It’s almost Hanukkah and, this year, I want pure comfort food: potato latkes. They will make me happy. Happier, anyway. But I don’t want any old kind. I want latkes fried in lots of hot fat so they get rust-colored and crusty, that are properly salted, and served with real, thick, full-fat sour cream.
I don’t want shredded zucchini, beets, or chopped spinach in my latkes. There’s no need to justify eating latkes because they contain vegetables, which presumably make them healthier. I’m seeking the high-carb comfort of potatoes. And I’m not the only one, retail sales of potatoes have skyrocketed over the past several months.
And, please, don’t give me this nonsense that oven-baked are just as delicious as fried. You need hot oil in order to make a good latke. Properly hot oil (a tiny piece of potato will sizzle when you add it to the pan) not only provides a richer flavor but keeps the latkes from becoming greasy, and ensures a brittle, crispy surface. Besides, we are celebrating Hanukkah, when the Maccabees found enough oil for one day but it lasted eight. That’s why generations have celebrated the holiday by frying things.
Salt is also necessary for a good potato latke because, without salt, potatoes taste like a tulip bulb. There’s a reason we Jews have always given salt special meaning; in Leviticus (2:13), we are told to offer sacrifices with salt as part of our enduring relationship with God. And mensch means “salt of the earth.” It’s not only ancient Jews who understood salt’s value: the word “salt” forms the first part of the word “salary,” from the Roman salarium. Salt was considered so valuable that Roman soldiers got paid in salt crystals. So, please, be generous with the seasoning.
As for sour cream, I’m in no mood for make-believe zero percent. It isn’t rich and doesn’t have that wonderful tang of the real thing.
Health experts say that you shouldn’t use food as comfort when you’re feeling down; that it’s unhealthy and senseless. That it leads to obesity and diabetes. I am not advocating a steady high-fat, high-carb diet, but let’s face it: This pandemic has exhausted all of us. Things are stressful now, and will be for a while.
Old-fashioned, fried potato latkes will help me de-stress. The kind my mother used to make. The kind that bring me back to the days when she was the cook and sizzled the latkes — which she always made with russet potatoes “because they have the right amount of starch” — in melted Crisco.
When I was a kid, our family celebrated the first night of Hanukkah with a dairy dinner: blintzes, which my grandmother stuffed with lemony farmer cheese and topped with melted butter and sour cream; latkes; kichels for dessert, the lightest, crispiest, so-thin-they’re-almost-see-through cookies, fried to a puff and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Afterward, we played dreidel, with chocolate Hanukkah gelt as prizes.
For a few moments, it would be lovely to feel the comfort of being a kid, when I wasn’t in charge of anything but my homework, and looking forward to latkes for dinner. It would be nice if someone else were the grown up right now and could tell me, “It’s OK” and “everything will turn out all right.”
That’s what it is really, isn’t it? Yearning for the calm that comes from comfort food transports us to a time when our parents made the decisions, protected us, and made us feel safe.
I’ve spent a good part of my food writing endeavors on a mission to bring kosher food into the modern era. I want to help Jewish home cooks add more to their repertoire than brisket and babka. Over the years, I’ve created recipes using mangos and goat cheese, quinoa, and harissa — ingredients that were unknown in an Ashkenazi kitchen a generation or so ago, certainly to my mother and grandmothers. But new ways and new foods are too much of a challenge now. Like so many others during this nerve-wracking time, I am experiencing “2020 exhaustion.”
Fortunately, we have those old-fashioned favorites. Foods that transport us to a time when we felt safe and untroubled. So, this Hanukkah, comfort me with fried, salty potato latkes.