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Tis the season for potato pancakes

By A. LaBan

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Though a big deal as far as name recognition goes, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, has not traditionally been one of the major events on the Jewish calendar.

The holiday - originally a solstice festival commemorating the ancient victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, when a day's worth of sacred oil in the Temple of Jerusalem's menorah miraculously burnt for eight days - has achieved greater prominence as Christmas has become increasingly commercialized. Even many of the well-known traditions of Hanukkah, including potato latkes, are relatively new accouterments for a holiday marking an event that occurred twenty-one centuries ago.

Latkes - Yiddish for "pancakes" - are eaten, traditionally along with other fried foods, to celebrate the miracle of the temple's oil. Potatoes, however, were only introduced to Western Europe in the sixteenth century, after being discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors in what is now Peru and Bolivia. Prior to that important import, numerous other fried foods were prepared as treats for Hanukkah, including Greek loukemades (deep-fried puffs of dough dipped in honey or sprinkled with powdered sugar, that are probably very similar to the cakes the Maccabees ate) as well as Persian zelebi, a deep-fried, snail-shaped sweet.

According to Joan Nathan, author of "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen," kartoflani platske is the term used to describe the potato pancakes still eaten by Ukrainians at Christmas. The diet of seventeenth-century Jews living in the Pale of the Settlement of the Ukraine consisted mainly of potatoes and bread, and it was probably easy enough for Ukrainian Jews to adopt the Ukrainian gentiles' holiday tradition of potato pancakes. These Ukrainian latkes were fried in goose fat - inexpensive and particularly plentiful at that time of the year - instead of the original olive oil.

Due to kosher dietary laws, which forbid the mixture of dairy products and meat, Jewish cuisine has traditionally had a strong vegetarian component, and potato latkes fit right into that menu. There are still plenty of traditional meatless "dairy" restaurants, particularly in New York City, where heaping platters of latkes are served not just at Hanukkah but year-round, with sides of applesauce and beets.

Today, potato latkes are as common during Hanukkah as the expression "flat vi a latke" (Yiddish for "flat as a pancake"), and the debate over the proper way to prepare this fried treat rages. Unlike gefilte fish, matzoh balls and even brisket, everyone seems to be able to flip up some potato pancakes, and each cook has an opinion on the best way to do it. Debates rage as to whether a medium or large grater is better (in my mind, all grating should be done by the Cuisinart). Purists will tell you latkes should only be prepared with old potatoes, but today's modern cooks add zucchini, carrots, parsley and even apples. For the most basic of traditional latkes, whip out your spatula and try this recipe:

8 potatoes
1 medium onion
2 eggs
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup flour
Grate potatoes. Squeeze out excess liquid. Squeeze again. Mix in other ingredients. Fry small spoonfuls until golden brown. Drain on paper towel. Drain again. Serve hot, with applesauce or sour cream. For those who are extraordinarily challenged in the kitchen, you can skip to step three with the Manischewitz mix.

Potato pancakes have traditionally been enjoyed on their own with sugar, applesauce or sour cream, but today's innovative chefs view latkes as an excellent accompaniment to numerous dishes. At onesixtyblue, chef Patrick Robertson cooks up roesti potatoes, crunchy and golden fried pies that are a Swiss derivation of potato pancakes; and an appetizer of salmon gravlox, flavored with anise seed and served over crisp roesti potatoes with citrus creme fraiche. A great leap forward for the humble latke.

So, as Hanukkah approaches, get out your grater. Or as your grandmother (or at least mine) might have said, "Get busy and stop lying there like a latke."

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