Can you believe thanksgiving was just a week ago?
In a flash, the next holiday moves in. On deck - Chanukah, with accents of holiday parties everywhere. Tonight, it was our second annual Latke Festival. The beloved, simple latke ascends the main stage as the featured food of the Festival of Lights. Why the celebration? In the course of routing the invading forces and liberating the country and the Temple, the oil that was supposed to last for just a day, burned for 8 days (allowing enough time to harvest olives and turn them into oil). The miracle of the oil was commemorated with the consumption of various types of fried food - from jelly filled donuts, to fried cheese or other vegetable items. How exactly that morphed to fried potatoes doesn't matter but potato latkes evolved with the introduction of potatoes to (Eastern) Europe, and are prominent in the cuisine of Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, Czech, Ukraine and more. And you don't have to be Jewish to love the taste of shredded potatoes with some combination of eggs, matzoh meal/flour, onions, salt & pepper and sizzling oil...along with select secret ingredients I have heard about such as duck fat, schmaltz, garlic, and other items too secret to mention here.
Back to our festival - marrying culinary creativity with the peasant food of a holiday that plays second fiddle to Christmas; the chefs of Great Performances, and one non-chef (me), each took a country and interpreted what its latke would look like.
Israel was the country my team and I represented. How to spin that into an interpretive latke experience? After all, it is the birthplace of the tradition, so how do you improve upon creation? We settled on a biblical reference: "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey;" (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)
Wheat - the flour we used in mixing into the grated potato, egg and onion. So to make it a little special, we added a poached quail egg on top!
Barley - mixed with indigenous mint and apple
Pomegranate - an eggplant caponata with pomegranate seeds in place of capers, a dish very typical of Mediterranean cuisine
Olives - classic tapenade with black and white sesame seeds
Dates - date puree on top a thick Mediterranean yogurt mixed with cumin and coriander and a drizzle of honey
Fig - roasted balsamic fig atop a dollop of crème fraiche
Grape - slivers of green and red grapes, mixed with pine nuts with a little pear puree on the bottom.
Executive Chef Marc Spooner, representing Russia: "I decide to put my Southern slant on the Russian latke by making it into a "tater tot" which was cooked potatoes, that were shredded, roll in potato chips and pan fried. I topped it with a smoked salmon crème fraiche and beet tops."
Sous Chef Matthew Riznyk, featuring China: "My latke was inspired by one of my favorite Chinatown cheap eats; the sesame pancake with roast pork. I decided to use the GGS base (ginger, garlic, scallion) prevalent in so many great Chinese dishes, along with daikon, potato, and sesame in the latkes themselves. When making at home you can fill with anything you'd like, top with shredded carrot, cucumber, and cilantro for brightness and crunch and throw a little sriracha aioli on there if you're feeling frisky!" (Pork on a latke?!)
Executive Chef for GP at the Plaza, Jack Kiggins (and winner of the 2010 competition): "I chose Cuba because I felt was the opposite direction from the norm. Latkes when being well prepared often rely on a sauce (apple) or topping (sour cream) to give something extra. Ropa Viejas being a traditional dish from Cuba I felt would give the guests a little something unexpected. I topped that with an ancho chili cream and finished with some micro cilantro. The crispy potato, cumin scented brisket, the cooling ancho cream with freshness of micro cilantro all seemed to work."
We expected about 150 guests at City Winery, and 30 minutes into the event, it was clear that twice as many showed up. But multiples are part of the Chanukah tale, so food for a few would have to last to feed many. As the queues circled the room, the tempo of the frying oil accelerated. It was a miracle - the latkes keep on coming and people kept on eating. The lines were LONG, and I was shocked to see a space so jammed packed with latke aficionados, many a long way from home and longing for a taste of comfort. While waiting for a latke, some described the latkes their moms made. It was heartwarming to have our compared to hers!
Barely halfway through the 3-hour event - when it felt like I had fried a zillion latkes with no end in sight - I swore I would never do this again. In fact, I considered never eating a latke again. I had visions of the crowd, impossible to satiate, demanding a refund - or even worse - another stack of latkes. I envisioned the oil permeating my entire being and never washing away. I was in awe of my teammates, Sally, Stella and Jon, totally engrossed in describing the topping options over and over and over again, without ever losing their patience or smiles.
Finally, the crowd subsided, satisfied - another miracle. Panic averted, fun returned. We each sampled a latke or two, weighing our topping options. Finally, the room emptied, we broke down, packed up and made our way to a quiet bar counter for a glass of wine. We started writing notes for next year's festival and how to improve it. We even segued from dreaming about Latke to our annual winter Vodka Festival!
Sally: "Next Time: Come up with a full-blown campaign. Catch phrase... Hand symbol (Think: Earth Day "E")... Iconic symbol. (I got the idea too late in the game this time to stencil Israel's Star of David on each latke. Ha!)"
Stella: "Favorite moment: when a group of latke lovers told me that the votes had been rigged and we were the actual winners. Oh yes!"
Jon: "The only thing that topped the fierceness of the competition was the fierceness of the guests appetites as they consumed several hundred lbs of potatoes."
Tomorrow it will be back to the business of holiday parties, wondering about the economic climate and a million other tasks and obligations. For a few hours today, it was sort of magical to be swept up in a frenzy that commemorated an event from ancient times. Celebrating the Maccabean victory through food eclipses the story of the fight against oppression and the struggle for national and religious freedom to say the least. It is the nature of holidays in our culture - where the deeper message is lost in contemporary observances that celebrate symbolic rituals or icons (like the latke or extreme shopping).
But this was a festival that combined love of traditions, with communal celebration and a cross cultural gathering of people wanting to share the holiday season of peace, love and of course, food! In the grand scheme of things, that works for me.
View the recipes from all of the Latke Festival contestants!