Hanukkah is a really awesome holiday, but it's often misunderstood at times because it's always dwarfed by Christmas. Latkes, being totally delicious, are a good gateway into the amazing food traditions that this wonderful holiday has to offer.
My whole family is Jewish and while I'm not religious, I am definitely culturally Jewish, especially when it comes to the food traditions. Some of my earliest memories involve playing the dreidel and betting with M&Ms.
I didn't grow up in a very Jewish area—I grew up in Upland, California, a suburb about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. So it was always interesting to share my family's traditions and foods with everyone else since nobody knew anything about Hanukkah. I remember one time, I told my next door neighbor who celebrated Christmas that Santa Claus didn't exist. I thought everybody knew this but it was news to him, so he flipped out and his mom got really mad at me for ruining Christmas.
In East Coast cities like New York, it is not uncommon for entire cities to close down in observance of Yom Kippur. But where I grew up, and where I am now, nobody has any idea what Yom Kippur is. I think these regional differences in traditions—especially food ones—are really fascinating. For example, I can safely say that Mexican food is just as much of a soul comfort food for me as Jewish food is, maybe even more, just because I grew up in Southern California.
Growing up in the 70s, many people didn't have great cooking skills, including my stay-at-home mom. We did have a big kitchen, so we used one of those plug-in frying pans for latkes because she swore they made less of a mess than a regular frying pan. The resulting potato cakes were thin, soggy, and greasy.
You don't always have to use plain potatoes for latkes. You can cook latkes along with the seasons; think butternut squash, celery roots, carrots.
As time went on and my passion for cooking developed, I started to think about better recipes and methods for making latkes. I really like a nice crispiness on the outside while the inside is nicely cooked through. I also realized that I like mine a little fatter, heartier, and meatier.
You don't always have to use plain potatoes for latkes. You can cook latkes along with the seasons; think butternut squash, celery roots, carrots. Your body will thank you as these vegetables offer more nutrients than potatoes. Not to mention that when you use other root vegetables, you are building more flavor. When pairing drinks with these latkes, try a good, dry, English-style cider. Or Champagne, since I think Champagne goes well with everything.
I guess you can say that competing on Top Chef Masters helped me to think outside the box, even with latkes.
This year for Hanukkah, I'm trying to cook a different Israeli dish every day of the week (we'll see how that goes during weeknights). I've been fortunate enough to visit Israel a few times now and taste the amazing flavors of Israel firsthand. I just made a pot of some amazing Yemenite-style chicken soup with cumin, coriander, caraway, and turmeric, and it is calling my name.
As told to Javier Cabral