Every once in a while, I reach deep inside myself and pull out…my inner Jew. You see, everyone has an inner Jew, whether or not they are an outer Jew (I am not an outer Jew, though that boundary is becoming increasingly unclear). Now, I won’t go into the details of inner Jews because I may end up getting sued or worse yet, someone’s mother will come and smack me. But I will say that my inner Jew cooks a lot and makes you eat it whether or not you are hungry.
These once-in-a-whiles, when my inner Jew wins out over my inner Hello Kitty, most often coincide with Jewish holidays. I became enviously aware of Jewish holidays during my elementary and middle school years in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where 85% of my friends were Jewish. When Jewish friends were absent from school en masse, I was first jealous at how lucky they were to have the day off, then second, mildly pissed off that while I shared Christmas days off with them, they didn’t share Yom Kippur with me. To add insult to my injury, their parents threw ooh-la-la see-and-be-seen parties in rented hotel ballrooms that had everything from elaborate invitations to matching themed decorations that almost always involved an impressive balloon arch. I bet I went to more bar and mat mitzvahs than any pre-pubescent Korean girl you know.
However, it’s not only my angst-strewn childhood and adolescent years of being not-Jewish that have contributed to my utter fascination with Jewish holidays. The history and traditions that drive Jewish religious holidays are almost always related to food in one way or another. Many of the holidays are commemorated with a family meal (sounds kind of like Korean New Year’s Day!). But the most interesting connection between Jewish holidays and food is the Torah’s strict dietary laws that rule much of how the holiday is observed.
So, I usually rely on the holidays to teach my inner Jew about her culture because let’s face it, I’m not going to wake up on any given Sunday morning and think “I’m making matzo ball soup today.”
A couple of Springs ago, I taught myself a little about the Jewish culture and religion by making coconut macaroons (which were blasphemed with a dip in white chocolate), matzo ball soup, matzo brei, and haroset for Passover. I wanted to continue my course of study in early autumn with a few more lessons through the High Holy Days, but I got a little distracted by a pinkslip. I still learned about the two-day celebration of the start of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement ten days later that seals the beginning of the new year (Yom Kippur). I just didn’t get to try my hand at the little round challah for Rosh Hashanah that symbolizes the cycle of the year, nor my first noodle kugel for breaking the fast on that last day in which Jews spend time in reflection and prayer. Those will be special projects in years to come. I can’t learn everything at once.
Hanukkah is a little bit different from the other Jewish holidays. In my very unofficial studies of the Jewish culture, I have learned that Hanukkah is a secular holiday, whereas Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are religious holidays. I didn’t know there was a difference since all of it comes from Jewish history, but I guess that is where we think about that line between Jewish culture and Jewish religion. Oy vey. So it’s still all very confusing and I need to study more about the difference between the Talmud and the Torah, but let’s just say that the Festival of Lights is a December holiday, so I drink Manischewitz on Christmas day. I start in the morning with Christmas gift unwrapping, but come on, every inner Jew knows that Jewish holidays start at sundown, so yes, I drink Manischewitz at dinner, too. Kosher Manischewitz, particularly the blackberry, pairs very well with Christmas ham.
Other than toasting with Manischewitz on each of the 12 Days of Christmas, I don’t do much else for the remaining seven days of Hanukkah. I don’t have a menorah to light on each of the eight nights, and the little gold foil-wrapped chocolates at my parents’ house are Almond Roca, not gelt. Besides, I don’t gamble, and the whole dreidl game is a very suspicious combination of roulette and craps.
During the Festival of Fried Foods, I make latkes. I was also hoping to get some sufganyiot in there as well, because my God, they’re basically Jewish doughnuts, right? But again, I have to take this whole conversion thing one holiday at a time.
Basic Potato Latkes Recipe
This is just a basic recipe for potato latkes, culled together from recipes all over the web, in my recipe box, and in cookbooks on my shelf. There are more and more recipes that add different vegetables like butternut squash, carrots, or sweet potatoes, but before I try something more creative, I like to understand the why by mastering a basic recipe.
This explains why everything I ever cook is a basic.
Basic Potato Latkes Ingredients:
1 pound Russet potatoes (a very large Russet potato is about ½-¾ pound)
½ large onion
1 large egg, lightly beaten
(1-2 teaspoons all-purpose flour, optional to help pancakes hold together)
salt + pepper to taste
enough oil and butter to fry
Basic Potato Latkes Directions:
Keep a large bowl of cold water on the counter.
Peel and grate potatoes on the largest holes. It seems most recipes use a box grater, but I used my Japanese mandoline, aka “Benriner.”
Keep grated potatoes in bowl of cold water. Swirl, let soak for a bit, then drain grated potatoes in colander. Squeeze out as much water as possible by pressing on grated potatoes in the colander with paper towels.
Over a large mixing bowl, grate onion on the smallest holes/finest setting, catching the “onion juice” in the bowl for flavor. Add the shredded potatoes, egg, and salt. Stir to combine.
Heat 1 tablespoon each of oil and butter together in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons potato mixture per latke into skillet. Flatten slightly with spoon, fry until golden brown about 3 minutes, then flip over and finish frying. Remove latkes from skillet to plate lined with paper towels.