Saturday night marked the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that falls in December. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, over the army of the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in the second century BCE. After the Jews drove the Greeks out of Judea, they attempted to restore their temple, which had been destroyed in the war, only to discover that there was just enough oil to light the lamp that held the eternal flame for one day. The story is that a miracle occurred and the small amount of oil lasted for eight days, which was how long it took to make new oil. Hanukkah lasts for eight days to mark the miracle of the oil.
It is traditional to celebrate the holiday by eating food cooked in oil. Sounds healthy, right? In Israel, they eat jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot, and Sepahrdic Jews make dough fritters called bañuelos, that are like beignets. The most well-known Hanukkah food for Eastern Eurpoean Jews, like my family, are potato pancakes called latkes. Every Jewish family has their own carefully guarded latke recipe. Latkes are fattening, a pain to make and the smell lingers in your house for days. They are also absolutely delicious. So, it is okay to indulge in these holiday treats once a year.
Latkes are typically made by grating potatoes, adding some minced onion and salt and pepper for flavor, binding the mixture together with egg, and frying the batter in oil. Some people add flour or matzo meal to make the latkes hold together better, but I think doing so takes away from that lacy, crispy potato texture. The secret to making latkes, in my opinion, is to squeeze as much liquid out of the grated potato as possible. The liquid and the potato starch will make the pancakes dense and soggy. It is traditional to serve latkes with applesauce or sour cream. (I’m sour cream; my husband and daughter are strictly applesauce.)
Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
Makes about 12
2-3 Russet potatoes, peeled
2 large eggs
1 yellow onion, finely minced
Salt and pepper
Canola oil for frying
In a large bowl, beat together two eggs and then add the onion. Grate the potatoes using a box grater and place the shreds in a colander. Pick up a handful of shredded potato and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Then add the drained shreds to the bowl. Repeat this process until you have squeezed all the potato shreds and added them to the bowl. Season well with salt and pepper and toss to combine. (If you used three potatoes, you might need to add another egg if your mixture looks really dry.) Meanwhile, pour a thin layer of canola or vegetable oil in a large, deep skillet and heat until shimmering. To fry the latkes, grab a handful of the batter and drop it in the skillet. Flatten it slightly with a spatula. You can fry several latkes at a time but don’t overcrowd the skillet. Fry until brown and crisp on bottom and then flip. Remove when the the other side is brown and crisp. Place on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. You can keep the latkes warm in a 200 degree oven while you finish frying the batter.
Latkes are not light, but they don’t quite constitute dinner either. I usually serve mine with brisket or a roast and then a nice, crisp green vegetable because oof! Potato pancakes plus meat equals heavy. Because the latkes are labor-intensive and cooked right before eating, you want your main course to be something that cooks in the oven without a lot of minding. This year, I decided to try a eye of round roast. This is an inexpensive cut of meat and it can be quite tough. But with the right cooking technique, it comes out pink and tender, just like a beautiful tenderloin that costs twice as much. This low-and-slow method of roasting an eye of round is not mine; it appears in many magazines and blogs. It’s one of those recipes that you don’t quite believe will work until you try it and it does. But the proof is in the pudding. Ours came out perfect, as you can see.
Roast Eye of Round
Adapted from The Domestic Man
1 2lb, eye of round roast
Handful of flat-leaf parsley
4 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt and pepper
Bring the roast to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 500. In a small food processor, combine the parsley and garlic and drizzle in olive oil until it forms a paste. Score the meat with a sharp knife and rub it with the paste on all sides. Season with salt and pepper. Place the roast in a small baking dish or roasting pan. Roast at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. (If using a bigger roast, add 7 additional minutes per pound.) Then, if your oven retains heat well, turn the oven off. (If your oven does not retain heat well, turn it to 170 degrees.) Let roast stand in warm oven for 2.5 hours. Do not open the door during that time. After 2.5 hours, remove roast from oven and check the internal temperature. It should be between 130 and 150. Let rest for ten minutes. Then carve into slices and serve. You can pour any accumulated juices from the roasting pan over the meat.
Best wishes for a happy Hanukkah from West of the Loop to your family!