When it comes to preparing food for Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of light, it boils down to a simple refrain borrowed from the world of politics.
It’s the oil, stupid.
That’s the be-all and end-all of the holiday menu. Hanukkah is the one time when fried food is not only OK, it’s required.
Hanukkah, which began last night at sundown, celebrates oil. It recalls the victory of the ancient Jewish Maccabees, who restored the synagogue in Jerusalem after desecration by oppressors who had forbidden the Jews to practice their religion.
Re-dedicating the synagogue meant re-lighting the eternal lamp. There was only enough oil to burn for a day, but it burned for eight days, until a supply of oil could be found.
For celebrants, all this means feasting on fritters, doughnuts and potato pancakes, called latkes, throughout the eight days. For cooks, it means laying in a good supply of vegetable oil, especially for holiday parties this weekend.
Although olive oil is the traditional Middle Eastern oil, extra virgin olive oil may not suit certain taste buds because it can impart its flavor and smokes easily.
Peanut and canola oils are good choices because their smoking points are high, but any of the refined, polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as corn, soy and safflower are good, too, especially high-oleic versions.
Doughnuts call for deep frying, but latkes and fritters can be fried in smaller amounts of oil, just enough to puddle.
Frying can be messy, and takes time, but isn’t difficult. What’s important is to watch the pan carefully and regulate the temperature so that the food fries evenly. Have a bowl or empty can nearby to skim off loose pieces of the pancakes or fritters as they cook; these particles can burn easily and change the flavor and color of the oil.
If you skim the oil carefully, you can use it for a couple of batches of frying. After that, the oil will darken and start to look and taste “old,” and that will affect the flavor of the food.
When this happens, let the oil cool in the skillet, and then pour it out into a container that can be discarded. Wipe the pan out, pour in fresh oil, heat it over medium-high, and start the next batch.
The results — lacy pancakes and crispy fritters with a fresh, light flavor — are worth it. After all, Hanukkah is about the oil.
Serve with applesauce, jam or sour cream.
3 or 4 large baking potatoes, peeled
1/2 to 3/4 cup finely grated onion
3 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 to 4 tablespoons matzo meal or flour, plus more as needed
Vegetable oil for frying
Grate the potatoes in a food processor: Put them through the shredding disc, then take half of the shredded potatoes and process them briefly with the steel knife. If you don’t have a food processor, grate them by hand on a box grater — put half through the medium grater, and half through the fine grater. You should have about 4 cups grated potatoes.
Put the grated potatoes in a large bowl, cover them with water and let soak for at least 15 minutes (or up to 1 hour) to remove the excess starch.
Rinse the potatoes and drain well, squeezing them with your hands to remove excess moisture. Combine the potatoes in a mixing bowl with the onion, eggs, salt, pepper, baking powder and 2 tablespoons matzo meal. Stir well. Add more matzo meal if too much liquid accumulates in the bottom of the bowl.
Pour the oil into a large frying pan to a depth of 1/8 to 1/4 inch, and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, gently drop the potato batter by large spoonfuls into the hot oil, pressing down on them lightly with the back of the spoon to form thin pancakes about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, keeping the latkes about 1/2 inch apart. Do not crowd.
Fry the latkes until they are browned on one side, then turn and cook them until browned on the other.
Remove them to a paper towel-lined platter to drain, blotting off excess oil. Transfer to a plate and put in a 200° oven to stay warm.
Repeat until all the batter is used up, adding a bit more matzo meal or flour to the mixture as more liquid starts to collect in the bowl, and squeezing out the extra liquid. Skim the surface of the oil to remove any floating potato bits, which can burn and give the oil an off-flavor. Discard the oil when it begins to brown and use fresh oil as needed.
Yields 12 to 16
To make ahead: Fry latkes until they are light brown. Blot them with paper towels, and let cool. When completely cooled, arrange them in a single layer on baking sheets. Place the baking sheets in the freezer and freeze until the latkes are hard. Transfer the frozen latkes to freezer storage bags, and freeze up to 2 weeks.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 425°. Arrange the frozen latkes in a single layer on baking sheets; do not crowd. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, turning once, until deep golden brown. Drain briefly on a paper towel- lined platter. Serve hot.
PER LATKE: 65 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (0 saturated), 40 mg cholesterol, 296 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
These are best made close to serving time.
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup sugar
6 medium-size crisp apples (Fuji or Granny Smith are good)
Oil for frying
Puree the eggs, milk, flour and salt in a blender or food processor until smooth. Scrape the batter into a shallow bowl.
Combine the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.
Peel, core and slice the apples into 1/2-inch-thick wedges.
Heat about 1/4 inch of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking.
Dip each apple slice into the batter; let excess batter drain off briefly, then fry slices, a few at a time, until golden on both sides, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove slices to a paper towel-lined platter or baking sheet to drain and cool briefly.
Sprinkle apples on all sides with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Keep warm in a 200° oven, if necessary.
Repeat with remaining apples, skimming browned bits of batter from the pan and adding additional oil, if needed. If oil becomes too brown, discard it and use fresh oil for successive batches of frying.
Transfer apple fritters to a warm platter. Sprinkle with more cinnamon- sugar before serving.
Yields about 30 fritters
PER FRITTER: 85 calories, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat (0 saturated), 22 mg cholesterol, 28 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
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