Saturday, December 31, 2005

Festival of Lights

Since I missed the big family Hanukkah party, and was still dragging from my cold all week, my chances to get a latke (potato pancake) were dwindling.

Oh sure, you can make latkes when it isn't Hanukkah, but they don't seem right any other time. Besides, holidays lose something when the unique parts of the celebration are made into everyday things. For example, pinatas used to be cool, specifically a part of Mexican culture and only for Christmas. Now you can go to a park in Ohio on a Saturday and see kids whacking their favorite TV character to death with a bat and then scrambling to grab and eat the spilled entrails. Somehow, that isn't the same.

The end of the year and my persistent cold were dragging me down into a serious case of the blues. The SO announced that, as usual, he'd be out of town on my birthday. I was exchanging e-mails with people I didn't like over matters that no longer interested me in arguments that had long devolved into absurdity. The worst part was the temptation to tell those people that they were no longer worth my attention - which is a lousy thing to say to another human being when you think about it. Yet, I truly wanted to unleash my Dorothy Parkerish nastiness on them and shred their egos.

Trying to rise above my worst self every day isn't an easy struggle.

Friday, I came home from work, collapsed on the bed for four hours of necessary napping, and then dragged myself into the kitchen. There, fortified with a double shot of espresso and some Airborne, I started my latkes. Honestly, I wouldn't have left the bed if I hadn't committed to making dinner for friends.

While the SO sliced the brisket and put in into the oven for its second cooking (the secret to any great brisket), I pulled out the food processor. Latke purist will tell you that hand shredded potatoes are the only way to go. They're right - but screw it, I was tired.

Some people prefer a hashbrown style latke, while others like a solid pancake. I'm between worlds.

I put the shredded russet potatoes on a paper towel to drain. Wax potatoes, to me, have a weird, rubbery consistency when shredded. Russets, however, are the essence of bland food. They don't have a flavor. So I grind Yukon gold potatoes with onions into a puree for the binding batter. Adding a few beaten eggs, some matzoh meal to soak up the moisture the potatoes exude, a couple cranks of the pepper mill, a toss of kosher salt, and I was ready to go.

Some people almost deep fat fry their latkes. That's gross. Some oil is needed because oil is, after all, one of the symbols of Hanukkah. (The other being light. The two are intertwined in a story that I tell poorly, so won't relate it here.) Besides, to make latkes with a crunchy exterior, you need some oil in the pan.

Some people top with applesauce, but we prefer a dollop of sour cream and mushrooms that have been sauteed in butter and wine. Occasionally, we'll be really swank and use some caviar, but it wasn't in the budget this year.

The rule of the house has always been, "He/She who can stand to eat the hottest food gets the most latkes." If it were just the SO and me, we'd stand in the kitchen eating latkes as soon as they came off the griddle. The brisket would be forgotten and used for sandwiches the next day. But with guests as witnesses, we had to pretend to have some class, so we piled the latkes on a plate and them brought them out to serve with the brisket.

Our place smelled of hot oil and brisket, and was filled with the laughter of friends playing cut-throat dreidle for gold foil covered chocolates that none of us would ever eat. Laughter is like light. It chases away dark moods and thoughts. We're always so busy, but holidays remind us to meet with friends, laugh together, and share what we have. So no matter how tempting it is to make latkes out of season, I think I can wait for next year. I like to keep them special.

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