Hanukka, the potato holiday
For many Jews, potato pancakes, known as levivot in Hebrew and latkes in Yiddish, are almost as closely associated with Hanukka as the menorah.
It is not surprising that the tuber, which was not known in the Land of Israel during the time of the Maccabees, has become such a favorite. The potato has had amazing success. From its origin in Peru the potato has spread around the world and has become a staple in cuisines from Europe to India.
Potato pancakes and patties have worldwide appeal. It seems like wherever the potato became available, cooks decided to make them into fried cakes.
Our classic potato latkes appear to have come to us from Russia. Similar lacy pancakes of grated potatoes are made in Poland and in other countries in Europe, both eastern and western.
Even in regions in which the potato is not central to the cuisine, fried potato cakes are popular. Italian Jews prepare rich crocchette di patate (potato croquettes), wrote Edda Servi Machlin, author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking. She makes them from mashed potatoes heated in butter, then mixed with grated Parmesan cheese, eggs, nutmeg and flour. The mixture is formed into egg shapes and fried until golden.
You can find the recipe below.
For meat meals Italian Jews prepare polpettine, or patties, of mashed potatoes and cooked chicken or meat. The potatoes and meat are mixed with eggs, flavored with garlic, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper, shaped in round cakes and fried in vegetable oil. They can make a satisfying entree for a Hanukka meal.
Hearty potato and meat patties are also popular in the Balkans, wrote Benny Saida, author of Food of the Balkans (in Hebrew). He mixes mashed potatoes with uncooked ground meat or chicken, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper, dips them in flour and fries them until thoroughly cooked and deep golden.
Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food, makes Balkan mashed potato and fried leek pancakes. She shapes the potato and leek mixture as a sausage and cuts it in slices, and then dips them in flour and in beaten egg and fries them until golden.
MEAT AND potato lovers would like the Persian potato pancake, called a kotlet. Those I sampled at a Persian deli in Los Angeles were made with ground chicken but cooks also make them with ground beef. They mix the mashed potatoes with the meat and flavor the mixture with grated onion, turmeric and mixed sweet spices, and then shape it into patties, dip them in bread crumbs and fry them.
Moroccan Jews make small cakes by mashing potatoes, adding eggs and seasoning the mixture with turmeric, salt, pepper and a generous amount of chopped parsley, wrote Fortunee Hazan-Arama, author of Saveurs de Mon Enfance (Flavors of My Childhood). After frying the potato cakes, they serve them with lemon wedges.
In India Jews use the potato to make patties called vegetable cutlis, wrote Mavis Hyman in Indian-Jewish Cooking, by mashing together cooked potatoes, carrots, peas and green beans and flavoring the mixture with green onions, peppers, fresh coriander, salt and pepper. After adding eggs and matza meal, they fry the mixture as patties and serve them with a relish.
For a more substantial entree, Indian Jews make stuffed mashed potato patties, wrote Hyman, with a filling of hard-boiled egg, or a meat filling of beef, lamb or chicken mixed with fried onions. The stuffed potato pancakes are dipped in beaten egg, then in bread crumbs and deep fried.
A favorite potato pancake of mine is Indian aloo tikki, a spicy mashed potato patty flecked with roasted cumin seeds. Only after I enjoyed the crisp, substantial pancakes several times did I learn that they are made without eggs, which are not used by Indian vegetarians.
Traditional Ashkenazi grated potato latkes are not easy to make without eggs. After experimenting, Nava Atlas, author of Vegan Holiday Kitchen, came up with a solution. She substitutes oats or quinoa flakes for the eggs and “everyone who has them swears they taste like the latkes they’ve always known and loved.”
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.
PETITE POTATO FRITTERS WITH WALNUTS
These mashed potato fritters make crunchy appetizers for Hanukka parties, or accompaniments for roast or broiled chicken or meat. They can be served with an assortment of dips and condiments, such as spicy cooked tomato-pepper salad (matbuha), Yemenite hot pepper relish (s’hug), sweet chutney, or the traditional applesauce with sour cream or yogurt.
Makes about 4 servings.
2 boiling potatoes (about 255 gr. or 9 ounces total)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
salt and freshly ground pepper pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional)
5 to 6 cups vegetable oil (for deep frying)
Put potatoes in a saucepan, cover with water and add salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 25 minutes or until tender. Drain, peel and mash. Mix with eggs and walnuts and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat oil for deep frying to 182ºC (360ºF); if a deep-fat thermometer is not available, test by adding a small piece of potato mixture to oil — it should bubble energetically.
Take a round teaspoonful of potato mixture. Dip another teaspoon into hot oil and use it to push mixture off other spoon into oil. Do not push it from high up or oil will splash. Continue making more fritters from remaining mixture but do not crowd them in oil. Fry 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown on all sides.
Transfer to a tray lined with paper towels. Keep warm by placing in a 150ºC (300ºF) oven with door ajar while frying the rest. Serve hot.
(crocchette di patate)
This recipe is from Classic Italian Jewish Cooking. The croquettes, which are flavored with Parmesan cheese and nutmeg, can be fried in butter, vegetable oil or a mixture of both. To puree the cooked potatoes for these croquettes, author Edda Servi Machlin advises mashing them or using a food mill but not a blender or food processor.
Makes 6 servings.
1.4 kg. (3 pounds) boiling potatoes
55 gr. (2 ounces or 4 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, plus more for frying if desired
4 Tbsp. freshly grated Italian Parmesan cheese
1 egg yolk
freshly ground white pepper
2 dashes nutmeg
1/2 cup unbleached flour
vegetable oil for frying
Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until very tender. Peel and mash, or pass through a vegetable mill. Do not use a blender or food processor.
Melt 55 gr. (2 ounces or 4 Tbsp.) butter in a skillet; add the mashed potatoes and stir over low heat until the potatoes are dry and thick. Remove from the heat and let cool for five minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and mix well. Add the egg, egg yolk, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste and mix very well to prevent bursting during frying.
Spread the flour on a working surface. Pour the potato mixture over the flour and quickly knead to incorporate some of the flour. Divide into 3 parts and shape each part into a rope about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) thick. Cut into 6 cm. (2 1/2-inch) pieces and give each an elongated egg shape.
Heat butter or oil or a mixture of the two in a skillet to a depth of 2.5 cm. (1 inch) and fry the croquettes over moderately high heat, a few at a time, turning delicately, until golden on all sides.