SOMETIMES chefs overdo it. One year, at a latke cook-off in New York, a chef garnished the classic Hanukkah potato pancake with smoked salmon and wasabi mayonnaise. And that’s just wrong.
Suzanne Tracht, on the other hand, has been trying to think of latke recipes original enough to stand out while still respecting the nature of the latke.
When Tracht was growing up in Phoenix, her father, Sam, made the latkes on Hanukkah, grating the potatoes by hand and usually scraping his knuckles. Now when Tracht thinks of Hanukkah, the one essential dish is the latke, so much so that she eschews meat entirely -- surprising for a woman famed for her slow-cooked pot roast and chops and steaks, which draw people nightly to Jar, her restaurant.
Tracht’s main dish for her family tonight, the second night of the holiday, will be either gravlax with a bracing salad of baby frisee, red onion and fresh herbs or a smoked trout salad; she hasn’t quite decided. “Cured fish is perfect because the latkes are so rich,” she says. “The softness of the fish complements the crispiness of the latke, and I love the way the onion in the latke goes with the fish.”
Tracht has decided on three kinds of latkes -- Sam’s original recipe and two others. And 84-year-old Sam is here, at her house in Carthay Circle, showing a reporter how he makes the latkes like his mother, Ida, learned to as a girl in Lithuania, before she settled in Roxbury, Mass., in the late 1890s.
This is your classic recipe: eggs and flour mixed with grated potatoes and onions and lots of salt and pepper. The flour sops up any extra moisture (Sam does not wring the potatoes after grating), and the latkes are of course fried till golden brown and served immediately.
Lanky and friendly, Sam is chatty as he stands, still grating the potatoes by hand -- a point of pride. “Some people use machines,” he points out. “Nah. My mother never did.”
Though Tracht is now a chef of national renown, she’s not above being vexed by her parents. Her mother, Janice, is also here from Phoenix. Her parents are filling in a reporter on all the things a chef of national renown would not necessarily want her parents to fill a reporter in on.
“She didn’t know how to boil water when she started at the Biltmore!” says Sam, who has now put down his grater to gesticulate. He’s referring to Tracht’s first job at the Arizona hotel. “But in a few weeks she was doing everything the chefs were doing. She was very reliable. Always on time. I taught her that.”
There’s more from her mom about her big-shot chef daughter. “She used to come into the kitchen to eat. That’s about the only time we saw her in there.”
Tracht wears a tight smile as she washes some utensils. She’s cooking, but she’s listening to every word they say.
Her penchant for serving fish with the latkes originates from Sam and Janice’s kosher household. Because they always liked their pancakes with sour cream (“We didn’t know from applesauce!”), serving meat was verboten. Trafe. Not kosher. Can’t mix milk and meat.
Tracht is slim and intense, with a deadpan manner and of fewer words than her dad. Watching her wrist-deep in the batter of the next latkes (grated potatoes, parsnip and egg whites), I wonder, somewhat fatuously, why it is we don’t eat latkes all year round. She levels her gaze at me. “Because if we did,” she says, “we’d all be 300 pounds.”
Good point. And I’ll be more circumspect with my questions henceforth. “Latkes are not a lot of work,” says Tracht, “except that you have to make so many of them. People just keep eating them. I figure five per person.”
She is now patting down the batter from a mound to a flat pancake on the hot cast-iron pan. “You want the latke flat so the potatoes get cooked all the way through. And you want the right crispiness.” She uses her hand when there is a perfectly good spatula sitting there because she’s a chef.
Sam watches her pat down the potatoes. “I don’t make them that thin!” he says, alarmed.
“They get crispier that way, Dad,” she says patiently.
The parsnip-potato latkes, which are fried in clarified butter and topped with chopped chives, Tracht’s homemade applesauce and creme fraiche, take the original to a deeper and slightly sweeter level.
Frying in oil is traditional and alludes to the most well-known part of the Hanukkah story -- to that drop of oil that shouldn’t have, but did, last for eight days in the temple. Sam fries his in oil. Tracht is unsentimental and characteristically pithy about her departure from tradition. “Butter tastes better,” she says.
This causes Sam to reminisce about his mother, Ida.
“She cooked three meals a day every day. I would get up at 6 a.m. and see the light on in the kitchen. She was making lokshen [noodles] for the soup. She showed me how to make the latkes, which were my favorite. Grating the potatoes is the most time-consuming part. We ate it with lox and sour cream.”
Tracht, demonstrating both her connection to Ida (also the name of Tracht’s daughter) and her distance from her, has also devised a latke for showoffs, with caramelized onion and goat cheese from Humboldt Fog. “Cause we’re fancy,” she says, deadpan as always.
Tracht is making a frisee and herb salad to place atop the caramelized onion and goat cheese latkes, which, when hot, are impossible to stop eating. You will actually need someone to tear the plate out of your hands if you want to quit before they are completely gone.
Sam insists the reporter try his latkes, which are excellent -- crispy and hot off the grill. He’s very satisfied with the results and he prefers them to the fancy-schmancy latkes fried in clarified butter. But he leans in confidentially to say one last thing about his big-macher, goat-cheese-and-caramelized-onion-loving daughter who never boiled water before she got the job at the Biltmore. “She’s a good girl. Not highfalutin.”