Latkes with Smoked Salmon, Sour Cream, and Green Onions | Foodie Tel Aviv

Latkes

I finally had a chance today to make latkes, that most quintessential of Hannukah foods to American Jews. In Israel sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts topped with powdered sugar, take the humble potato pancake’s place as star holiday treat. But while I have allowed myself to accept the sufganiya‘s hallowed status in my adopted country, to me latkes will always be the food that, more than any other, signals Hannukah. It’s not Hannukah without latkes, nor do I tend to make the potato pancakes at any other time of year.

Latkes with Smoked Salmon, Sour Cream, and Green Onions | Foodie Tel Aviv
You can get creative with latke toppings!

On the one hand I suppose I maybe should. Despite the, well, grating nature of grating a bunch of potatoes (yes, I think I’m funny), latkes are not horribly difficult to make. And you can’t really go wrong with fried onions and potatoes. But on the other hand, if I ate them year-round, I don’t think they’d be so special anymore. They are inextricably linked to Hannukah. And so now is when I make them. (My disinclination to make them more often may also have something to do with 1) laziness 2) not being super into potatoes 3) the fact that last year I grated off a nice section of my thumb grating potatoes.)

Latkes with Hannukah Candles in the Background | Foodie Tel Aviv

But seriously, they’re not that difficult. Just be careful with your thumbs. You grate some potatoes and onions together. Use a cheesecloth to wring the starchy water out of the grated vegetables, making sure to reserve this water.

Grated, dried-out onions and potatoes, plus starchy water | Foodie Tel Aviv
The grated, dried potatoes and onions, plus starchy water. You’ll need to save the water for later!

Add salt, pepper, eggs, and a bit of matzah meal or flour to the grated vegetables. Drain off the reserved water to reveal white starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Add this starch to the potato-onion mixture and stir to combine.

All Latke Ingredients, Ready to Be Mixed | Foodie Tel Aviv
All ingredients, ready to be mixed!
Latke Batter | Foodie Tel Aviv
Latke batter

Shape patties. Then, in oil hot enough to fry the latkes but not so hot they’ll burn (I set my burner to medium-high and, if necessary, readjust as I go), put 3-5 patties, as many as will fit without crowding the pan. After 2-3 minutes, when the bottoms are golden brown, flip the latkes.

Latkes Frying | Foodie Tel Aviv
Frying the latkes

After another 2-3 minutes, when both sides are golden brown, remove the pancake onto a plate topped with paper towels. Salt the latke, then blot well with paper towel to remove grease.

Plate of Finished Latkes with Hannukah Candles in the Background | Foodie Tel Aviv

Unfortunately, in Israel it’s impossible to find Russet Potatoes. This type of potato is best for frying. But that’s apparently not high priority for Israelis. Yes, that’s right. The people that eat falafel, sabich, and shawarma all stuffed with “chips” (pronounced cheeeps, aka French Fries), are not particularly concerned about using inferior potatoes. According to an Israeli agriculture expert, Israelis simply prefer the look and texture of non-Russet potatoes:

The Israeli market demands a large potato with a smooth peel that is light colored and its appearance pleasant to the eye. The taste is unimportant.

So I used the potatoes easily available in Israel, but if you’re in a country with access to Russets, I recommend you choose those instead. I’ve given instructions for both types of potato in the recipe.

Latkes with Smoked Salmon, Sour Cream, and Green Onions | Foodie Tel Aviv

Latkes can be served in a number of ways. The classic, though, is either applesauce or sour cream. As a child, I liked a combination. Tonight I served them with sour cream, smoked salmon, and green onions. These toppings made for a delicious, if non-traditional, flavor combination. The sourness of the sour cream and saltiness of the smoked salmon perfectly complemented the oily, starchy potatoes, with the green onions adding zip and color. Next time I might do a poached egg on top as well.

