NEW YORK, Oct. 14 (JTA) — “My grandmother used to make latkes from peas and other vegetables,” said the manager of a dental office in Manhattan, wishing he had the recipe.
“Peas in latkes?” asked the dentist, whose parents emigrated here from Poland. “I’ve never heard of that!”
Because people who love latkes consider their preparation an art, opinions abound. A maven on the subject by profession, Jakob the Liar, a character from the recently released movie of the same name, was a former latke vendor who knew what went into a good latke. For Jews of Eastern European descent, latkes call for potatoes the way blintzes cry for cheese. But recently, creative cooks have been welcoming new ingredients, changing the taste of tradition.
A couple of years ago, Martha Stewart Living magazine featured mushroom latkes as a side dish. Along with the recipe came a glossy photo of sauteed mushrooms resting between layers of fried matzah. Fired up by the concept, I began searching for latke recipes calling for anything but potatoes.
I tried corn pancakes prepared with chili, cumin and cilantro. Inspired by Asian cuisine, I developed carrot noodle latkes. Frying noodles to a birds’ nest crunch, I infused them with ginger and scallions, flavors from the Far East. But is it right to take latkes so far from their roots?
Actually the word “latke” is Yiddish for “pancake.” By definition, there is no link to potatoes. Even though Ashkenazi Jews claim potato latkes as Chanukah’s signature dish, these crisp pancakes are a relatively recent addition to our cuisine.
Originating in South America, potatoes were unknown in Europe until the 16th century, when explorers brought back tuber shoots. Because this crop flourished in Eastern Europe, potatoes became a staple of the diet. It didn’t take long for Jews to prepare pancakes from this inexpensive ingredient, which they often browned in chicken schmaltz — except at Chanukah, when goose fat prevailed.
Yet centuries before the potato’s debut in Europe, it is likely that Chanukah pancakes were made from cheese in honor of the beautiful widow Judith. An unsung heroine, Judith was a contemporary of the Maccabees. According to legend, she invited an enemy general to dinner, knowing he intended to destroy her town. During the meal, she served great quantities of cheese to cause thirst in order to ply him with wine. When the general fell into a drunken sleep, she beheaded him, averting disaster for her town.
Better known is the story of how Judah the Maccabee and his followers launched a revolt against Emperor Antiochus IV and his Syrian-Greek troops, refusing to let foreigners forcibly hellenize Judea by outlawing Jewish practices.
Three years later, when they chased the oppressors from Jerusalem, the Temple lay in ruin. Although priests found only one vial of untainted oil, enough to burn for 24 hours, miraculously the flame lasted eight days.
Drawing from the two stories, both dairy products and oil have influenced Chanukah cuisine. Think of potato latkes served with sour cream. Less renowned are ricotta pancakes, a delicately sweetened crepe. Tasting like little cheesecakes, they are a surprising addition to brunch.
For at least a century, competing ingredients have been encroaching on potato territory. In Jewish cookbooks, numerous examples of potato latke recipes have also called for shredded parsnips, beets or carrots. For incremental, but richly rewarding flavor, add one of these vegetables to the batter of your favorite potato latke recipe.
In her International Jewish Cookbook, Faye Levy touts the versatility of latkes.
“A selection of several types of pancakes of different colors makes great Chanukah party fare,” she wrote, offering several recipes. Her vegetable pancakes call for mushrooms, celery, carrots — and peas!
Aware that any produce can be mixed with eggs and flour and fried to a crackling crunch, a creative friend concocted her own vegetable latkes from leftovers. With golden shortening sizzling around her current batch of vegetable batter, she has one piece of advice: “Hold the potatoes. Oil is the heart of Chanukah latkes.”
VEGETABLE LATKES (Yield: 8-10 latkes)
1 small onion, peeled and diced fine
12 small mushrooms, sliced thin
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt & pepper to taste
2 medium carrots
1 small parsnip
1 cup frozen peas, at room temperature
2 eggs, slightly beaten
4 Tbsp. flour
1. On a medium flame, saute onion and mushrooms in oil in a large, non-stick skillet, until wilted. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir.
2. Peel and grate carrots and parsnips, adding them to the skillet with peas. Stir one minute. Let cool.
3. Move vegetables to a large bowl. Add eggs and flour, mixing well with a spoon. If batter is loose, gradually add flour until a moist batter forms.
4. Place 1/4 inch of oil in skillet, heating on medium flame. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into skillet, flattening with back of a spoon. Add more oil as needed.
5. Don’t turn until bottom side browns. Keep turning until both sides are crisp, and centers are done. Don’t burn.
6. Drain on two layers of paper towels. Serve with sour cream.
CARROT-NOODLE LATKES (Yield: 12-14 pancakes)
8 ounces fine noodles
5 carrots, peeled and grated
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
Salt & white pepper to taste
4 Tbsp. flour
Sesame oil for frying
1. Prepare noodles according to package instructions. Drain and place in a large bowl.
2. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well with a spoon. If batter is loose, gradually add more flour until a moist batter forms.
3. Pour 1/4 inch of oil into a large, non-stick skillet, heating on medium flame.
4. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into skillet, flattening with back of a spoon. Add more oil as needed.
5. Don’t turn pancakes until bottom browns. (A few noodles may break off when turning the first time.) Turn until both sides are crisp, not burnt.
6. Drain on two layers of paper towels. Serve with soy sauce.
RICOTTA PANCAKES (Yield: 16-18 pancakes)
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
3 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus oil for frying
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup pignoli nuts (or blanched slivered almonds)
1. Place all ingredients, except nuts, in a food processor using a steel blade. Process until lumps disappear and mixture swells to a creamy batter.
2. Scrape sides of bowl with a spatula. Add nuts and process briefly until well blended.
3. Pour 1/4 inch of oil into a large, non-stick skillet over a medium flame. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into skillet. Add oil as needed. When pancakes bubble and bottom sides brown, gently turn and brown the other side.
4. Sprinkle confectioner’s sugar on top. Serve with sour cream.