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Shaking up Hanukkah tradition with a new look at latkes

Three different latke styles served at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
At Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen, owner Tracy Borkum, chef and partner Tim Kolanko and executive chef Jeff Armstrong dreamed up a trio of Hanukkah latkes: one made with red beets (top), served with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata; one made with kabocha squash (center), served with mango chutney and raita; and a traditional potato style, served with sour cream and applesauce. Armstrong shares how to make them at home.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Beloved crispy potato pancakes always a classic, but recipes broaden repertoire with new flavors, colors and textures

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While most of the country is busy buying and decorating Christmas trees, putting up lights and anticipating cookie exchanges and yule logs, the Jewish community — at least the Ashkenazi, or Eastern European part of it — will be pulling out their bubbe’s recipe for potato latkes, making applesauce and buying sour cream.

That’s because during Hanukkah, which this year begins on Dec. 18, after the candles on the menorah are lit and despite the roast chicken or brisket glistening on the table, the big meal is all about those potato pancakes. They’re an annual treat that’s been pan-fried in vegetable oil or schmaltz to a dark brown, crispy-crunchy texture on the outside and soft and oniony inside.

You could really forgo the rest of the meal. Latkes are that good.

But do we have to have the same latkes year after year? And the same accompaniments? Wouldn’t it be nice to add some new flavors and new colors, even new textures?

Tracy Borkum, the owner of the new restaurant Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen, thought so. Gold Finch, which opened on Sept. 20 at the Muse Torrey Pines research campus, is what she describes as a modern Ashkenazi Jewish deli, replete with corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup, lox and bagels, knishes, and both babka and rugelach. It reflects her early childhood in London’s Golders Green and Finchley communities, absorbing her European Jewish heritage.

But she’s also brought some Sephardic culinary traditions into the mix. Sephardim are Jews of Spanish (and Portuguese) descent who, after expulsion in 1492, resettled across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Shakshuka, baklava, berbere spice fried artichokes, and a spicy Moroccan carrot salad on Gold Finch’s menu fall in that category.

As do the special Hanukkah latkes she brainstormed over with chef and partner Tim Kolanko and executive chef Jeff Armstrong. For this year’s holiday, they’re serving not just the traditional potato pancakes with sour cream and house-made applesauce, but also beet latkes to be served with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata, and kabocha squash latkes with mango chutney and raita.

It’s not that contemporary Jews haven’t toyed with different options for latkes. I’ve been making sweet potato latkes for years and, really, any grated root vegetable — from carrots and rutabaga to turnips and celery root — is a great ingredient for a pan-fried pancake. But have we also upped our game on the accompaniments? Well, not like this, and it’s a refreshing move. It’s one that, Armstrong explained, actually unites Ashkenazi and Sephardic flavors and traditions.

Chef Jeff Armstrong prepares a latke dish at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
Gold Finch’s executive chef Jeff Armstrong recommends using a cast-iron pan to fry your latkes at home, using an oil like canola that has a neutral taste and can tolerate high temperatures.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

I was particularly excited by the whipped feta accompanying the beet latkes. To me, that alternative to sour cream is a plausible alternative to skeptical traditionalists. It’s close to sour cream but with a winning, sharper tartness and saltiness. And a beet latke? First, you should know that this version as well as the kabocha squash version rely on grated potatoes to bring the firmness needed for the pancake to hold up. But those brilliant colored beets bring a splash of color and sweetness to the latkes that complement traditional potato latkes. Any fan of borscht will kvell at the idea of a beet latke. Pairing it as well with pistachio gremolata brings some of that Sephardic sensibility into play, plus it adds a different kind of crunchy texture to the meal, not to mention brightness in flavor from lemon zest.

