~ Bumbleberry Holiday ~
Happy Hanukkah! This past Saturday marked the beginning of the Festival of Lights. Although not even remotely Jewish, I can’t think of a better way to learn about and celebrate other cultures and their festivities than through food.
Recently, in my classroom, this became beautifully evident when a student, celebrating Diwali, brought in Samosas for his peers. The majority of the children had never had a Samosa or had heard of Diwali before, however, they were grateful for any opportunity to not do work! With some trepidation, they dipped their still warm and flaky Samosas into a silky sweet treacle Tamarind sauce. After the first few bites, there was no looking back. The Samosas had opened the floodgates of amazing questions and dialogue about food and culture in a way that no other vehicle could have.
Just as many of my students learned about Diwali through samosas, I first truly learned about Hanukkah by way of a crispy golden latke. While in the final stretch of pre-Christmas University exams, I was invited to my friend’s house for a Hanukkah dinner. I eagerly accepted, grateful for a break in my studies as well as the Kraft Dinner diet.
Coming from a generations-deep, WASPy background, I am embarrassed to say I knew little about Jewish traditions or what to expect. I had nothing to worry about. I was warmly welcomed by my friend’s large family. I was quickly ushered into the kitchen, where I took up a perch amongst the bustle.
I watched as my friend’s grandmother rowed waxy raw potatoes across an old box grater. She worked quickly, and in no time, she lifted the grater to reveal a glistening mountain of yellow potato strings. She asked me if I had ever had a latke before. “No,” I replied, I didn’t know what a latke was, but, I had never met a potato I didn’t like. She laughed and in her thick Polish accent she explained to me that latkes (meaning “little oily patches) are a symbolic part of the Hanukkah tradition.
As she dropped the little haystacks of potatoes into a deep pan of hot oil, she told me the oil in which the latkes bubbled payed tribute to the Miracle of the Oil. In the Temple of Jerusalem, a single day’s worth of oil miraculously burned in a menorah for eight nights of beautiful light.
It was at that point in my life that I really realized how food extends far beyond nourishment. It is the touchstone of our cultures, our stories and our lives. It also proves to be a valuable teacher and expander of our cultural blinders.
From that dinner, I took away a new appreciation for Jewish culture, not to mention a copy of the dog-eared recipe and Grandma’s secrets for the perfect crispy latke.
Advice from a Jewish Grandma and my own trial and error, have led me to discover that the three secrets to great latkes are: to remove as much liquid from the potatoes and onions as possible, use a cast iron pan if you have one and the starchier the potato the better.
2 cups peeled and shredded potatoes (Yukon Gold work best, but any will do)
1 tablespoon grated or shredded white onion
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup peanut oil for frying (peanut oil is great because it has a high smoke point)
1. Peel and shred the potatoes and onions. You can do them by hand using a box grater on the largest sized grate. A much quicker way to shred them is in the food processor, making sure to use the grater blade attachment!
2. Place the potatoes in a clean dry dish towel or cheesecloth and wring, extracting as much moisture as possible. Put the potatoes aside in a bowl and repeat the wringing process with the onions.
2. In a medium bowl combine all the ingredients and mix together well by hand.
3. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat. Heat the oil until hot and sizzling, this is key!
4. Form individual pancakes by hand (you can determine the size, but not more than a 1/2 inch thick) and carefully slide into the pan using a slotted spatula. Fill the pan, but leave room between the pancakes. When the latkes are nicely browned on one side, turn carefully and cook until browned on the other side and crisp on the edges.
5. Remove with a spatula and place on paper towels or clean brown paper bags. I like the paper bags because they don’t stick to the latkes. Let the excess grease drain onto the paper towel or bags. Serve immediately for the best taste. (You can keep the latkes hot in a warm oven if you are making more than one batch).
Serve with sour cream or applesauce, or sprinkle with granulated sugar.