Modern latkes mix haute with history Hanukkah: Additions from caviar to ginger give traditional holiday potato pancakes dashes of designer flair.

December 04, 1996|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,SUN STAFF

For generations at Hanukkah, it was always the same: Mealtime meant potato latkes. Made large enough for a supper side dish or dainty enough for hors d'oeuvres, these pancakes of grated potato, sparked with onion and fried to crisp delectability, have been the quintessential food for the holiday.

But in recent years, the latke has moved upscale. Tomorrow night, as Jewish families prepare to mark the beginning of Hanukkah -- an eight-day celebration of the 164 B.C. victory of the Maccabee rebels against Syrian conquerors -- what's on the dinner table may come as something of a surprise.

Plain old potato pancakes? Forget it. Try them with caviar, with curry powder, with goat cheese, with chilies. Or add a soupcon of Old Bay seasoning.

In her 1994 cookbook, "Jewish Cooking in America" (Alfred A. Knopf), Washington-based food writer Joan Nathan offers recipes that range from the ordinary to the haute; the latter she refers to as "designer latkes" and "high fashion potato fritters." The brand new "The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher" (Vital Media, 1996) gives the latke even more cachet, with recipes from the nation's finest and most famous professional cooks.

You don't have to be Jewish to like the latke. In fact, it has always been a cross-cultural food: "Every Central European culture had something similar," says Nathan. "And everybody loves potatoes."

Everybody loves them fried, too.

And, as latke eaters know, the point of potato pancakes isn't the potatoes -- which didn't begin to appear on holiday tables in the Old Country until they had been discovered and shipped back from the New. Rather, it's the oil -- a reminder of the story of a small cruse of purified oil found by the victorious Maccabees in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was just enough to burn in the candelabrum for one day, but, miraculously, it burned for eight, until new oil was prepared.

Hence, Hanukkah's other name -- the Feast of Lights.

And the eight lights in the Hanukkah menorah.

And the custom of eating crisp, fried, satisfying latkes

Potato and chicken latkes with tomato corn relish

Yields 3 to 4 servings

FOR RELISH:

1/4 cup butter or margarine (see note)

1 1/2 cups frozen white corn

6 plum tomatoes, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

corn starch and water, optional

FOR LATKES:

1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded

2 cups shredded potatoes, fresh or frozen

1 green onion, chopped

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter or margarine (see note)

In medium skillet, heat butter on medium-high heat. Add relish ingredients and saute 20 minutes. Add cornstarch and water to thicken, if desired.

In a large bowl, mix latke ingredients until thoroughly blended.

Heat butter on medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet. Drop potato batter by soup spoons, flattening slightly with a spatula. Cook on low to medium heat until brown on both sides.

Place relish in center of individual serving plates. Arrange latkes on top of relish.

Note: To make this recipe in a kosher way, use nondairy margarine.

(This prize-winning recipe was created by chef Sterling Burpee of J. W.'s Steakhouse in the Philadelphia Marriott, for a contest sponsored by McCormick & Co. in July 1995)

Crisp potato cake with goat cheese

Makes 4 servings

2 peeled Idaho potatoes

1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

salt and freshly ground pepper

4 ounces goat cheese

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Slice the potatoes into very thin, fine julienne-style strips, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 inches long by 1/16 of an inch. Do not wash or put the potatoes in water, which would remove the starch. The starch is needed to keep the potatoes together. Squeeze all the moisture from the cut potatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Add one tablespoon of olive oil to a large skillet. Lay out a thin layer of potato, forming a circle (2 1/2 -inch diameter). Spread 1 ounce of the goat cheese on the mound of potato, sprinkle with finely chopped chives. Cover the goat cheese with another thin layer of potato, making sure that the goat cheese is completely enclosed. Repeat the same operation, making a total of 4 pancakes.

Add the remaining tablespoons of olive oil to the large skillet and, over medium heat, let the potato turn into a golden crust on one side. Carefully turn the potato pancakes over and cook to a golden brown on the other side.

(Recipe by chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, in "The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher. Keller suggests serving it on a bed of mixed baby lettuces, as a salad or cheese course.)

Curried sweet potato latkes

Yields 16 3-inch pancakes

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon cumin

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk (approximately)

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