Jill Conklin may not be Jewish, but she certainly knows how to make latkes, one of the traditional foods of Hanukkah (which began this year on the evening of Dec. 9 and lasts for eight days).
The evidence: About a year ago Conklin won a latke cook-off at the James Beard House in New York with a recipe that, among other variations of tradition, calls for far less oil than usual in frying these wonderful little potato pancakes.
Latkes are generally cooked in at least 1/4 inch of hot oil. Conklin uses only two tablespoons of fat to fry her latkes. This produces a golden-brown latke that is soft and tender in the center and slightly crunchy around the edges.
What also makes her latkes special is their topping, a sweet-and-sour green-tomato marmalade recipe that comes from the family farm in upstate New York.
The 24-year-old Conklin became interested in latkes through her present job as chef de cuisine at AquaViva, a Providence restaurant that specializes in Jewish-Italian cuisine.
Walter Potenza, the executive chef, and owner of AquaViva, taught Conklin everything he knows about latkes — which are typically made with potatoes and onions.
For the latke cook-off, Conklin decided she would throw some carrots, zucchini and sweet red pepper into the mixture to make a vegetable latke.
“Veggie burgers are popular these days,” Conklin said. “So I thought I’d try that concept and offer the judges a veggie latke. My biggest challenge was to make sure the latke was not too bland. That’s when I came up with the unusual topping.”
Latkes are traditionally served with applesauce. On a visit to her grandmother’s farm, Conklin looked through old-fashioned cookbooks and found the recipe for green-tomato marmalade. She was intrigued and tried it.
One taste was all it took for her to know that it was the perfect savory topping for her vegetable latkes. If green tomatoes are not available, Conklin said, hard red tomatoes may be used instead.
To take the recipe one step further, Conklin borrowed an idea from Indian cuisine and added a small dollop of sour cream raita to her latkes. Raita are the yogurt salads that provide a cooling counterbalance in spicy Indian dishes.
Conklin’s raita, made with sour cream instead of yogurt, gives the dish another layer of flavor and a fresh, clean taste with its hint of cucumber and mint.
What is Conklin’s basic secret to making the perfect latke? It’s the potato, she says.
She recommends using Idaho potatoes because of their high starch content. “When you grate the potatoes, do this over a fine mesh strainer that sits over a bowl so you can save the liquid that comes out of the potatoes,”
Another tip: Alternate your grating, she added. “Grate a potato, then an onion. Combining the grated potato with the grated onion will keep the potatoes from turning brown.
Here are her prize-winning recipes for vegetable latkes topped with green-tomato marmalade and mint-scented raita. Note that Conklin does recommend making the marmalade and raita in advance.
- 5 ounces green tomatoes
- 1 medium-size Granny Smith
- apple, skinned and chopped
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup semisweet white wine
- 2 sage leaves
Peel the tomatoes; deseed as much as possible and chop roughly. In a small saucepan, combine the tomatoes, apple, sugar and wine. Simmer mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until marmalade is smooth and thick. After this cools, add sage leaves and place marmalade in the refrigerator. May be made up to a week ahead of use. Makes about 1/2 cup.
Raita With Sour Cream and Mint
- 1 tablespoon minced white onion
- 1 medium-size cucumber, seeds removed, minced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/2 small lemon, squeezed for juice
- 1/4 cup fresh sour cream
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
In a small mixing bowl, combine the onion and cucumber. Season with salt and pepper. Add the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Mix in the sour cream and fresh mint. Place in refrigerator. May be made a day ahead of use. Makes about 1/3 cup.
- 3 large Idaho potatoes
- 1 medium-size white onion
- 2 medium-size zucchini
- 2 medium-size carrots
- 1 medium-size sweet red pepper
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup ground matzo
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh
- 3 tablespoons schmaltz (chicken fat) for frying
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, for frying
- Garnish: fresh mint or chives
Grate the potatoes alternating with the onion (this helps to prevent browning). As you grate, place the potatoes and onions in a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Reserve the potato juice that falls into the bowl.
Grate the zucchini and carrots. Grate the red pepper, flesh side first, until the skin is reached, then discard skin. Squeeze all excess liquid from the pepper. Combine all the grated vegetables.
Carefully pour off the water that came from the potatoes. Remaining in the bowl should be a natural, thick potato starch that has settled from the grating process. Add this starch to the grated vegetable mixture. Add the beaten eggs, matzo, salt, pepper, nutmeg and parsley, blending well. Set aside.
In a 12-inch skillet, melt 1 tablespoon chicken fat with 1 tablespoon oil. When the fat has melted and is hot, fry latkes in batches (1 tablespoon of batter will make a 2-inch latke). Gently spread potato mixture with the back of a spoon, making each latke about 2 inches wide. You should fit 5 to 6 latkes in the pan at one time. Fry 2 to 3 minutes on the first side, gently turn and cook 3 to 4 minutes more. Keep heat at medium while frying, adding additional amounts of fat as needed.
Remove latkes and place on paper towels or cardboard to drain excess oil. Season with a light sprinkle of salt and pepper.
To serve: Spread 1/2 teaspoon of marmalade evenly over each warm latke and top with a small dollop of sour cream raita. Garnish with fresh mint or chive. Makes 25 small latkes, each 2 inches wide.