Tonight will be the fifth night of Hanukkah, meaning I’m right on schedule. I have entered into the arena of latke fatigue — and perhaps you have to. It’s at this point in the holiday that I have had more than one too many classic, plain potato latkes. Many of them were delicious, made up of layers of pillowy shredded potatoes surrounded by perfectly crisp and crackly edges. But, at this point, both my mind and my palate are coated in a thick layer of oil and are in need of something new — a flavor to temper the richness of all the oil. If I were a chef on a cook-off show, this is when I would reach for the “acid,” to “balance the flavors.”
To find latke inspiration, I had to leave tradition aside to seek out something different — and, I knew just where to find it. For the past four years, the New York’s Annual Latke Festival has pitted chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants against one another in a latke showdown. This year was no different: 17 chefs took on the challenge to create a latke that would satisfy some 300 guests and a group of judges with some very serious food credentials.
On Agripas Street in Jerusalem, between the workers’ diners and the outdoor market, there is a Kurdish Cultural center. With a dwindling number of native born Kurds, each year their legacy slowly declines. Many of their descendents have naturally assimilated into Israeli culture and no longer keep the traditions of my family’s ancestors.
Sadly, the language, dress, music, folklore….the entire way of life of my ancestors is now almost exclusively confined to the pages of academic research. Food is often the last vestige of a bygone era to survive. It is what differentiates one ethnic group from another and it is also what binds them.
With the recent opening of Kutsher’s Tribeca, which bills itself as a modern Jewish-American bistro, much of the New York food world has been abuzz with talk of whether Jewish food can be gourmet. New York magazine and Chow.com took on the question this month, both citing Kutsher’s gefilte fish, which is made with poached wild halibut and topped with micro greens, as an example of the cuisine’s gourmet potential.
Food writers and avid Jewish foodies, however, seem unsure if Kutsher’s has accomplished this in this one dish — and perhaps it’s because they’re looking at the wrong food. While certain humble Jewish foods like gefilte fish, may never “go gourmet” — and arguably shouldn’t — others with more versatile ingredients lend themselves well to being elevated to gourmet status. Latkes, which at their most basic call for only five ingredients — potatoes, onions, oil, matzo meal and eggs — but exist in countless iterations fall cleanly into this category.
The winners of last night’s Third Annual Latke Festival, which pitted 17 chefs’ latkes against one another at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, proved that. The judge’s and my personal favorite, prepared by Jason Weiner from Almond restaurant, topped a classic and delicious latke with a superb house-smoked blue fish and goat yogurt. The latke was inspired by his grandmother’s recipe and his great uncle’s passion for fishing blue fish.
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