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When you dress up your latkes (levivot ) at Hanukka parties with a little extra flair, they become much more festive. In many households, the norm is to open a jar of applesauce and a container of sour cream to accompany the potato pancakes.
But for a holiday gathering with a number of friends and family members, it's nice to also include a few more toppings that guests might enjoy trying on their latkes.
Use latkes as a base to present an extra-special ingredient for this special occasion - maybe a strip of lox with a bit of creme fraiche or a dab of caviar. Or top them with a spoonful of a flavorful sauce. The neutral flavor of the potato makes it a good partner for most flavors and sauces, and toppings can be hot or cold, spicy or sweet.
Now is the time to pull out a jar of pesto if you happen to have one, or to try that chutney that you might have bought on an impulse at a gourmet shop.
Even better: Make your own sauces and toppings so the flavors will be fresh. Instead of serving sour cream plain, you might like to brighten its flavor with fresh herbs - dill, mint, tarragon, green onions or chives, for example, as well as salt and pepper. Yogurt or your favorite labaneh mixed with these seasonings also makes a tasty stand-in for sour cream.
You can borrow ideas to enliven your latkes from just about any cuisine; you'll find them in all sorts of unexpected places. Indian cooks, for example, make a wide range of yogurt sauces called raita and serve them with all sorts of pancakes, fritters and fried pastries, including some made of potatoes.
Ran Shinar, author of Hari Curry Indian Cuisine (in Hebrew), makes several kinds of these sauces and notes that, instead of using yogurt, he likes to mix equal amounts of "Gil" (leben) and Eshel. One of his more colorful raitas calls for combining the yogurt with grated carrots, chopped peanuts, garlic, thin slices of hot green pepper and salt.
For a raita on the sweet side, he combines fresh grated tart apples with yogurt, sugar, cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
If you can't decide whether to eat your latke with sour cream or applesauce, this one might be for you.
If you'd like a substantial topping to turn your latkes into a main course, have a look at your favorite pasta recipes. Spaghetti sauce, whether meaty or meatless, is delicious spooned over latkes at the very last moment.
If you prefer a sauce that is warm, creamy and delicate but still satisfying, you might opt for a French-style mushroom sauce enhanced with creme fraiche.
When you're looking for a sweet sauce, there are plenty of possibilities more enticing than store-bought applesauce. I like to make chunky applesauce simmered with sweet spices and sometimes with dried fruit, like the home-dried nectarines that I made from extra nectarines from my trees.
Any fruit is good, from dried apples to intensify the apple flavor to dark or golden raisins to dried apricots. Pears make a pleasing alternative to apples, cooked the same way into chunky pear sauce and spiked with pear brandy.
MUSTARD TARRAGON TOPPING
A dollop of this creamy sauce is a perfect complement for latkes. Make it with regular or reduced-fat sour cream, yogurt and mayonnaise.
Makes about 6 servings
4 1â„2 cup sour cream
4 1â„4 cup yogurt
4 1â„4 cup mayonnaise or additional sour cream
4 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, or to taste
4 1 to 2 tsp. tarragon vinegar or herb vinegar
4 2 Tbsp. chopped green onions
4 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
4 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper
Mix sour cream, yogurt, mayonnaise and mustard in a bowl until smooth. Stir in 1 teaspoon vinegar, followed by green onions, tarragon and parsley. Taste, and add more mustard and vinegar if you like. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
YOGURT AND CARROT TOPPING WITH WALNUTS AND RAISINS
This sweet-savory latke topping is inspired by a memorable appetizer I enjoyed at an Afghan restaurant in Paris, where it was made with cucumbers.
Makes about 8 servings
4 4 Tbsp. raisins
4 4 Tbsp. coarsely chopped walnuts
4 1 to 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
4 11â„2 cups plain yogurt, leben, Eshel, sour cream, or a mixture, or more if needed
4 1 carrot, peeled and grated
4 1 green onion, chopped
4 1 to 2 tsp. dried mint
4 Salt to taste
4 Freshly ground pepper (optional)
If raisins are very dry, soak in hot water until softened, then drain. Reserve 2 tablespoons raisins, 2 tablespoons walnuts and a little parsley for garnish.
Mix yogurt with carrot, green onion, mint and remaining raisins, walnuts and parsley. Stir in more yogurt by spoonfuls if needed, so topping won't be too thick.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in a bowl, with garnishing ingredients sprinkled on top.
Fresh ginger and dried fruit give applesauce a lively accent. If you have candied ginger, you can substitute it for the fresh gingerroot; stir it into the applesauce about 1 or 2 minutes before removing it from the heat.
Makes about 6 servings
4 110 gr. dried peaches or apricot
4 1 to 11â„4 kg. sweet apples such as Golden Delicious, or tart green apples
4 2 Tbsp. chopped gingerroot or 2 tsp.dried ginger, or to taste
4 1 cup water
4 3 to 6 Tbsp. sugar, or to taste
4 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice, or to taste (optional)
Soak peaches in hot water to cover for about 10 minutes or until tender. Remove from water and cut in small dice.
Peel apples if you like. Cut them in small dice. Combine gingerroot, water and 3 table spoons of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Add apples. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add diced dried peaches and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until apples and peaches are just tender, stirring occasionally.
Taste, and add more sugar if needed, and lemon juice if you like. Serve warm or cold.
Faye Levy's latest book is Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.