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In search of the Perfect Latke

I have always loved potato latkes.  My first experience of eating these delicious potato pancakes- latke is Yiddish for pancake–  was at Nate’s Delicatessen in Ottawa while visiting my sister Lesley in the early 70’s.  I loved the latkes so much, that I once put in a request to Lesley’s friend Michael, who was travelling back to our home town of Thunder Bay, to please bring me an order of latkes from Nate’s.  And he did.  On the plane.  Tucked carefully in the overhead bin.  They reheated beautifully!

Not growing up in a Jewish household, we didn’t celebrate Hanukkah, so latkes aren’t part of my family’s culinary traditions.  Or, at least, they weren’t when I was growing up.  For years, I have made latkes in honour of my friends who do celebrate Hanukkah.  Well, and because I love them, too!  But for me, food is not just about the taste. It’s about the history, traditions and cultures to which it is attached. All food tells a story and the latke has a rich story to tell  with many different approaches to its preparation. 

This year I did a little research to try and see if there was a better recipe out there than the method I had  been following in the past.  As you can imagine, there are a lot!  Some call for grating the potato and onion into ice water.  You must squeeze the juice out of the potato and onion through muslin, not a tea towel.  All recipes include the addition of dried potato starch, flour or matzoh meal.  Others insist that incorporating the natural starch that results from grating the potatoes is best. Some recommend using a box grater, while others the grating disk on a food processor.  You must add schmaltz – rendered chicken fat-  to the oil.  You must use a neutral-tasting oil.  The fat is the important part.  The type of potato is the key.  Russet versus Yukon Gold.  Peeled, not peeled.  My head was spinning. 

In the end, I settled on a melange of a couple of recipes from the celebrated Canadian cookbook author and culinary journalist, Lucy Waverman. Lucy creates recipes that are always dependable, so I was confident of an excellent result.  She doesn’t suggest the incorporation of schmaltz, but I wanted to try it.  Schmaltz isn’t a big seller in my little mountain town, but I did find some Brome Lake Duck Fat at my favourite grocery store and used a little of that. 

The latkes were, if I do say so myself, my best ever!  Latkes are traditionally served with sour cream or applesauce.  I am afraid I opted for the straight from the pan, nothing else required, approach.  If there are any left, we may go the sour cream route!

Lucy Waverman’s Potato Latkes for Hanukkah… mildly revised

3 large russet potatoes, peeled (about 2 pounds)

1 large onion

1 tablespoon potato starch or the starch from the grated potatoes

2 tablespoons flour

1 beaten egg

Salt and pepper

Grate the potatoes and onion in a food processor or using a box grater.  Place in cheesecloth and wring out all of the juice into a bowl.  Place the grated potatoes and onion in another bowl.  Drain off the remaining liquid in the first bowl, reserving the potato starch that rests in the bottom.  Add it to the potatoes and onions.  If you want to skip this step, just add a tablespoon of potato starch.  Stir in the flour, beaten egg and salt and pepper.

Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron.  Now, this is where I deviate… you may add schmaltz, or in my case, duck fat, to the pan with the oil.  When the fat is hot, place a heaping spoonful of the latke mixture in the pan and press down.  Continue with three or four more, depending on the size of your pan. Cook until nicely browned and crispy on one side and flip. Repeat with the other side.  Once both sides are done, transfer to a cooling rack or paper towels.  You may need to add more fat or oil as you go along.  

The real challenge here is waiting long enough to taste them so that you don’t burn the roof of your mouth!

Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

Todos Santos

Making Bread Up Close

Volunteering in Bolivia at the non-profit, Up Close Bolivia has introduced us to so many great things, and our first Todos Santos celebration was a definite highlight.  With a bread recipe from a high-altitude baking book, a massive sack of flour and 10 pairs of hands to knead the dough, Doug and I were introduced to our first session of baking T’antawawas for Todos Santos at the Casa Mendoza-Donlan.  Doug and I spent the night baking, reminiscing and having a million laughs with the founders of Up Close Bolivia, Emma Donlan and Rolanda Mendoza and their children, our volunteer comrades, Paula and Jeremy, and a neighbourhood family. 

