Down East 2013 ©
It’s that time of year. The days are miserably short. I feel like eating dinner at about 5 o'clock and by 9 p.m. I’m ready to crawl into a dark hole (otherwise known as my bed). I don’t feel depressed (I know it sounds otherwise, but really, honestly, truly Doctor, I’m fine); it’s just that when the day gets cut short like this so does my energy. It’s no wonder that people all over the world embrace the holidays the way they do. They seem to be saying: "Let’s celebrate this darkness, light the candles, decorate the tree, and lift our spirits."
In our family we celebrate a little bit of everything. During Chanukah, we light the menorah each night, say the prayer, and sing a few old Jewish songs. But it’s hard being Jewish this time of year. (Yes, I know. Some feel it’s hard being Jewish any time of year!) But no matter what they say — Oh, but you Jews get eight presents, and eight nights to celebrate, and dreidel games, and fried potato latkes!!! — Chanukah just doesn’t hold its weight against the biggest holiday of the year.
When my daughters were little we succumbed and did it all – the tree, Santa, stockings, prime rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding. But now that they are “grown” and off at college and in the world we’ve left the whole Christmas thing behind. Except for stockings. That’s the one vestige of my children’s Christmas that we hold onto. Filling a big old red sock with goodies — both edible and otherwise — is just too much fun to let go of.
Tonight we will make potato pancakes — the “official” food of the “Festival of Lights” — and fry them in hot oil until they develop a gorgeous, crispy, crunchy exterior with a soft, comforting potato interior. We will dip the latkes into homemade applesauce (made this fall and frozen and canned for just this time of year), sour cream and chives, and spread them with just enough fiery horseradish to make our eyes tear up. We will put a match to the menorah candles and watch them give everyone a special glow. The room will fill with light and for that hour or so everything seems bright and hopeful. And as darkness descends, and the night turns colder, we will feel the warmth that comes from looking into the eyes of those we love.
The Winter Solstice begins next week, marking the shortest day of the year, which means that the light will last just a few minutes longer each day. By mid-January, I might just be able to stay awake until 9:30 or so. It’s precious this light. Let it shine brightly this season.
John’s Traditional Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
Each year my husband makes these classic potato pancakes. Use a good locally grown Maine potato (medium starch) and forget about cholesterol and all those other health warning that are so firmly planted in your head. If you get the oil nice and hot, the pancakes will be golden brown on the outside with very little grease.
Serve with sour cream, horseradish, and applesauce.
6 medium potatoes, peeled
About ½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Generous 1 tablespoon flour
Safflower or canola oil
Toppings: applesauce, white horseradish, and sour cream (mixed with minced fresh chives)
Using a food processor or a hand held grater, grate the potatoes finely. Place in bowl and let sit 5 minutes. Remove some of the starchy liquid that forms in the bowl.
Whisk the egg and add to the potatoes and add the salt and pepper — generously. Add the flour and stir in gently to incorporate all the ingredients.
Heat a large skillet (with at least two-inch-high sides to protect you from hot oil splatter) over high heat. The oil is hot enough when you add a speck of flour and it immediately sizzles up without burning. If the flour seems to burn, reduce the heat a bit. If it doesn't sizzle right up, let the oil get hotter.
Add about 2 tablespoons of pancake batter to the hot oil. Add several others, being careful not to crowd the skillet, and cook about three minutes on each side or until they are golden brown on both sides. Test one (lucky you) and make sure it is hot and cooked through to the middle. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Drain the latkes on paper towels or thick grocery store supermarket bags. If you're not serving them right away, keep warm in a low 250 degree oven. Serve hot with the toppings listed above. Makes about 12 to 14 pancakes.
Mini Sweet Potato and Shallot Pancakes with Toppings
This is a twist on traditional latkes, or potato pancakes, using sweet potatoes, which are so much less starchy and far healthier and more glamorous than plain old white ones. Grate them with shallots and a subtle hint of freshly ground nutmeg and fry them in hot vegetable oil. I like serving them on a platter with various toppings: a dollop of sour cream, applesauce, mango chutney, and apple chutney. Pick one or use them all.
4 medium sweet potatoes, about 1 ½ pounds
2 medium shallots, peeled
2 eggs, whisked
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ cup flour, plus 1 tablespoon
About 3 cups vegetable oil
Toppings: about 1 cup sour cream, applesauce, mango chutney, and apple chutney
Using the largest opening on a cheese grater, grate the potatoes into a large bowl. Grate the shallots on the same large opening and mix with the potatoes. Add the eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg and flour and stir well to fully incorporate all the ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over high heat. The oil should be at least one-inch thick. Let the oil get really hot. To test, add a small piece of grated potato — the oil should sizzle right up. Make a pancake from about 2 heaping tablespoons of batter, forming it into a pancake about 2 inches wide. Add the pancakes to the hot oil, being careful not to overcrowd the skillet. Cook 2 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly and, using a slotted spoon, gently flip the pancake over. Cook another 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining batter. You can keep the drained pancakes warm on a cookie sheet in the preheated oven for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve hot with any or all of the toppings. We like to add a dollop of sour cream to one, and then a dollop of applesauce to the next, and then the chutneys, so everyone gets a little taste of everything.
Makes 16 two-inch pancakes.
· Use carrots instead of sweet potatoes and add a pinch of ground ginger instead of nutmeg. Serve with thick Greek-style yogurt.
· Add ¼ cup minced chives to the pancake batter and add very thinly sliced scallions instead of shallots.