While cooking, listen to this: Hanukkah Dance - Woodie Guthrie
I was talking to my parents on the phone last night, and I started the conversation with a cheerful statement: people are terrible and girls are growing up with habitual predators literally everywhere. Everywhere! I knew this before the Harvey Weinstein news hit, as did every other woman on the planet, but now that we're openly acknowledging and condemning sexual assault, it feels simultaneously better and worse. Better, because people (ahem, men) are finally, FINALLY listening and believing, but worse, because, well, after seeing man after man after man whom I admired be accused of sexual assault, the little faith I had in humanity is pretty much shot. Bye forever, grain of hope. It was nice hosting you for a while.
I do some bat mitzvah tutoring on the side, and lately I've been thinking about how to empower girls of all ages in a realistic way. When Hilary Clinton lost the election, it was a major fuck you to the idea that a girl can grow up to be anything she wants. She can try, but if a man, regardless of his qualifications, is vying for that same position, she's screwed. So what is there to do?
Well, sometimes when I'm down, I like to think about boss Jewish women. It's the rabbinical student sliver that's still left in me. Women in the Bible, for example, who had to deal with terrible men in a constructive way. One such woman is Judith, one of my personal favorites. Judith, who gets her own book outside of the Jewish canon (Torah, Prophets, Writings), is royally pissed off about the invaders of her village, the Syrians, and decides to take it upon herself to do something about it. She and her maid go straight to the tent of Holofernes, the Syrian leader, and after chatting him up and making him feel big and strong and manly, Judith gives him some salty cheese and wine. He eats and immediately falls asleep (honestly, same), and while he's passed out on his bed Judith chops off his head with his own sword. She and her maid take his head with them back to their village to show that they meant serious business. Her actions and bravery lead the men in the village to get the Syrians the fuck out of there.
So, yeah. Judith is a boss bitch who was angry with the status quo and did something about it. I'm not saying to go around beheading terrible people, but if there's ever been a time to take action in the face of oppostion, it's now.
"Um, Rina? Great story, really stellar, but I clicked on this post because I wanted a latke recipe."
I know! You're so right, I'm getting there. The story of Judith is about many things, one of which being that cheese will always save the day. PBS has a great article about the history of latkes, which you should read in its entirety, but to summarize, there's a strong connection between the story of Judith and the story of Hannukah, so it's traditional to eat cheesy foods on Hanukkah to combine the two. Also, fun fact, the tradition of latkes didn't start out with potatoes but with cheese! Thanks to one of a billion exiles of Jews from their home countries, when Jews were exiled from Sicily in 1492 (a big year all around, I suppose), they brought their beloved cheese pancakes, called cassola, to the Jews in northern Italy. Since cheese pancakes cover both food traditions of Hanukkah - fried and cheesy - they were a perfect Hanukkah food. Ashkenazi Jews in the 1800's are responsible for the popularity of potato latkes because potatoes were cheap to grow (and sometimes literally the only food option).
So, after all of this food history, it's only natural to truly celebrate Hanukkah and strong women together with latkes filled with cheese. This recipe creates crispy latkes that are cheesy and spicy, and they're super easy and quick to make. After all of the potato grating your arms will feel like they are on fire, but potato grating is nothing compared to chopping off an enemy's head and taking it home with you in a to-go bag. Channel your inner Judith when you make these, and know that if you're feeling terrible about the state of affairs, there is always work to do. And it might even include cheese.
Love and meows, Rina
CHEDDAR, SCALLION + SRIRACHA LATKES
Yield: around 24 latkes
Total Cook Time: 35-40m
Category: Sides, Gluten-Free, Hanukkah, Celebrate
Source: base recipe from Bon Appetit
Special Equipment: box grater, cast-iron skillet or large frying pan
3 pounds Russet potatoes (4-6)*
2 large eggs
¼ cup gluten-free panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
⅓ - ½ cup grated cheddar
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Sriracha, as much as you damn please
Vegetable oil, for frying
Peel, grate and squeeze the potatoes: grate the potatoes using the large-hole side of a box grater. Place the potato strands in a clean kitchen towel, and wring out all of the liquid you can over the sink. Open the towel and loosen the strands, then wring out one more time.
Prepare latke mixture: in a large bowl, whisk the eggs, breadcrumbs, baking powder, salt and pepper together. Add the potato strands, cheddar, scallions and sriracha and, using your hands, mix until well coated. The mixture should be wet and thick, but not soupy.
Prepare the latke station: place a few sheets of paper towel on a large rimmed baking sheet or cooling rack. In a cast-iron skillet or large frying pan, add about 4 Tablespoons of vegetable oil and place on medium-high heat. After a few minutes, test the oil by dropping a tiny amount of latke mixture into it. If it starts sizzling, you're good to go. The oil should NOT be smoking - that means the heat is too high and it's starting to burn.
Fry the latkes: drop large spoonfuls of latke batter into the oil (you can honestly make them as big or small as you like, go nuts) and press down gently with the back of a spatula to flatten. Cook on each side for 2 ½ - 3 minutes, until each side is golden brown and the latkes are cooked through. If potato stragglers start to burn, carefully fish them out.
To serve: serve the latkes warm with sour cream, applesauce, or anything else you feel like dipping them into. The chipotle aioli we made yesterday would be bomb with these.
To keep: the latkes can be kept in the fridge for a few days in a tightly sealed container or zippered bag.
*Russets are best because of their high starch content!