Growing up, one of the only things that helped ease Christmas-envy among Jewish kids in the neighborhood was a heaping platter of greasy, hot potato latkes with chunky applesauce for dipping. The traditional latke (potato pancake) symbolically fried in oil is a celebratory Hanukkah food to commemorate the wonder in ancient times when Judah Macabee found a flask that contained a smidgen of oil that miraculously burned for eight days for the re-dedication of their desecrated temple in Jerusalem.
The latke can be dressed up or down, fried or baked, served as a centerpiece of a meal or a side dish to dial up fish, fowls, lamb, beef or vegetarian dishes. Intrepid chefs have concocted both sweet and savory versions, low fat, low carb ones incorporating cruciferous powerhouses, Vitamin A-rich squashes and yams, along with indulgent ingredients from imported cheeses to treasures from the sea.
• Ooh la la, the French-themed latke seamlessly blends buttery rich Yukon gold potatoes, earthy, creamy celeriac or celery root, shallots, sea salt, and herbes de Provence topped with a dollop of horseradish sour cream, and a confetti of chopped chives;
• Africa meets India and Indonesia with this exotic mix of shredded sweet potatoes, coconut cream and candied ginger accompanied by a curried Greek yogurt sauce;
• Swap out spuds altogether for a low starch, low cal, anti-cancer cauliflower patty with green scallions and egg whites;
• Lox and latkes make a fine pair for a delightful breakfast or brunch dish. Simply slather whipped cream cheese on the latke, layer with thin slices of smoked salmon, then top with chopped heirloom tomatoes and capers;
• For an Italian latke riff shred zucchini and mozzarella cheese served with a zesty marinara sauce;
• Feel like James Bond at the Hanukkah party indulging in latkes topped with crème fraiche, caviar, and chopped red onions. As caviar can be pricey, especially the Caspian sturgeon, connoisseurs take heart, bargain basement prices for other delectable varieties that add saltiness, color and flavor without having to refinance your home are available if you shop around. Salmon caviar, large pea-sized translucent beads of bright crimson with an intense flavor is also considered kosher, unlike the sturgeon caviar from fish that lack scales, making this roe taboo under kashrut laws;
• A vibrant latke made with anthocyanin-rich purple Peruvian potatoes gives a pop of color, and oomph of nutrition;
• Swap out potatoes for other pungent-flavored roots like parsnips, rutabagas or yuccas for a southwest twist. Serve with chili aioli dipping sauce for some real sass;
• Vegetarian patties of porcini, shiitake and trumpet mushrooms, and toasted quinoa paired with peach or apricot chutney are a high fiber, immune-boosting change up;
• A pescavore’s paradise of wild-caught salmon, mahi mahi or other firm fish patty with Meyer lemon mayo is a satisfying main dish;
• For just desserts, whip up a Granny Smith apple latke with salted caramel sauce, or a divine pureed chestnut, honey and cinnamon pancake with a tower of vanilla bean whipped cream.
Many of these can be made with a healthier methodology by wrapping the latkes in parchment paper and baking until crispy and golden. For a gluten-free option, replace wheat flour or matzo meal with gram or chickpea, brown rice, tapioca, teff or corn flours as binding agents.
To round out the Hanukkah meal try adding pulled roast chicken sliders, lamb kebobs with mint yogurt sauce, mini bagels with smoked salmon and mixed vegetable cream cheese, and Mediterranean eggplant caviar. For incorrigible sweet-tooths serve poached pears with goat cheese and honey drizzle, Meyer lemon bars with blackberry puree, and old-world apple strudel.
Recipe: Classic Latkes with a twist
• Ingredients: 3 large Russet potatoes, peeled, diced; 1/2 red onion, diced; 1 pound of assorted mushrooms (oyster, crimini, chanterelle, your choice), thinly sliced, drained to remove excess water; 2 jumbo eggs; 2 tablespoons unbleached flour; 2 teaspoons lemon juice; 1/2 teaspoon baking powder; high smoke point oil for frying (grapeseed, canola, sunflower, avocado).
• Method: In a food processor or blender, grate potatoes to desired consistency. Strain through a fine sieve or squeeze with hands to remove excess water. In a large mixing bowl, blend potatoes with remaining ingredients.
Heat skillet on medium with a thin layer of oil covering the bottom. Gently drop large spoonfuls of potato mixture into the oil. Cook about 4 minutes or until edges are crispy. Flip, and cook until golden. Drain on a cookie sheet lined with paper towel. Enjoy immediately with favorite toppings.