Holidays 2010: Fry Baby

story by Lee StabertI’ve been known to laud Hanukah as the original green holiday—no decorations, no elaborate meat-based meals and an origin story in which one day’s worth of fuel burns for eight. And, adding to my smugness, my family was never big on gifts; dad gave us a little bit of cash (or gelt) and my mom threw a couple nifty items into a clean pillow case.
As for the traditional Hanukah dish—potato latkes—what could be simpler? Potatoes, onions, salt, pepper. Oil for frying. Tweak as you like. Despite their austerity, they are one of the most delicious things you will ever eat (and vegan to boot). Somewhere between oniony homefries and a perfectly-cooked French fry, they embody seasonal decadence. Make in small batches, and eat them hot as they come out of the oil.
Possible additions? Some people like to throw in an egg to bind the mixture. You can also add sweet potato or other shredded vegetables. And, when it comes to dipping sauce, there are those who go sweet—applesauce is classic—and those (like me) who prefer something cool and creamy to balance the warm, savory crispness of perfectly fried latkes. Sour cream is traditional, but I find that crème fraiche is an even better choice for adventurous palettes. A little funkier. A bit more forceful. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can doctor yours with chili, citrus or fresh herbs. This is an especially delicious option with sweet potato latkes, as it provides a foil for the sweeter flavor profile.
The best potato latkes are grated by hand. It’s a cold, hard fact. The thin threads of potato give the fritters’ edges a spectacular crunch and flavor. I use a box grater when I’m prepping a relatively small batch; arm soreness is a small price to pay. Second place goes to the food processor—using the grating attachment. And yes, you can just pulverize the potatoes in a blender or food processor, but for this once-a-year treat, why take such disastrous shortcuts?