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Latkes a la huancaina (Latkes with Peruvian pepper and fresh cheese sauce)

Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Yields Serves 6 as an appetizer
Latkes a la huancaina (Latkes with Peruvian pepper and fresh cheese sauce)
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
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It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without papas a la huancaina and causa limena

Peru may be one of the last places people associate with Hanukkah, but when we visited that country a few months ago, the potato lovers’ holiday was very much on our minds. After all, potatoes originated in that part of the world, and more than 4,000 varieties of spuds grow there. With their long experience using the tubers, cooks in Peru have developed delicious potato dishes that happen to be perfect for Hanukkah.

One of the dishes we enjoyed most in Peru was papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes coated with a creamy sauce made of queso fresco and yellow chiles. When we tasted it, we imagined that the sauce would go well with potato pancakes, and so when we returned home we made latkes a la huancaína.

Another potato appetizer we loved was causa limeña, which we first ate at La Mar Cebichería in Lima, where it was made of patties of mashed yellow potatoes topped with lime-flavored chicken salad and a colorful garnish of avocado, tomato and hard-boiled egg. Causas in different varieties were everywhere, from casual eateries in market halls to delis of supermarkets to elegant restaurants.

They come as patties served with all kinds of toppings and fillings. Often the potato mixture was layered with the filling in a loaf pan and sliced like a terrine. Sometimes it was spread with the filling and rolled up, and occasionally it was shaped in rounds and sandwiched with the filling using individual pastry rings.

Both causa and huancaína sauces are flavored with ají amarillo, which means “yellow chile,” although usually this finger-shaped chile is actually orange. These peppers are sweet, with mild to medium heat. At Los Angeles markets that carry Latin American foods, the peppers can be found frozen whole, in jars as pepper paste or in brine, and as dried chiles labeled “ají mirasol.”

In using these chiles, we found that the degree of heat varies from one pepper to another. Ricardo Zarate, chef-owner of several Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has a useful tip for getting around this. He removes the seeds and membranes and purées it with a little good olive oil so you can add it to taste. Prepared this way, it will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

When we came across a street vendor in Lima skillfully forming and frying picarones, ring-shaped fritters made with sweet potatoes, we decided to make a similar sweet treat for Hanukkah. To make simpler sweet potato fritters, we used a French technique: We mixed sweet potato purée with choux pastry, the quick dough used for making cream puffs. With our fritters, we serve the same clove-scented piloncillo (cone sugar) syrup that is drizzled over picarones.

Somehow our fritters turned out resembling the fried spherical pastries called buñuelos, which Sephardim in several countries serve during Hanukkah.

Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.”

Salsa Huancaina (yellow pepper and fresh cheese sauce)

1

Make the aji amarillo purée: Halve the peppers lengthwise, removing the seeds and membranes, then dice the peppers. Purée the peppers in a blender with 1 tablespoon olive oil to form a paste. Remove the paste and set aside (there is no need to wash the blender; it will be used again).

2

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened but not brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue cooking until it is aromatic, about 1 minute, then remove the pan from heat and transfer the mixture to a bowl to cool.

3

Place the onion mixture in the blender, along with the queso fresco, milk and 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the aji amarillo purée, and blend until smooth. If the sauce is too thick, gradually pour in a little milk while blending at low speed. Scrape down the sides of the blender. Blend the sauce again until it is smooth. Taste, and add a pinch of salt and more of the pepper purée if desired. This makes a generous cup of salsa. The salsa can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered; thin with milk before using if desired.

4

Reserve the remaining pepper purée for serving separately, and cover and refrigerate if not using right away.

Latkes a la Huancaina

1

Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Have a baking sheet handy and line a tray with paper towels.

2

Peel the potatoes. Using a coarse grating or shredding disc of a food processor or the large holes of a grater, grate the potatoes and the onion, alternating potato and onion. Transfer the grated onion and potato mixture to a colander or strainer. Squeeze the mixture by handfuls to remove as much liquid as possible. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.

3

In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and white pepper.

4

Mix the egg with the grated potatoes and onion. Add the flour mixture and mix thoroughly to combine.

5

Heat approximately one-half cup oil in a deep, heavy large skillet over medium heat. Slide 1 heaping tablespoon of potato mixture into the pan, flattening it with the back of a spoon so it is about 2½ inches in diameter, to form a latke. Repeat with more latkes, but be careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the latkes until crisp and golden brown, about 4 minutes per side, flipping them carefully so the oil doesn’t splatter. Transfer the cooked latkes to the paper towel-lined tray.

6

Repeat with the remaining potato mixture, stirring the potatoes before forming a new batch of latkes. Add additional oil to the pan as needed for frying. Store the cooked latkes on the baking sheet in the warm oven. If the last 2 or 3 spoonfuls of batter are watery, leave the liquid in the bowl to prevent splatters. Pat the tops of the latkes with paper towels before serving. The latkes can be served hot or warm.

7

To serve, spoon a little of the salsa and aji amarillo paste onto each plate of latkes, sprinkling over a little chopped parsley. Garnish with a few black olives and a quartered hard-boiled egg segment or two. The latkes can also be arranged for diners to serve themselves, with the condiments and garnishes placed in smaller bowls.

Frozen aji amarillo, Peruvian yellow peppers, can be found at most South American markets and supermarkets with well-stocked South American sections. Purée them, and use the purée to flavor the sauce and for serving separately as a condiment. Potato latkes can be prepared ahead and refrigerated or frozen on a cookie sheet; when frozen, they can be transferred to a bag. They can be reheated (after being slightly thawed if they were frozen) on a cookie sheet in a 450-degree oven for a few minutes.