The Miracle Meal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I was growing up in my Russian-Jewish family, my mother, like many other Jewish mothers, always served crisp-fried potato latkes as we lit the Hanukkah candles. This tradition has been carried on with my own family; as our children were growing up, we always served potato latkes each night of the holiday.

Latkes and other foods fried in oil are symbolic of the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days in the ancient temple.

Now my children have families of their own, but we always celebrate at least one night of Hanukkah together. Just before everyone arrives, I grate the potatoes, then we all gather in the kitchen and fry the latkes in two large nonstick frying pans. A platter is filled and refilled with latkes for everyone to enjoy while waiting for dinner to be served. The leftover latkes go with the main course, and often are served as a dessert topped with preserves and powdered sugar. We never tire of them.

It wasn't until I began doing food research for my cookbooks, that I realized that Jewish families from other parts of the world served many other types of fried foods to celebrate the holiday. So I began experimenting with a variety of foods fried in oil to serve at our Hanukkah party: zucchini latkes, spinach and ricotta latkes, sweet potato latkes, risotto latkes and the popular Israeli Hanukkah deep-fried pastries, soufganyot. These dishes have all been delicious, but we always return to the traditional potato latkes.

This year, using my mother's recipe for the perfect latke, I will make mini-potato latkes for the grandchildren to feast on while lighting the Hanukkah candles. For dinner we will begin with steaming bowls of vegetable soup, and latkes will be featured as the main course. But, they will be the size of 4-inch pizzas, and served with a choice of some unusual toppings. These will include a salsa of chopped tomatoes, basil and arugula; sauteed onions and mushrooms, apple-cranberry slices; cream cheese-lox and onions, and roasted peppers with anchovies.

But I know that some members of our family will eat their latkes plain. To paraphrase a line from the movie "The Big Night," sometimes potato latkes like to be alone.

PERFECT POTATO LATKES

4 baking potatoes, peeled

1 large onion, grated

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 eggs

3 tablespoons flour

Pinch baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Vegetable oil

Grate potatoes, using food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer to large bowl and add onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Heat 1/8 inch oil in 4-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour batter into hot oil with large spoon and flatten latkes with back of spoon. Cook on 1 side just until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes, then turn and cook on other side. Turn once only. Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Note: For mini-latkes, spoon potato mixture into pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch round tip. Pipe potato mixture into hot oil to form small latkes. Makes about 4 dozen, depending on size.

Makes about 1 dozen latkes.

Each latke, without topping, contains about:

75 calories; 220 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

TOMATO, BASIL AND ARUGULA TOPPING

2 tablespoons minced garlic

5 tomatoes, diced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups coarsely chopped arugula

Combine garlic, tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Mix well. Place arugula in separate bowl. Cover both bowls with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, spoon tomato mixture onto latkes and sprinkle with arugula.

Makes 3 cups.

Each tablespoon contains about:

3 calories; 8 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

APPLE-CRANBERRY SLICE TOPPING

1/2 cup cranberry juice

1/2 cup raspberry jelly

1/3 cup sugar

6 large tart Pippin or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced

Juice and peel of 2 lemons

Combine cranberry juice, raspberry jelly and sugar in large, heavy saucepan. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until jelly and sugar have dissolved. Bring to boil and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

Put apple slices in large bowl and toss with lemon juice and peel. Add to jelly mixture and toss to coat evenly. Simmer until apples are tender, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let them cool.

Transfer the glazed apples with their sauce to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with Potato Latkes.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Each tablespoon contains about:

23 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.10 gram fiber.

ROASTED PEPPERS WITH ANCHOVIES TOPPING

When selecting peppers, choose the ones that are smooth and shiny, without brown punctures or soft spots. They should be crisp and firm to the touch.

4 to 6 red, yellow or green bell peppers

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

Olive oil

1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets, drained

Parsley sprigs

Place large sheet of foil on lower rack of oven and heat to 375 degrees. Place peppers on upper rack. Bake until skins have puffed and darkened slightly on top, about 20 minutes. Turn each pepper over and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes longer. (Peppers may also be roasted over gas flame or on grill.)

While peppers are still warm, carefully peel off skins, reserving juices. Pull out stems and discard seeds. Cut peppers into segments that follow their natural ridges. Layer peppers in bowl with garlic and oil to cover. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

When ready to serve, arrange peppers on serving dish and garnish with anchovies and sprigs of parsley.

Makes about 2 cups.

Each tablespoon contains about:

19 calories; 66 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0 fiber.

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Flip, Fry (and Freeze)

* Before grating the potatoes, grate the onions and have everything else ready to go so the potatoes don't sit any longer than necessary.

* If you refrigerate the batter for later use, sprinkle the entire surface with flour. When ready to begin frying the latkes, skim off the flour with a large spoon and discard.

* For crisper latkes, fry in very hot oil and turn only once. Latkes absorb oil that is only moderately hot and get soggy when they're turned too often.

* Potato latkes are best fried as close to serving time as possible.

* If frying ahead, keep latkes warm in a low oven (200 degrees).

* Latkes can be frozen with good results. To freeze, fry on each side until only slightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Place them in single layers on baking sheets lined with cloth kitchen towels and freeze. When frozen, remove them from the baking sheets and place in plastic bags. Store in the freezer. To serve the latkes, place them, still frozen, on foil-lined baking sheets and bake at 400 to 450 degrees until crisp, 5 to 10 minutes.

LATKES IN THE FOOD PROCESSOR

1 small onion, quartered

2 large baking potatoes

2 eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Salt, pepper

Vegetable oil

My mother made potato latkes by chopping the onions, grating the potatoes by hand, then blending all the ingredients with a wooden spoon. Along came the food processor and it became clear that this machine could chop the onions, grate the potatoes and blend the entire mixture in seconds.

In food processor with knife blade, chop onion using on/off pulse. Replace knife blade with shredding disc. Trim potatoes to fit feed tube and shred, using light pressure. Replace shredding disc with knife blade, add eggs, olive oil, flour and baking powder and pulse machine on and off until well mixed. Transfer to large bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well.

Heat 1/8-inch vegetable oil in 4-inch nonstick skillet. Spoon batter into hot oil and flatten with back of large spoon. Cook, turning only once, until golden, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately.

Makes about 6 to 8 latkes.

Each of 8 latkes, without topping, contains about:

117 calories; 108 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

* Menorah from Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, South Pasadena.

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