While you can certainly use any kind of winter squash for making latkes, kabocha squash — a Japanese variety — is particularly sweet, even sweeter than butternut squash — and is a brilliant yellow/gold. Here, it plays with a sweet and spicy mango chutney filled with spices like cardamom, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper and ginger, as well as garlic and fennel pollen. (The flavor of fennel pollen — which is not the same as ground fennel and is harvested when fennel fronds go to seed — is a subtle combination of anise/licorice, citrus and honey.) The chutney’s heat is quelled by the raita, an Indian side dish featuring yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic and parsley.

Each variety of the latkes is pretty straightforward to prepare. You’ll grate potatoes using the large holes of a box grater or the grater tool in your food processor. Same with the beets and the squash. The potatoes will need as much moisture as possible strained out.

First, you’ll put them in a colander over a bowl, mix with salt, and drain for about 10 minutes. Then mound the grated potatoes in the middle of a tea towel or cheesecloth and wring out the rest of whatever moisture remains. Some people, like my mom and I, will do this over the bowl where the potatoes had initially drained, let the liquid settle, pour off the water at the top and spoon back the remaining potato starch to help bind the pancakes. You could also add some matzo meal as a binder — but you don’t have to.

With the potatoes drained, mix in the rest of the ingredients called for in the version of latke you’re preparing. After that comes the key part — the frying. And you’ll want to do that relatively soon after preparing the pancake batter, because potatoes oxidize and turn gray. The size of the latke is an individual choice, but spooning in enough for a 3-inch pancake is generally a good option. They should be flat, not mounded, so that cooking will be more even. Stir the mixture in the bowl in between rounds. If you can keep track of individual latkes as they cook, you can add batter one at a time to fill in spaces where cooked ones were removed. And add more oil as needed.

Armstrong advised home cooks to do the frying in a cast-iron pan, using a vegetable oil like canola, which has both a neutral flavor and high smoke point, for frying.

“I would add enough oil to have it go halfway up the latkes in the pan,” he suggested. “That way, you’ll get that crunchy outside and chewy middle.”

He also said that the heat for the potato latkes and the delicata squash latkes should be no higher than medium. Basically, high enough to allow them to get crispy but not so high that they’ll burn. Because beets have almost 10 times as much natural sugar as potatoes, you’ll want to keep the heat lower, or you’ll risk them burning on the outside before the inside is cooked. My advice is to cover the pan with a splatter screen for safety and to contain the mess on your cooktop.

Beyond that, you need patience and vigilance. Patience enough to let them cook on one side before flipping them. And vigilance to make sure the heat is just right — because that pan will heat up. Adjust the heat so that the pancakes don’t burn but also don’t get soggy in oil that’s not quite hot enough.

How do you know it’s time to flip them?

“When the latkes start to brown along the edge and the brown creeps over the top, you’ll want to flip them to the other side,” Armstrong advised. “Then give them a couple of minutes to brown on the other side.”

Be sure to have a sheet pan or plate next to you, lined with paper towels. And if you’re making a lot for a crowd, heat your oven to about 300 degrees. First, you’ll want to place the fried latkes on the paper towels to drain the excess oil before serving. If you aren’t serving them all at once, place drained latkes on an empty sheet pan and keep them warm in the oven. Just know that they likely won’t be as crispy as ones just out of the pan.

And while Armstrong and other chefs may cringe at this, our household tradition when having large groups over is to do all this in advance and then freeze the latkes. They reheat well in the oven at 350 degrees, and if it means removing some stress from entertaining, why not?

Of course, the various accompaniments can also be made ahead of time.

Potato latkes by chef Jeff Armstrong at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
With all the latke styles, it’s important to strain out as much moisture from the grated potatoes as possible before cooking. These traditional cakes can be garnished with applesauce and sour cream.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Traditional Potato Latkes

Makes 18 servings

10 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4¼ cups yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
12 large eggs
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
Neutral oil like canola for pan frying

Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.

Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with chopped onions, thyme, eggs and black pepper.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are brown and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil. They’re ready to serve, but if you’re making several batches, place them on an empty sheet pan and into the oven to keep warm.

