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Shaking up Hanukkah tradition with a new look at latkes

Three different latke styles served at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen
Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen has a trio of Hanukkah latkes: one made with red beets (top), served with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata; one made with kabocha squash (center), served with mango chutney and raita; and a traditional potato style served with sour cream and applesauce.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Beloved crispy potato pancakes are always a classic, but some other recipes broaden the repertoire with new flavors, colors and textures.

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While most of the country is busy anticipating Christmas dinner and cookie exchanges, the Jewish community — at least the Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, part of it — will be pulling out their bubbe’s recipe for potato latkes, making applesauce and buying sour cream.

That’s because after the candles on the menorah are lit and despite the roast chicken or brisket glistening on the table, the big Hanukkah meal is all about those potato pancakes. They’re an annual treat that’s been pan-fried in vegetable oil or schmaltz to a dark brown, crispy-crunchy texture on the outside and soft and oniony inside.

But do we have to have the same latkes year after year? And the same accompaniments? Wouldn’t it be nice to add some new flavors and new colors, even new textures?

Tracy Borkum, owner of the new Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen, thought so. Gold Finch, which opened Sept. 20 at the Muse Torrey Pines research campus, is what Borkum describes as a modern Ashkenazi Jewish deli, replete with corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup, lox and bagels, knishes and both babka and rugelach.

But she’s also brought some Sephardic culinary traditions into the mix. Sephardim are Jews of Spanish (and Portuguese) descent who, after expulsion in 1492, resettled across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Shakshuka, baklava, berbere spice fried artichokes, and a spicy Moroccan carrot salad on Gold Finch’s menu fall into that category.

For this year’s holiday, which began Dec. 18 and ends Monday, Dec. 26, Borkum, chef and partner Tim Kolanko and executive chef Jeff Armstrong are serving not just the traditional potato pancakes with sour cream and house-made applesauce but also beet latkes served with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata, and kabocha squash latkes with mango chutney and raita.

Gold Finch executive chef Jeff Armstrong
Gold Finch executive chef Jeff Armstrong recommends using a cast-iron pan to fry latkes at home, using an oil like canola that has a neutral taste and can tolerate high temperatures.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Armstrong advised home cooks to do the frying in a cast-iron pan using a vegetable oil like canola, which has both a neutral flavor and a high smoke point.

“I would add enough oil to have it go halfway up the latkes in the pan,” he said. “That way, you’ll get that crunchy outside and chewy middle.”

You’ll need patience to let them cook on one side before flipping them and vigilance to make sure the heat is just right, because the pan will heat up. Adjust the heat so the pancakes don’t burn but also don’t get soggy in oil that’s not quite hot enough.

How do you know when it’s time to flip them?

“When the latkes start to brown along the edge and the brown creeps over the top, you’ll want to flip them to the other side,” Armstrong said. “Then give them a couple of minutes to brown on the other side.”

Recipes

Traditional potato latkes
Makes 18 servings

Potato latkes by chef Jeff Armstrong at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
Traditional potato latkes garnished with applesauce and sour cream
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ingredients:

• 10 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
• 3 tablespoons kosher salt
• 4¼ cups yellow onions, peeled and chopped
• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
• 12 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
• Neutral oil like canola for pan frying

Instructions:

• Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.
• Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with chopped onions, thyme, eggs and black pepper.
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow-fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are brown and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil. They’re ready to serve, but if you’re making several batches, place them on an empty sheet pan and into the oven to keep warm.
• Garnish latkes with sour cream and applesauce. You also can top with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and capers or pastrami and horseradish cream.

— — —

Red beet latkes with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata
Makes 18 servings

Red beet latkes with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ingredients:

• 5 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
• 3 tablespoons kosher salt
• 5 cups red beets, peeled and roughly grated
• 4¼ cups red onions, peeled and chopped
• 12 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons fresh dill fronds, chopped
• 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
• Neutral oil like canola for pan frying

Instructions:

• Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.
• Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with the grated red beets. Add the chopped red onions, eggs, dill and black pepper. Mix well.
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow-fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are a brownish-red and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil.
• Garnish latkes with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata (recipes below).

To make whipped feta:

• 2 cups feta cheese (or creamier-style feta, preferably French)
• 1 cup heavy cream
• Add feta cheese and heavy cream to food processor and puree until smooth.

To make pistachio gremolata:

• 1 cup pistachios, toasted, then finely chopped
• ¾ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
• Zest of 4 lemons
• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• Mix all ingredients in mixing bowl and season with kosher salt.

— — —

Kabocha squash latkes with mango chutney and raita
Makes 18 servings

Kabocha squash latkes with mango chutney and raita
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ingredients:

• 5 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
• 3 tablespoons kosher salt
• 5 cups kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and roughly grated (can substitute with butternut, honeynut or red kuri squash)
• 4¼ cups yellow onion, chopped
• 12 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
• 1 teaspoon black pepper

Instructions:

• Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.
• Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with the grated kabocha squash. Add the chopped yellow onions, eggs, cilantro and black pepper. Mix well.
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow-fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are a brownish-yellow and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil.
• Garnish latkes with mango chutney and raita (recipes below).

To make mango chutney:

• 6 cardamom pods
• 2 teaspoons fennel pollen
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
• 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
• 8 cups frozen mango, diced
• ½ cup distilled white vinegar
• ¼ cup granulated sugar
• Toast all the spices in a 4-quart saucepan until fragrant. Add the minced garlic and toast until golden-brown. Add the diced mango, vinegar and sugar.
• Cook chutney until it thickens to a jam consistency and it tastes balanced. If it’s too sweet, continue cooking.
• Transfer mixture to the bowl of a food processor and pulse enough to break down mango but not until smooth.

To make raita:

• 2 cups Greek yogurt
• 1 hothouse cucumber
• 3 garlic cloves, peeled
• 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• Place yogurt in a mixing bowl. Grate the cucumber directly into the yogurt with a box grater. Grate the garlic cloves into the cucumber and yogurt mixture.
• Add red wine vinegar, chopped parsley and kosher salt. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and red wine vinegar if needed.

— Recipes courtesy of executive chef Jeff Armstrong of Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.

Caron Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.