Regardless of what accompaniments you give them, these latkes are sure to please. After all, they’re my mom’s recipe! And if you know her, you’ll know anything she has her hands behind is sure to be a winner.


latkes IMG_7581.JPGLatkes

parve | serves 2-3

4 russet potatoes, or 8 small white potatoes

1 large onion, or 2 medium ones

2 large eggs

1 heaping tsp salt

1 heaping tsp pepper

2 tbsp matzah meal (or flour if matzah meal unavailable)

Peanut oil, corn oil, or other neutral oil, for frying

Using a box grater, grate the potatoes and onion. Place about 1/6 of the grated mixture in a cheesecloth and wring to remove water. Collect the liquid in a medium bowl. Place the dried-out vegetables in a larger bowl. Repeat until you’ve dried out all the potatoes and onions. Set medium bowl with liquid aside. To the potato-onion mixture add eggs, salt, pepper, and matzah meal. After three minutes, pour out the reserved water from the medium bowl. At the bottom of the bowl, there should be white starchy residue. Scrape this into the potato-onion mixture. Then stir the potato-onion mixture until well-combined.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil until one-inch high. When oil is hot, begin making the latkes. Using your hands, shape some batter into a round disk, then use a metal spatula to put the latke into the oil. Add more latkes to oil, shaping as you go. Do not crowd the pan. Flip each latke when bottom is golden brown, which should take about 2-3 minutes. Wait another 2-3 minutes, until both sides of pancake are golden brown, then remove pancake onto paper towels. Salt to taste and blot with more paper towel. Repeat until all latke batter is finished.

 

The Best Eggplant Parmesan | Close-Up of Melty Browned Cheese, Fresh Basil Leaves, and Eggplant

The Best Eggplant Parmesan

There’s nothing quite like a big tray of steaming Eggplant Parmesan on a cold winter’s night: gooey, stringy mozzarella and parmesan with crispy browned pockets; soft, substantive, eggplant; bright, garlicky tomato sauce. The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Best Eggplant Parmesan | Close-Up of Melty Browned Cheese, Fresh Basil Leaves, and Eggplant

Then again, it is of crucial importance that each individual element in the dish is of highest quality. This is a mantra I take from Californian cuisine, where fresh ingredients are prepared in the simplest of ways, so that their natural flavors shine through. Eggplant Parmesan, of course, is not the simplest, with the eggplant first fried and the tomato sauce prepared before being layered with cheese and baked. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that it benefits from using the best ingredients.

Ingredients: Eggplant, Olive Oil, Canned Tomatoes

Pick eggplants that are heavy for their size. Use real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Get the best tomatoes, or, if tomatoes are not in season, use high-quality whole canned tomatoes rather than diced ones. I was lucky enough to recently travel to Italy, where I picked up several kilos of 3-year aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. You know it’s the good stuff when it has little white flecks. Not mold, these are in fact amino acid clusters, which provide crunch and are a sign of a well-aged cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Close-Up showing rind, white amino acid cluster flecks

I also picked up fresh eggplants and basil from the shuk, or market. In Tel Aviv alone, a fairly small city, there are three shuks, selling all manner of produce, spices, halva, kanafahbourekas, and, at the largest, kitchen supplies, beach blankets, and touristy tchotchkes — including these hipster Ben Gurion coasters.

(If you visit Israel, you absolutely must stock up on spices at a shuk.)

The First Layer of the Best Eggplant Parmesan, with green basil, white mozzarella, red tomato sauce, and purple eggplant peeking out from beneath
Layer One of the Best Eggplant Parmesan

Israel has some of the best olive oil in the world, and although mine comes from the supermarket, it is certified by the Israeli olive oil board.

So, why is this absolutely the Best Eggplant Parmesan?

The Best Eggplant Parmesan | Close-Up of Melty Browned Cheese, Fresh Basil Leaves, and Eggplant

For one, it omits breadcrumbs. I find breadcrumbs — as in the traditional American-style Eggplant Parmesan — detract from the marriage of the three main flavors. This recipe is for a more Italian-style (although I by no means claim to be authentic) Eggplant Parmesan. Incidentally, two regions of southern Italy, Campania and Sicily, claim the dish as their own; in Italian, it is Melanzane alla Parmigiana.

