Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to say latkes in Korean?

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah and, much to the delight of my little boy, we lit the candles on the menorah. The real festivities will come tonight, however, when I make latkes and we have a chance to play dreidel. Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays we observe in our hybrid family. My husband and I are philosophical and religious mutts, with parents who are atheist, Jewish, and Lutheran. Having trained in cultural anthropology, I wince a bit at our patchwork of holiday observations. Do these traditions lose their meaning when they are removed from the context of one specific religion? As a mother, however, I can put these academic anxieties aside. It is such a joy to see my son's face illuminated by candles, his usually active body made peaceful by contemplation of the flame. I imagine my husband as a small child, doing the same with his mother. What can be wrong about continuing this family tradition?

Hanukkah celebrations usually involve foods fried in oil, to reference the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. While the idea of homemade doughnuts always tempts me, I hate deep-frying in my kitchen. Every surface gets greasy, and my ventilation system leaves something to be desired. Pan-fried latkes, potato pancakes, are my usual choice. But what recipe to use? Thin or thick pancakes? Matzoh meal or no? Onions chopped or grated? These debates can reach rabbinical levels of debate among Jewish cooks.

In the winter, my own mother, the daughter of German and Polish immigrants, always made thin, wide potato pancakes, loaded with applesauce. These days, I eat Eastern European foods mostly for nostalgic reasons, to remember her. A taste of borscht or a bite of these pancakes sends me back to nights in a warm winter kitchen with my sisters after basketball practice. But her latkes were, rest her soul, greasy. Eastern European foods seem a bit dense and under-seasoned to me now, and I usually choose to prepare spicier and lighter recipes for my family.

Mark Bittman, my beacon of sensible and delicious cooking, solved the latke problem for me. I found a recipe for Korean vegetable pancakes in his book The Best Recipes in the World. They are crowd pleasers, and very kid-friendly despite having a kick of kimchi in the batter. The soy based dipping sauce works much better, in my opinion, than heavy condiments like applesauce or sour cream. Bittman suggests a pinch of cayenne or a chopped hot pepper in the batter, but I just rely on the spice of the kimchi. For best results, the potatoes and carrots need to be coarsely shredded. The grating disk of my Cuisinart works really well. As a final note, to the seasonal eaters and root-cellaring homesteaders out there, any winter vegetable works here. I've made these with parsnips, sweet potatoes and even radish.

Korean Vegetable Pancakes
(adapted from Mark Bittman)

2 potatoes, peeled and grated
3 large carrots, peeled and grated
4 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped
1 egg
2 Tbsp flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Oil for frying
Dipping sauce (recipe below)

1. Put potatoes and carrots in a large, clean dishcloth. Gather the cloth, and twist until the vegetables are pressed tightly. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Combine in a bowl with everything but the oil.

2. Preheat the oven to "warm" or 200 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with several layers of paper towels. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet and add the batter in large spoonfuls. Fry until browned on both sides (usually 6-8 minutes total). Drain on the paper towels and keep warm in the oven.

3. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

2 scallions, minced
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp sugar

1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

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