The potato pancakes called latkes are the most iconic food eaten during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. With the holiday quickly approaching (it starts on the 20th this year), it is in many homes time to heat up some oil to fry up piles of shredded of potato and onion. My daughters are already waiting by the stove for me to get started.
Chef Suzanne Tracht, of Jar in West Hollywood, knows a thing or two about this favorite holiday treat. She makes the traditional version at her restaurant and for her own family holiday meals, but has also come up with a modern take on the dish: she adds parsnips, cooks in clarified butter and serves with both crème fraiche and spice-infused apple sauce.
I caught up with Tracht, one of Los Angeles' favorite Jewish moms and most beloved chefs, to ask her for recipes, how she celebrated the holiday growing up, and her family traditions today.
Julie: How did you develop your Potato Parsnip Latke recipe?
Suzanne: Hanukkah comes during the time of year when there are a lot of root vegetables. Besides potatoes we get parsnips. They come from the ground too and have a really great flavor. They work well with potatoes to give it a slight sweetness and an earthiness.
Julie: What was your thinking behind using crème fraiche instead of sour cream?
Suzanne: It makes it a little bit more decadent.
Julie: Growing up did you family eat the traditional latkes?
Suzanne: Yes we did. My father always made the latkes.
Julie: Was he a hand-grate the potatoes and stand at the stove kind of guy?
Suzanne: Yes he hand grated the potatoes -- and usually part of his hand in there too.
Julie: For a little extra protein?
Suzanne: Right, exactly.
Julie: How old were you when he finally let you near the fry pan to help make latkes?
Suzanne: How old was I? We'd get to eat them right out of the pan, but that was really his thing, getting the oil ready and grating everything by himself.
Julie: He was a little territorial about it?
Suzanne: Oh yeah, very much so. And it's not like we wanted to grate the onion by hand. So we let him take charge of that.
Julie: Do you make latkes at Jar?
Suzanne: At the restaurant, we have many regulars at the restaurant. They ask, "Oh do you have latkes?" They kind of look at you for their latke dinner, so I'll make them a la minute, for anybody who comes in and is asking about them. Everyone likes to eat latkes during Hanukkah.
Julie: What kind of latkes do you make at the restaurant?
Suzanne: If I am doing them real quickly, I'll just grate a Yukon gold or russet potato with some onion, add whole egg and just a bit of flour if there us not enough starch in there. Then I mix in plenty of kosher salt and ground black pepper. I don't use too much salt in them, because when I take them out of the pan I hit them with a little bit of fleur de sel right before they go out.
Julie: Do you have a favorite applesauce recipe?
Suzanne: I do. It's on the menu at Jar. It's part of our sides.
Julie: With your family, is Hanukkah a gift giving kind of holiday or more of a play dreidel and eat latkes celebration?
Suzanne: Of course my teenagers love gifts. We always had gifts growing up, so we usually have something wrapped for everybody to open. And we light the menorah every night.
Julie: Does everyone argue about which direction to light the candles and whether to blow out the shamash [middle candle]? Do you have a structured lighting ceremony?
Suzanne: We go ... I think it's from right to left, right?
Julie: I think so, but I've been in the room when people debate about it. For the rest of the menu, what do you recommend that goes well with potato latkes?
Suzanne: I know a lot of people like to serve pot roast and brisket, but for me since it is all about the latkes, I like to make a variety of salads.
Julie: To keep it light?
Suzanne: Yes, and I like to serve cured salmon and some nice room temperature food like a great lentil salad with roasted root vegetables.
Julie: That sounds nice.
Suzanne: Maybe something really fresh -- a little gem lettuce salad with fresh herbs. I like to keep it on the light side and let the latkes shine for themselves.
Potato Parsnip Latkes
2 whole parsnips (about 1 pound)
2 russet potatoes (about 1 ½ pounds)
2 egg whites
2 T chopped chives
1 tsp salt
pinch of pepper
1 C clarified butter
1 C crème fraiche
Applesauce (recipe below)
Peel the potatoes and parsnips. Grate them on the medium hole of a box grater.
In a large bowl, mix the grated parsnips and potatoes, the egg whites, chives, salt and pepper.
Using a large non-stick pan, heat one-half cup of the butter over low heat. Drop enough batter (about one-fourth cup) into the pan so that when flattened with the back of a spoon, the pancake is about 3 ½ to 4 inches in diameter. Fry about 5 minutes on each side, turning when the bottom turns golden brown. Add more butter as necessary. Fry in batches if required. Drain the pancakes on paper towels. Serve with crème fraiche and applesauce.
10 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into eighths
4 lemons, juiced
3 whole cloves
2 pieces fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1" x ¾" pieces
2 spring savory
1 C sugar
1 C water
Place all ingredients in large pot and cover with lid. Simmer on medium heat for about 20 minutes or until apples are soft. Remove from heat and blend with a whisk, breaking up any remaining apple pieces. Pass through a ricer or strainer. Add spring savory and cool. Remove the savory and serve and warm or cold.
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