Garnish latkes with sour cream and applesauce. You can also top with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and capers or pastrami and horseradish cream.

Beet latkes by chef Jeff Armstrong at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
These latkes rely on potatoes to bind the pancake, but the beets add a bright color and a sweetness that complements the traditional ingredient. Whipped feta and pistachio gremolata finish off these cakes.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Red Beet Latkes + Whipped Feta + Pistachio Gremolata

Makes 18 servings

5 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
3 tablespoons kosher salt
5 cups red beets, peeled and roughly grated
4¼ cups red onions, peeled and chopped
12 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh dill fronds, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
Neutral oil like canola for pan frying

Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.

Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with the grated red beets. Add the chopped red onions, eggs, dill and black pepper. Mix well.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are a brownish-red and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil. They’re ready to serve, but if you’re making several batches, place them on an empty sheet pan and into the oven to keep warm.

Garnish latkes with whipped feta and pistachio gremolata (recipes below).

Whipped Feta

2 cups Valbreso Feta ( or creamier style feta, preferably French)
1 cup heavy cream

Add feta cheese and heavy cream to food processor and puree until smooth.

Pistachio Gremolata

1 cup pistachios, toasted, then finely chopped
¾ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Zest of 4 lemons
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Mix all ingredients in mixing bowl and season with kosher salt.

Squash latkes by chef Jeff Armstrong at Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.
Any winter squash can be used for this version, but kabocha squash has a particular sweetness and a brilliant yellow color. The latkes are served with a mango chutney and a raita.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kabocha Squash Latkes + Mango Chutney + Raita

Makes 18 servings

5 cups russet potatoes, peeled and roughly grated
3 tablespoons kosher salt
5 cups kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and roughly grated (can substitute with butternut, honeynut or red kuri squash)
4¼ cups yellow onion, chopped
12 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper

Place grated potatoes in a colander over a bowl and mix with salt. Let drain for about 10 minutes, then wring the potatoes of as much moisture as possible in a kitchen towel.

Mix the strained potatoes in a large bowl with the grated kabocha squash. Add the chopped yellow onions, eggs, cilantro and black pepper. Mix well.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, and add about ½ inch of oil. Use a tablespoon to drop enough batter to make a 3- to 4-inch flat pancake. Shallow fry in oil, flipping sides once the latkes get crispy around the edges. When both sides are a brownish-yellow and the latkes are chewy in the middle, remove them from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates or sheet pans to drain excess oil. They’re ready to serve, but if you’re making several batches, place them on an empty sheet pan and into the oven to keep warm.

Garnish latkes with mango chutney and raita (recipes below).

Mango Chutney

6 cardamom pods
2 teaspoons fennel pollen (see Note)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
8 cups frozen mango, diced
½ cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup granulated sugar

Toast all the spices in a 4-quart saucepan until fragrant. Add the minced garlic and toast until golden-brown. Add the diced mango, vinegar and sugar.

Cook chutney until it thickens to a jam consistency and it tastes balanced. If it’s too sweet, continue cooking.

Transfer mixture to the bowl of a food processor and pulse enough to break down mango but not until smooth.

Note: Fennel pollen, which differs from ground fennel, can be found on Amazon and other online vendors such as The Spice House. It adds a complex, but subtle combination of anise/licorice, citrus and honey and can be used on savory dishes as well as desserts. Chef Bernard Guillas, who retired last year from The Marine Room and Shores restaurants, collaborated with Pollen Ranch on a line of fennel pollen mixes; I use his Divine Desserts Seasoning Fennel Pollen mix.

Raita

2 cups Greek yogurt
1 hothouse cucumber
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Place yogurt in a mixing bowl. Grate the cucumber directly into the yogurt with a box grater. Grate the garlic cloves on a Microplane into the cucumber and yogurt mixture.

Add red wine vinegar, chopped parsley and kosher salt. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and red wine vinegar if needed.

Recipes from Executive Chef Jeff Armstrong, Gold Finch Modern Delicatessen.

Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.


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