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I'm often asked for suggestions for tasty Hanukka food beside potato latkes and sufganiyot. Although most people love these time-honored treats, there is a growing interest in different, healthy classics to enhance holiday menus.
"Green latkes" is what I propose. In fact, this week I will be teaching how to make spinach latkes in my class on Hanukka cooking at Gelsons' Cooking Connection in Calabasas, California.
Latkes made from leaves and herbs might sound surprising but are much more in keeping with the foods of our region than the traditional potato. In the land of Israel at the time of the Maccabees, green vegetable patties are likely to have appeared on the table, but certainly not potato pancakes. After all, potatoes come from Peru, and potato latkes probably were created in Poland or Russia. Parsley was known in biblical times, and little fried cakes made of spinach, chard leaves and other greens have long been part of the culinary repertoire in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.
Sephardic Jews, especially those from Greece, use spinach in several kinds of patties. Most combine the chopped leaves, either raw or cooked, with eggs, matzo meal or bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Other flavorings used are lemon juice, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, or, for richer pancakes, chopped walnuts or grated kefalotyri or Swiss cheese.
Often the pancakes are sauteed in olive oil (which, by the way, was the oil in the Hanukka miracle). As an appetizer, they are served simply with lemon wedges. When made without cheese, they might be simmered with meatballs or baked with chicken, and served as an accompaniment. According to Rabbi Gil Marks, author of Olive Trees and Honey, Italian spinach patties contain raisins and toasted pine nuts.
Persians surely rank at the top of the list of lovers of greens, and they too use them in pancakes. At Persian delis I like to purchase the deep green kuku sabzi, or herb pancakes, made of parsley, leeks, lettuce, dill and mint, held together with eggs and seasoned with turmeric and sometimes saffron.
Syrian Jews make parsley pancakes, called ijeh, made of chopped parsley, onion, eggs, salt and pepper, according to Jennifer Abadi, author of Fistfuls of Lentils. With a generous amount of eggs, the batter resembles an omelet mixture, but it is sauteed by spoonfuls and turns into delicate little latkes. If you find potato pancakes heavy, these light latkes are the solution.
Of course, you can also compromise, and make pancakes that combine potatoes and spinach, like Marks' Romanian grandmother did. She mixed fried onions, milk and parsley into mashed potatoes, added cooked spinach and sauteed the mixture in cakes.
According to Marks, such cakes were the result of Ashkenazi Romanians learning to make fried vegetable patties from the Sephardim, who arrived in the Balkans with the Ottomans.
Like potato latkes, I find spinach latkes are good with sour cream or with rich yogurt or labaneh. But definitely not with applesauce!
SEPHARDIC SPINACH LATKES WITH YOGURT MINT GARLIC TOPPING
Spinach and nutmeg are classic partners in European cooking, and they complement each other well in these pancakes. These latkes are easy to make, as you can use frozen spinach to save time; use about 450 grams of frozen spinach and cook it just until it thaws. If you want a dairy-free dish, make the latke batter with soy milk or vegetable broth instead of milk, and substitute warm tomato sauce for the yogurt topping.
1 cup plain yogurt
21â„2 to 3 tsp. chopped fresh mint or 1 tsp. dried
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
salt and freshly ground pepper
700 to 900 gr. fresh spinach
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil, vegetable oil or butter (for latke mixture) plus about 1â„4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil (for frying)
cayenne pepper to taste
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1â„2 cup flour
2 large eggs
2 tbsp. milk or soy milk
To make topping, Mix yogurt with mint and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bring to room temperature before serving.
Wash spinach in a bowl of water, lift leaves out of the bowl and change the water; repeat several times until spinach is completely clean. Remove spinach stems. Cook spinach in a large pan of boiling salted water three minutes or until tender. Rinse with cold water. Squeeze spinach to remove excess liquid. Chop fine with a knife.
Heat two tablespoons oil in a medium skillet. Add spinach and cook about two minutes, stirring. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to a large bowl.
In a small bowl, mix flour, eggs, milk, 1â„4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of nutmeg to a thick batter. Add batter to spinach and mix well.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Fry spinach mixture by tablespoonfuls, flattening each after adding it, about two minutes per side or until lightly browned. Turn very carefully using two spatulas. Drain on paper towels. Stir batter before frying each new batch. Do not crowd pan. If all the oil is absorbed, add a little more to pan. Serve hot, with a small dollop of topping.
Makes 22 to 24 small pancakes, 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.