(photo credit: )
If the Maccabees wanted to celebrate the Hanukka miracle with latkes, it's interesting to speculate on how they could have prepared them. The word latkes, like levivot, simply means pancakes. Obviously, they couldn't have made their latkes from potatoes, as these tubers came from Peru and weren't available in the land of Israel in the second century BCE. But our ancestors had plenty of other choices.
How about okra? Tamar Zimenboda, author of From Grandmother's Kitchen: Dishes of the Land of Israel, Old and New (in Hebrew), makes okra levivot, or latkes. This would have made sense in biblical Israel. We know okra has long been a favorite in ancient Egypt.
The king of Mideast vegetables, eggplant, also comes to mind. Although they are native to India, there was trade between India and Egypt and some of the caravans transporting spices might have brought eggplants or eggplant seeds to merchants in Israel, as Israel was at the crossroads of Asia and Africa.
Greens have been available in the Middle East since antiquity. In Egypt melloukhiya was a staple at the time of the pharaohs. The Israelites might have found spinach at their markets too; the word spinach is derived from Arabic and Farsi, indicating the green's origin. Latkes of spinach, chard or other greens would have made savory entrees for the Hanukka table. Spinach pancakes and fritters have long been popular in Sephardi cuisine.
Onions and leeks would also have been strong candidates for the pancakes of the past. We know from the Torah that the children of Israel wandering in the desert missed the onions and leeks of Egypt.
"We fondly remember the fish that we could eat in Egypt at no cost, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic" (Numbers 11:5). Fish from the Mediterranean could also be ground and made into sauteed cakes (like gefilte fish patties), though of course it would have involved considerable effort without the convenient appliances of today.
Technically cucumbers and melons are not easy to make into latkes, but they are good in toppings. Grated cucumbers mixed with yogurt, garlic and mint match well with all sorts of vegetable latkes; diced melon could be mixed with yogurt and mint for a tart-sweet latke partner.
To add extra flavor to the latkes, there were olives, and, of course, olive oil would be used for frying them. Yogurt sauces would have made good toppings for the latkes; or, if someone wanted a high-protein pancake, he or she could turn to cheese. The kinds of cheese available in ancient Israel were probably the simple types - fresh cheeses or brined cheeses like feta.
Certainly the Israelites could have made latkes from lentils or fava beans. Lentils and all sorts of beans can be cooked and chopped, or ground into flour, then mixed with eggs and seasonings and made into bean cakes; these are the basis for many of today's popular veggie burgers. Indeed, if they had used fava beans or another favorite Middle Eastern legume - chickpeas - they would have come up with felafel latkes.
LEEK LATKES WITH OLIVES
Serve these latkes topped with sour cream, labaneh or Spiced Yogurt (see next recipe) and garnished with pitted olives.
1.4 to 1.5 kg. large leeks
about 5 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
1â„2 cup flour
2 large eggs
1â„4 tsp. ground white pepper
1â„2 tsp. dried thyme
1â„4 to 1â„3 cup diced black olives
Discard the root ends of the leeks. Cut off the dark green part and save for making soups, stocks or sauces. Halve the leeks lengthwise, rinse them and cut in thin slices crosswise. Put slices in a bowl of cold water, separate them and let stand 5 minutes. Lift them out of water, leaving any sand in the bowl, and put in a strainer to drain well.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy saucepan, add leeks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a large bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning.
In a medium bowl mix flour, eggs, white pepper, thyme and 1â„4 teaspoon salt to a very thick batter. Add the batter to the bowl of leeks and mix very well. Stir in the olives.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the leek mixture by tablespoonfuls and flatten each after adding it. Do not crowd the pan. Fry about 2 minutes or until golden brown on each side. Turn very carefully using two pancake turners. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Add more oil between batches if needed, and heat it before adding more batter. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
A tangy yogurt sauce with a touch of spice makes a tasty topping for leek latkes. It's also good with fried eggplant slices or for crisp-tender cooked vegetables. Use low-fat or whole-milk yogurt, or, for an even richer result, make it with labaneh - strained yogurt.
1 1â„2 cups plain yogurt
3â„4 tsp. ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. minced parsley
1 small garlic clove, very finely minced (optional)
Mix yogurt with cumin, salt, white pepper, pepper, garlic and 1 1â„2 tablespoons parsley. Spoon into a serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining parsley.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
These latkes are easier to prepare than classic felafel because they are made with canned chickpeas instead of dried ones and don't need soaking. They are sauteed instead of being deep-fried in a big vat of hot oil.
You can serve the latkes, like felafel, with tehina sauce and Israeli salad. Yogurt mixed with garlic, salt, pepper and mint also makes a tasty topping. If your family isn't fond of fresh coriander, omit it or substitute parsley. You can keep the first batches latkes warm in a low oven (150ÂºC) while frying the remaining latkes.
6 large garlic cloves, minced
1â„3 cup minced fresh coriander
1 medium onion, peeled, quartered
two 425-gr. cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
1 1â„2 tsp. ground coriander
1 1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
1â„2 tsp. salt
1â„2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. bread crumbs
2 or 3 egg whites
4 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil
Mince the garlic and fresh coriander in a food processor. Add the onion to the mixture in the processor and mince it. Add the chickpeas, ground coriander, cumin, salt, pepper and bread crumbs and process with on/off pulses to a chunky puree, scraping down occasionally. Add 2 egg whites and process until the mixture is blended but there are still a few chunks. Transfer to a bowl. Mix well.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the chickpea mixture by heaping tablespoonfuls and flatten each after adding it; after adding first 2 or 3 latkes, if the mixture seems too thick to be flattened easily, add another egg white to the mixture in the bowl.
When frying the latkes, do not crowd the pan. Fry about 3 minutes per side or until golden brown and set. Turn very carefully using two pancake turners. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Add more oil between batches if needed, and heat it before adding more batter. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.