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This year, I'll be making a special party for my daughters' army friends, and we'll be planning and executing the menu together (hopefully). One thing we're sure to have on hand is a variety of latkes. But while potato latkes seem like the quintessential holiday fare, they weren't always a part of the Hanukka cuisine, because they arrived in Europe from the New World only in the 16th century. It wasn't until the mid-1840s that people grew potatoes throughout Russia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine, from where they spread to Asia and the Far East.
And why eat latkes? It's not actually the potato that's important, nor is it the latkes; it is the act of frying that recalls one of the main themes of Hanukka - the Miracle of the Oil. Over the centuries, in the Mediterranean basin where olives grow, this was translated into a variety of sweet and savory olive oil-fried foods. At the same time, in the December cold of Eastern Europe, the winter-hearty potato was turned into the latke fried in shmaltz - rendered fat from chicken, duck or goose. Interestingly enough, some sources claim that the word latke derives from Old Russian, and is a diminutive of olad'ya, from the Greek eladia, plural of eladion, which means "a little oily thing."
So potato latkes notwithstanding, why not add one of these to your latke repertoire this Hanukka? And a happy holiday to us all.
SWEET POTATO LATKES WITH SPICED MAPLE SYRUP
Although they are sweet, my family and friends have enjoyed these latkes as a main course, served with a salad alongside. A delicious tip - substitute store-bought Yemenite hawaij (for coffee and sweets) or Iraqi baharat spice mixtures, instead of the ginger, nutmeg and cloves in the sauce.
Makes 10-12 (4-6 servings)
For the latkes:
4 1â„2 kg. sweet potatoes
4 2 eggs
4 1â„2 tsp. salt
4 1â„2 tsp. baking powder
4 1â„4 cup matza meal
4 Pinch salt
4 Pinch white pepper
4 2-4 Tbsp. olive oil (or olive oil mixed with canola oil), for frying
For the sauce:
4 1 cup real maple syrup, or light agave syrup (in health food stores)
4 1â„2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
4 1â„4 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 Pinch of ground cloves
4 Coriander or mint leaves to garnish
Scrub the sweet potatoes, peel and shred them on the fine side of a grater or in the food processor. Transfer to a wire-mesh strainer and squeeze to remove moisture. Let stand in the strainer or a colander placed over a bowl for 5 minutes.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and add the matza meal, sweet potato, salt and pepper. Let stand an additional 5-10 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the sauce: In a small pan combine the ingredients for the sauce, heat over low heat and keep warm.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and add a small ladleful of the batter. Flatten gently and fry on both sides till golden-brown. Add more oil to the pan as necessary, and fry the remaining latkes. Place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil.
Arrange three latkes on each serving plate, or put them all on a serving plate and and drizzle some of the heated sauce on top. Pass the remaining sauce separately. Garnish with fresh coriander or mint. Serve with sour cream or plain yogurt if desired.
SUMAC OR ZA'ATAR LATKES
Both sumac and za'atar (hyssop) were biblical spices that grew wild in the hills at the time of the Maccabees' revolt in late autumn. Today, the word za'atar refers to a spice blend of hyssop, salt, sumac and sesame seeds. This recipe was given me by Chef Nadav Granot of the biblical gardens of Neot Kedumim, across from the Ben-Shemen Forest near Ben-Gurion Airport, where he hand-picks his own sumac berries and hyssop to make these unusual and flavorful latkes.
Makes about 8-10 (4-5 servings)
4 1â„2 cup virgin olive oil
4 1 cup chopped onion (1 medium-large)
4 2 Tbsp. crushed garlic
4 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 1 tsp. baking powder
4 1â„2 tsp. baking soda
4 1â„2 tsp. salt (slightly less if using za'atar)
4 1 Tbsp. prepared za'atar mix or dried crushed sumac
4 2 eggs, beaten
4 2-21â„2 Tbsp. hot water
4 Thick yogurt or sour cream
Pour a quarter cup oil into a frying pan and sautÃ© the onion and garlic till lightly golden, stirring occasionally. Pour into a bowl.
In another bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the sumac or za'atar.
Stir in the onion and garlic mixture and beat in the eggs. The batter will be thick and sticky. Add 2 tablespoons water (or more if necessary) so that the batter is the consistency of pancake batter.
Heat the remaining oil and use a small cup or soup ladle to form 3-4 small latkes each time. Fry on both sides till golden. Serve with a dollop of thick yogurt or sour cream. n
Recipes adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer, Harper-Collins 2004.