How I learned to make latkes


 

Chanukah has meant different things to me at different stages of my life. When I was little, it was about nightly presents and making candy dreidels in school, using marshmallows, red vines, Hershey’s Kisses and icing.

As I got older, it was about lighting the chanukiyah with my family and reading the prayers from my father’s prayer book. In college, it was about convening my friends in our dorm to light the Chanukah menorah together, and since then it’s been so meaningful to come home from work, light the chanukiyah in my kitchen and place it in the window of my apartment in view of the street.

This year, though, Chanukah took a different turn. I decided to learn how to cook latkes, the potato pancakes we eat to commemorate how oil, enough for only one day, lasted eight nights following the Maccabee victory.

The best way to learn, I figured, was to visit with Rob Eshman, Journal publisher, editor-in-chief and Foodaism blogger.

Rob is a foodie. He once brought a sugar cane to an editorial meeting and began chopping away at it with a knife so we could all taste fresh sugar. He’s kept goats and chickens in his backyard and grows many of the vegetables, fruits and herbs he cooks with in his garden. He’s genuinely offended when the office orders Domino’s.

Given that I’d never made latkes before, it helped that Rob was prepared. He had all the ingredients ready: the potatoes, an onion, salt, pepper, eggs and oil. There aren’t a lot of ingredients to latkes, Rob explained. The secret to success, he said, is in the technique.

He immediately put me to work peeling potatoes. I cook my own meals most nights, but it turns out there’s plenty left to learn. Like, how to use a potato peeler. Rob’s peels flew off the potato like sparks. Mine took their time. Rob looked over.

“Oh, we’re starting from there,” he said.

After some instruction, I sliced away at the potato skin, then, per his instructions, placed the potato in a bowl of water. Rob explained we keep the potato in water so as to prevent it from turning brown, or oxidizing. That was technique No. 1.

Then came technique No. 2. To make sure the grated potatoes didn’t turn brown, we alternated grating them with an onion. The onion was strong. I cried; Rob did too.

The third technique, Rob said, was crucial. We took handfuls of the potato/onion mixture and squeezed it out into a bowl to remove as much liquid as possible. The more liquid, Rob explained, the soggier the latke — and no one likes a soggy latke.

A white, wet goo settled at the bottom of the drained liquid. This was potato starch, and the basis for technique No. 4. Once the starch settled at the bottom of the bowl, we drained off the liquid, scooped up the starch and mixed it in with the potatoes. That would help bind the latkes and erase the need to add flour or matzo meal, which can make for heavier pancakes.

I cracked a couple of eggs and mixed those in as well, then sprinkled salt and pepper over the batter. Afterward, I poured a generous amount of cooking oil into a pan, spooned the latke batter into the pan and let it fry into latkes.

Latkes frying in oil.

The latkes turned out perfectly. Crisp, light and potato-y. Rob even made a special few using a Middle Eastern strained yogurt called labneh, smoked salmon, and dill fetched from Rob’s garden.

The real test, however, was cooking latkes on my own. A few days later, I went to Ralphs and purchased two potatoes and an onion. I also got a grater and a potato peeler, since I had neither.

At home, I did exactly what I’d learned, following the techniques step by step. Eventually I wound up with about 12 latkes. I ate them with sour cream. They weren’t as good as the ones I’d cooked with Rob, but they were edible. Most importantly, I’d cooked them myself.

Later, my friend Esther came over with applesauce and tried one of my homemade latkes. I explained that the latkes seemed a little dry and didn’t hold together well. Esther asked me if I used eggs. Nope — forgot. Esther made me feel better, pointing out I’d just made vegan, gluten-free latkes.

I plan to cook latkes at my family Chanukah party this year, to put my new skill to use and wow my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and nephew with my culinary abilities. I just hope I remember all the ingredients.

Recipe: Naturally gluten-free Japanese summer dishes


These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.

The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.

Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg

Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.

Donburi with teriyaki steak

Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover's favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone's favorite teriyaki sauce.

When it's time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter

This version of takikomi-gohan is my favorite summer rice dish. I toss the steaming hot, corn-studded rice with the butter and shoyu. As the butter melts in the hot rice with shoyu, it creates a rich and savory flavor that everyone loves.

The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko's American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.

Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 ears corn
  • 2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained
  • 2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

 

Directions

1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.

2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.

3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.

4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.

Gluten-free matzah


Although matzah is a symbol of our exodus from Egypt, it is, for some, a literal bread of affliction. Traditional matzah is made of flour milled from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. All of these grains — except oats — contain high levels of gluten, a protein that, if ingested by someone with celiac disease, can lead to serious health problems. Although there is no gluten in pure oats, they are almost always cross-contaminated by other grains in the storage process (they also have a protein called avenin that is similar to gluten and induces a negative reaction in 10 to 15 percent of people with celiac disease). One in 133 Americans is believed to suffer from celiac disease, which slowly (and painfully) destroys the villi, or fingerlike projections, that line the small intestine. Nearly 18 million Americans have what scientists theorize is “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a condition that, though not as severe as celiac disease, can cause digestive upset.

This time of year, many Jews who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity ask themselves: “How can I fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah if I know it will make me sick?”

Of course, no denomination of Judaism would ever suggest that a person who has celiac disease or gluten intolerance should eat a traditional matzah. The question is whether the person is morally exempt from partaking in the ritual. The answer, like many in Judaism, can be found in technicality and interpretation. Jewish law states that we can eat and say blessings only over matzah that is made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. At the beginning of a seder, one of three matzahs is broken in two. As the seder progresses, participants recite a general blessing over grain (ha-Motzi), then a specific blessing over matzah. They must then eat the matzah. A person with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can recite blessings and break matzah but cannot fulfill the mitzvah of eating it. One must ask: Are people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance spiritually exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah or are they bound by law and excluded from performing this basic — yet fundamental — Jewish ritual? 

Are they excused from the law or are they unwillingly breaking it? 

Jewish law prioritizes physical health over ritual. For example, people who are ill or pregnant cannot fast on Yom Kippur.  Gluten in matzah, though seemingly inconsequential, leads to an unexpected ethical gray area. Every denomination of Judaism will provide a different answer. Luckily, modern gastronomy has cooked up a tasty option that can help some Jews break their matzah and eat it, too.  

Enter the Passover of the future: Made from tapioca and potatoes, gluten-free “matzah-style squares” are delicious and completely kosher for Passover. However, it is important to remember that “kosher for Passover” does not necessarily mean that the food can be used during ritual to fulfill a mitzvah. In its most literal interpretation, Jewish law does not permit a person to substitute traditional grain matzah for a gluten-free option (unless it is made of oats, which, as previously stated, can cause similar digestive problems). Therefore, companies cannot market their non-oat, gluten free crackers as “matzah” (they must use “matzah-style squares” instead). 

A Reform person might argue that the spiritual and emotional act of eating matzah is more important than what is actually in the cracker and that traditional matzahs can be easily substituted with gluten free matzah-style varieties. Matzah-style squares may have complicated the Passover scene, but they also provide new alternatives for people who have struggled with both stomach and Scripture. 

If a person allows him- or herself to substitute traditional matzah with a gluten free “matzah-style” cracker, he or she will get to fully participate in a seder. Although the market for gluten free matzah isn’t exactly saturated, two kosher brands are leading the movement. Manischewitz’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are made with tapioca and potato starch instead of the five traditional grains. Yehuda’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are also made from tapioca and potato starch and are certified gluten free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Both varieties can be ordered online and at some Ralphs locations.