Today is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. It commemorates the Maccabean freedom fighters who revolted against Syrian-Greek forces that wanted to erase Judaism. In 165 BC, the Maccabees chased their oppressors out of Jerusalem and reclaimed their temple that laid in ruins. The “miracle of Hanukkah,” as it’s popularly known, refers to the menorah candelabra that stayed alight in the rededicated temple for eight days on just one day’s supply of oil. And in honor of the oil’s staying power, Jews around the world celebrate with an abundance of fried foods.
Although Hanukkah has a fixed start date on the Jewish lunar calendar, the date varies on the Gregorian calendar. This year, it coincides with winter solstice (which occurred at 11:19 p.m. Saturday), the darkest day of the year, but also the beginning of the return to more light-filled ones.
Most of the Jews in my life can’t imagine Hanukkah without tucking into latkes, those delicious morsels otherwise known as potato pancakes. Among home cooks, there are countless versions for shaping grated potatoes into patties. Some years ago, I tired of frying dozens of individual latkes and decided to buck convention with an oversized latke that could be shared at the table. It’s this Irish girl’s contribution to the lexicon, and if I do say so myself, it holds its own — without egg or any binder whatsoever.
If potato pancakes are already in your wheelhouse or just not your thing, consider pakora, an iconic street-food snack of India and south Asia. Quick-cooking vegetables such as spinach are battered in a spiced chickpea flour, then fried, yielding an irresistibly crispy shell. (P.S.: Chickpea flour is gluten-free and ideal for a mixed-diet crowd.)
Whether or not you celebrate Hanukkah, the quest for light — in our hearts, at our hearths — is universal. Let there be light, always.
Makes 4 side-dish servings. For a party of 6, double the amounts and fry two latkes simultaneously, or keep one warm in a 200 F oven while the second latke cooks.
5 cups cold water
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
12 ounces russet potatoes, scrubbed thoroughly
1/2 medium onion
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons neutral oil (such as safflower, sunflower or grapeseed)
Boil the potatoes whole, skins on: Bring the water and 2 teaspoons of the salt to a boil in a medium saucepan fitted with a lid. Add the potatoes, cover and lower the heat to medium-high. Cook for 22 minutes (the potatoes will be only slightly tender). Meanwhile, have ready a bowl of ice-cold water. Remove the potatoes from the boiling water and transfer to the ice bath. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
Coarsely grate the onion and potatoes: Place a box grater inside a medium bowl and grate the onion. In another bowl, peel and grate the cooled potatoes.
Drain the onion of any residual water, then stir into the potatoes, along with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and black pepper to taste.
Fry the latke: Have a heatproof cutting board at the ready. Heat a shallow 10-inch skillet over medium high heat, then add 2 tablespoons of the oil, tilting the pan until the surface is coated. Move the skillet off the heat and transfer the potato mixture into the skillet, pressing it evenly until the entire surface is covered with potatoes, looking like a pie, about 1/4-inch thick. Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Fry the first side for 12 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed to minimize burning.
Invert to cook the second side: Turn off the heat and place the cutting board on top of the skillet. With one hand on top of the cutting board and the other hand on the skillet handle, invert the latke. Return the skillet to the burner, swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat and carefully slide the latke back into the skillet. Cook the second side for 10 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed. Cut the latke into wedges and serve hot with apple sauce, horseradish or sour cream.
2 cups chickpea flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
About 1 1/2 cups cold water
1 bunch spinach, washed and dried thoroughly, then stemmed (4 to 5 cups)
2 cups neutral oil (such as safflower, sunflower or grapeseed oil)
Note: A candy thermometer is helpful to keep tabs on the temperature of the oil.
Make the batter: Place the chickpea flour, salt, baking powder and all the spices in a large bowl, stirring everything together. Add the water gradually, stirring well after each addition, until the batter is the consistency of pancake batter. Let rest for 15 minutes.
Prep the spinach: Set aside torn or damaged leaves. Make sure the spinach is completely dry before dipping into the batter.
Get the oil ready: Heat the oil in a deep, heavy pot or wok until the temperature reaches 335 F. Alternatively, test the oil with a spoonful of batter, which upon contact, will bubble when ready. Arrange a few paper towels on an adjacent work surface to drain the pakoras after they’ve been fried.
Fry the pakoras: Dip the spinach leaves, a few at a time, into the batter, completely coating the surface. With a pair of tongs, carefully drop the battered spinach into the hot oil and fry until golden brown and crispy on both sides, about 90 seconds. Adjust the heat as needed to minimize smoking. Remove the pakoras with a slotted spoon and transfer to the paper towels. With the slotted spoon, skim any burnt bits and allow the oil to return to 335 F before adding the next batch. Serve while warm.
— Recipes adapted from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O’Donnel.