Second, it fries, rather than bakes the eggplant. I saved you all the step and tested eggplant both ways. Baked is good if you’re watching your fat intake. For flavor, fried is 100% the way to go.

Third, the eggplant is pre-soaked in salt water. While conventional wisdom says to pre-salt your eggplant to draw out bitterness, in recent years many chefs and recipe developers have said this step is unnecessary. But my test revealed it is, in fact, necessary for the best texture and taste. I tested fried eggplant three ways — no pre-soak, 30-minute pre-soak, and 75-minute pre-soak. The 75-minute ones were the best, the 30-minute ones decent, and the ones without a pre-soak mediocre. We’re not making the quickest Eggplant Parmesan here, we’re making the Best Eggplant Parmesan. So pre-soak your eggplant! If you’re short on time, you can cut the pre-soak time down, but I recommend a minimum of 45 minutes. Do it while you’re making the sauce.

Eggplant Pre-Soaking Test
See, I really did test soaking the eggplant!
The Best Eggplant Parmesan - full-scale image
The Finished Product!

Without further ado, here’s the recipe:


Best Eggplant Parmesan

dairy serves 4-6

3 medium-to-large eggplants, sliced into 1/2-inch thick circles

1 cup kosher salt

Peanut oil, or other neutral oil with a high smoking point (for frying)

2 tbsp olive oil

25 g unsalted butter (about 2 tbsp)

1 onion, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp dried oregano

2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes

Salt and pepper, to taste

350 g low-moisture mozzarella (about 3/4 pounds, or 12 oz), torn by hand into small pieces, about 3-by-1 cm (1-by-1/2 in)

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Torn fresh basil leaves, from about 5 sprigs

Prep Eggplants

Fill two large bowls with cold water. Add 1/2 cup salt to each bowl and mix until dissolved. Add half of eggplant slices to each bowl. Leave for 75 minutes, stirring eggplants around occasionally. (You can do 45 minutes if short on time.)

Make tomato sauce

Add 1 tbsp olive oil and all the butter to a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. When butter is melted, add onions. Cook until onions are soft, about 5-6 minutes, stirring often. Clear a space in the center of skillet and add remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Allow to heat for 30 seconds, then add minced garlic and oregano. Cook in oil until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Then stir garlic and oregano into cooked onions. Add tomatoes to skillet, breaking them up with your hands into small pieces. Add leftover juice from one of the cans. Turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Fry the Eggplants

Pre-heat oven to 190 degrees C (375 F).

When the 75 minutes are up, drain the eggplants, rinse with cold water, then drain again. Dry with paper towels.

Set up a frying station: cast-iron skillet, bottle of oil (you will go through a lot!), large plate or platter with layer of paper towel over it, paper towel role nearby. Add oil into skillet until about 1-inch deep. Turn heat to medium-high.

When oil is shimmering, add eggplant slices. Fry until golden brown on bottom side, about 5 minutes, then flip and fry until golden brown on other side, about 3 minutes. Check eggplant frequently to ensure they are not burning, turning heat down slightly if they seem to be burning easily. When an eggplant slice is finished, remove it to the paper-towel-covered platter, then blot with another piece of paper towel. Add more oil if the level gets too low (it probably will). Continue until you have fried all the eggplant slices.

Assembly

Place a layer of eggplant slices on the bottom of a 30-by-25 cm baking dish (12-by-10 inch), or one of similar size. Top with thin layer of tomato sauce, then about 1/4 of the torn mozzarella. Add some of the basil leaves on top. Then arrange another layer of eggplant on top, continuing the process until you run out of ingredients, finishing with a thin layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella (no basil on the top layer). On top of this final layer of mozzarella, sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bake until bubbling and cheese on top is browned, 20-30 minutes. Scatter fresh basil leaves on top. Let rest 10 minutes, then serve.