Written by Danielle Oteri
As I sit here writing, I can smell the fragrance of sizzling hot fat permeating the walls. It’s Hanukah, and the many Orthodox Jewish residents in my apartment building are cooking the potato pancakes called latkes.
I can definitely smell vegetable oil, but I also smell something else, more gamey and pungent, that I think must be chicken fat.
Schmaltz is the Yiddish word for it. Maybe that sounds disgusting to you, but to me, it smells comforting and familiar.
I’m not Jewish, but Jewish food was the ultimate treat growing up for my brother and me.
I think everyone has one set of grandparents they like more than the other. For us, Nana and Papa who lived down the street treated us like we were little ravioli.
Our grandparents who lived in Yonkers were less…enthusiastic. Grandpa, a butcher, was often in a bad mood and felt cold, as though he had just walked out of a meat locker.
Grandma would start lamenting her bad luck the second we had pried off our shoes so as not to dirty her “broadloom.”
She collected mass cards from funeral homes like baseball cards and happily shared them with us to demonstrate how much grief she had recently suffered.
As a result, a deathly pall came over the faces of my brother and I every time a visit to Yonkers was suggested.
To soften the blow, our Dad always prefaced our visit with a stop at Epstein’s Kosher Delicatessen.
Epstein’s had the best hot dogs in the world. A career waitress with blue eyeshadow and a blonde bouffant wig would put a plate of mixed pickles down on the table…for free!
Dad would often get matzoh ball soup followed by a basket of the most perfectly fried chicken. Mom, who grew up in a Jewish part of the Bronx and knows more Yiddish than Dr. Ruth, always had a corned beef sandwich on rye and a soft, pillowy knish.
Latkes (fried in schmaltz) were served at Epstein’s with a side of applesauce.
Bellies full and cresting a sugar high from multiple cans of Dr. Brown’s cherry soda, we had been successfully bribed into enduring the following three hours of “guess who died?”
As an adult, I have always giddily accepted any invitation to a Hanukah festivus just so I can wolf down latkes, fried potatoes being so simply and deeply satisfying.
I enjoy watching the lighting of the menorah and try to hum along to the somber tones of chanted Hebrew, recalling, I assume, the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the rededicated temple.
(I like to think of fried food for Hanukah as the Jewish equivalent of lemons into lemonade.)
I always go home full and happy, my hair and wool coat reeking of oil.
And though I only need open my apartment door to be washed in the smell of frying latkes, I sadly haven’t received any festivus invitations this year. What’s a shiksa to do?
He advises against tampering with the classics and I usually abide by the advice of the Food Maven. (Maven is a Yiddish word, after all.)
That said, my favorite latkes were made by my dear friend Hadas, who plays on tradition by adding sweet potatoes to the mix.
So for your fried-in-fat Hanukah pleasure, here is a recipe for latkes, Hadas-style.
- 1/2 pound Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, left unpeeled and cut into quarters
- 1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
- 1 large white onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup flour
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Grate both kinds of potatoes on a box grater or with a food processor.
- Transfer the grated potatoes to a large bowl of cold water to keep them from turning brown while you finish grating.
- Grate the onion and add to the potatoes.
- Thoroughly drain the potato and onion mixture in a colander—a dry, not soggy, potato base is the key to latke success.
- In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and pour over the potatoes and onions.
- Add flour, salt, and pepper and mix well.
- In a large saucepan or cast-iron skillet, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan over medium-high heat.
- Using a large serving spoon, form a small pancake from the potato mixture and drop it into the hot oil; it should sizzle. If the latke consistency is too thin, add more flour to the potatoes, one tablespoon at a time.
- Fry latkes until golden, about 5 minutes per side.
- Drain on a paper-towel lined plate and serve hot.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 142Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 62mgSodium: 91mgCarbohydrates: 22gFiber: 3gSugar: 4gProtein: 5g
The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.
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