Cooking for Chanukah
Crispy latkes are a traditional holiday treat
Fried foods have long been a tradition of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. In honor of the eight-day holiday, which began Wednesday (Dec. 1), I dropped by Chico’s Chabad House, where Rabbi Mendi Zwiebel’s wife, Chana, had offered to fry up latkes (potato pancakes) with me.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Chanukah, the abridged version goes something like this: When the Jews reclaimed their second temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E., it had been desecrated. So they renovated it, building a new altar and ridding it of false idols. For its rededication, they had only enough oil to burn for one night—but in a miracle, the oil lasted eight nights, just long enough for them to secure more. Hence the celebration with candles for eight nights and the consumption of foods fried in oil.
When I arrived at the beautifully renovated Chabad House on Fourth Street, Chana was ready for me with bags of potatoes and onions. She handed me a peeler and we got to work, all the while talking about our families, where we grew up, and how much we love Chico. I have to admit, I’ve lost touch a bit with my Jewish background, and it was nice to connect with the Zweibels. Finally someone in Chico to cook latkes with!
Five Yukon Gold or russet potatoes
Two large onions
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp pepper
Oil (olive or canola will work—use enough to fill about an inch in the bottom of the pan)
Peel potatoes and place in bowl of water (to prevent browning). Peel onions and grate them into a bowl. Grate potatoes (we used a food processor, but a cheese grater works just as well). Mix potatoes with onions and squeeze out as much water as possible. Add salt and pepper. Mix in eggs.
In a large sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat. Once hot, place potato mixture in balls into the oil. Flatten with spatula. Turn until both sides are golden brown and place in dish lined with paper towels. (Tip from Chana: place hot latkes into dish on their side and line them up next to each other rather than flat and on top of each other to retain crispiness. It really works!)
When we were done, Chanah served me a plate with some perfectly crisped latkes and offered applesauce to go with them (that’s how they’re traditionally eaten). Absolutely delicious—and just the way I remember them from childhood.
For a fun twist on the above recipe, you can make latkes with sweet potatoes (add brown sugar and cinnamon instead of salt and pepper, and omit the onions). Some people also make zucchini latkes or they mix in different herbs and spices to add flavor. Many recipes include flour—this gives the latkes more of a “pancake” consistency and is another twist on the tradition. Have fun with it!