even exist in the land of Israel at that time.

It’s the oil used to fry them that commemorates the Hanukkah miracle, which took place more than 2,000 years ago, when a tiny bit of olive oil needed to rekindle the eternal light in the holy temple lasted miraculously for eight days.

Making latkes from onions, leeks, lentils or chickpeas would be more in keeping with the available ingredients in the Holy Land during that era. We weren’t too concerned with historic authenticity. We just wanted to have fun.

So, on the second night, we made latkes from zucchini, grating it like potatoes and adding a little extra flour, frying them in olive oil and eating them with yogurt instead of sour cream. They had a pleasing, pale green hue, and we enjoyed them very much.

We went on to make corn latkes, pumpkin latkes, spinach latkes and cauliflower latkes. All turned out delicious. Those we prepared on the seventh night — sweet potato latkes — had a delicately sweet flavor and a lovely orange color. They were my favorites.

My mother pointed out that you can make latkes out of any food, as long as you add enough egg to hold them together as they cook, flour (or matzo meal) to absorb excess liquid from the vegetables, and salt and pepper for flavoring.

On the eighth night, we went back to potato latkes, but for a change we fried them in butter. This gave them a completely new taste. “You know,” my health-conscious mother admitted. “These are the tastiest potato latkes I’ve ever made.” So much for the olive oil miracle.

Classic potato latkes

Some people hesitate to have latke parties because they don’t want to stand at the stove frying latkes while everyone else is having a good time.

But contrary to common belief, latkes taste fine when made ahead. You simply fry them and refrigerate or freeze them on a baking sheet; once they are frozen, you put them in a freezer bag.

I reheat the refrigerated or partially thawed frozen latkes in a single layer on a baking sheet in a preheated 450-degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes.

It may seem surprising, but I like them even better this way. They crisp up in the oven, and some of the oil comes out onto the baking sheet.

Serve these latkes the traditional way, with applesauce and sour cream, or to vary the toppings, serve apple-apricot sauce or other fruit sauce and plain yogurt.

You can also stray from tradition and provide savory toppings such as smoked salmon, caviar or tapenade (olive-caper sauce).

2 medium onions

2½ pounds baking, boiling or Yukon Gold potatoes (about 8 large)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley, optional

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil for frying

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towel. Set aside.

Peel onion and potatoes. Grate them on the large holes of a grater or using coarse grating disc of a food processor, alternating onion and potato.

Transfer grated onion and potato to a colander. Squeeze mixture by handfuls to remove as much liquid as possible. Put potato-onion mixture in a bowl. Add egg; salt; pepper; parsley, if using; and flour, and mix well.

Heat ½ cup oil in a deep heavy large skillet. For each latke, drop about 2 tablespoons of potato mixture into pan. Flatten with back of a spoon so each pancake is about 2½ to 3 inches in diameter. Do not crowd them in pan.

Fry over medium heat, 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until crisp and golden brown. Use 2 pancake turners to turn them carefully so oil doesn’t splatter.

Transfer to paper towels. Stir batter before frying each new batch. Add more oil to the pan as necessary, and heat it before adding more latkes.

After frying about half the batter, put latkes on paper towel-lined baking sheets and keep warm in preheated 250-degree oven. Pat tops of latkes with paper towels before serving. Serve hot or warm.

Makes about 30 latkes; 8 to 10 servings.

Latkes with smoked salmon

30 cooked latkes (recipe precedes)

15 pieces smoked salmon

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon chopped chives

Make sandwiches of latkes by topping one latke with a piece of smoked salmon, then another latke. Combine sour cream and chopped chives and serve alongside. Makes 15 servings.

Sweet potato latkes

Make these savory-sweet pancakes ahead and reheat them on a baking sheet in a 425-degree oven for about 7 minutes. Watch carefully because edges burn easily. Serve with sour cream or yogurt and, if you like, plain or cinnamon applesauce.

1½ pounds orange sweet potatoes (often labeled yams), peeled

1 medium onion

2 large eggs

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil for frying

Grate sweet potatoes and onion, using grating disc of a food processor or large holes of a grater. Transfer to a large bowl. Beat eggs with salt and pepper and add to potato mixture. Add flour and mix well.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick. Fill a 1/4-cup measuring cup with mixture, pressing to compact it, and turn it out in a mound into skillet.

Quickly form 3 more mounds. Flatten each with back of a spoon so each cake is about 2½ to 3 inches in diameter, pressing to flatten.

Fry over medium heat 3 minutes. Turn carefully with 2 slotted spatulas and fry second side about 2½ minutes, or until golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Stir potato mixture before frying each new batch and add a little more oil to pan. Serve pancakes hot. Makes about 4 servings.

Zucchini latkes with garlic

The Sephardic style yogurt-mint garlic topping is a refreshing complement to the light pancakes.

The topping tastes best when made with good quality yogurt, such as Middle Eastern, Greek or Bulgarian style, or strained yogurt called labneh.

3 cups coarsely grated zucchini (3 medium zucchini; about 12 ounces, total)

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley, optional

1 large egg, lightly beaten

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil, or a little more, if needed, for frying

Mint sprigs for garnish, optional

Yogurt mint garlic topping (recipe follows)

Combine zucchini, garlic, salt and pepper. Add parsley, if using, and beaten egg. Stir together lightly. Stir in flour.

Heat oil in a deep heavy large skillet.

For each pancake, drop 1 heaping tablespoon of zucchini mixture into pan. Flatten slightly with back of a spoon. Fry over medium heat about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

Turn very carefully so oil doesn’t splatter. Drain on paper towel. Stir mixture before frying each new batch. If all the oil is absorbed, add a little more to pan.

Serve hot with topping in a separate bowl. Garnish with mint sprigs. Makes 12 small cakes, about 4 appetizer or side-dish servings.

YOGURT MINT GARLIC TOPPING

½ cup plain yogurt

1½ teaspoons chopped fresh mint

1 small garlic clove, minced

Salt and pepper

Mix yogurt with mint and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Makes ½ cup.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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