Emma and Rolando prepared the baking table and traditional foods to eat while we mixed our dough.   Choclo– Andean large-kerneled white corn was steamed and served drizzled with oil, Crema Zapata- pumpkin soup was served with Irish Scones, in memory of Emma’s ancestors. And, of course a typical Bolivian cocktail made with a grape-based liquor similar to grappa.  We didn’t really have any traditional foods to offer, but Doug and I shared some carrots we had smuggled into Bolivia with us from our garden! Mum’s the word on that one!  I made my first-ever batch of high-altitude bread using a recipe called “Peter’s Favourite Bread” from a high-altitude cookbook produced in La Paz.  Coincidentally, it was the exact same recipe I was given by a friend years ago, but that one was called “Best Ever Bread.”  Not sure why this particular recipe is considered “high-altitude?”  It did take quite a lot longer to rise, but made beautiful bread in the end, thankfully!  Being a chef, the pressure was definitely on!

Making Bread Together

Forming Bread

Todos Santos or All Saint’s Day is celebrated in Bolivia on November 1 and 2, but most of the festivities take place on November 2, which is also known as All Soul’s Day.  To celebrate departed friends and family, Bolivians create an apxata or mesa difuntos , an offering table, laden with the favourite foods and drinks of the dead.  Included in the table are tall sugar canes and flowering onions, which are believed to draw water from the earth to the almas, or spirits above. Emma laid her table with traditional foods, which included tequila, in memory of her dear friend who loved tequila and a dish of dog treats for their much- loved and missed faithful dog.   It is believed that the almas visit the homes of their relatives from noon on November 1 to noon on November 2 to feast on the offerings.

Emma and Zoe Making Bread

Todos Santos Table Up Close 2a

Mesa Difuntos en la Casa de Mendoza Dolan

Featured on the table are the colourful t’antawawas- breads with clay faces- sold at markets throughout Bolivia prior to Todos Santos and shaped like lost friends and loved ones.  The baking of the breads is very fun and not at all maudlin.  So different from the way in which North Americans deal with loss.  We all took turns kneading and shaping the dough and telling stories about those we have lost in Spanish, English and “Spanglish!”

Todos Santo Table, El Alto Museun of Culture

Todos Santos Mesa Difuntos, El Alto Museum of Culture

On November 2, Bolivians visit neighbours and share the special foods and drinks from their tables.  They also visit cemeteries, where they have picnics, dance and play music.  All around La Paz, there was the sound of music with small bands of men playing Andean flutes and drums and women in traditional dress travelling towards the cemetery.  The men seen here played for passers-by, before hopping on the bus to the nearest cemetery.

Todos Santos Band

I am now on a mission to search the Mercado in La Paz for the little clay faces, so that we can make t’antawawas  next year on Todos Santos!

Our visit to the Museum of Indigenous Art, El Alto, Bolivia.

t’antawawas at the Museum of Indigenous Art, El Alto, Bolivia.

Food for Thought- How We Eat

Well, it’s January. Or, should we call it, Repentuary- the month we repent for all of our so called food sins of the previous weeks, months, years?

Around the world, people have turned over a new leaf. Whatever you want to call it…a regime…a cleanse…a detox…a new kick… it always goes the same way; rid the shelves of junk and fill them with healthier alternatives. Yesterday I chucked the cheezies and added hemp hearts and organic cacao for an Avocado Chocolate Breakfast Trifle recommended by Jamie Oliver in Saturday’s Globe. Sounds like dessert to me but, hey,  Jamie says it will provide a healthy start to the day and who am I to doubt?  And, all you do is throw everything in a food processor!


This new hemp heart/cacao approach to eating is not to say that the cheezies won’t make another appearance in my pantry, of course. Just, not for now. We all know that most “new kicks” don’t last long and being a chef for the last thirty-odd years, I have seen lots of food trends come and go.

I teach cooking students that food is like the fashion industry. Certain foods are in style this year, while others become passé. When I started cooking for a living, quiche was the new thing. Then there was a movement fiercely opposed to the quiche. There was even a book entitled “Real men Don’t Eat Quiche.”  Kiwis were all the rage, then kiwis were soooo yesterday. And, so it goes. But, in my early cooking days, I don’t remember there being the dogmatic approach to food choices, or what has now become the good/bad dichotomy, that is such a big part of eating these days.

We are fickle. Jumping from one food trend to another. Demonizing this food and lauding the next. And the vast array of cookbooks! Who can keep track? Which one is the best? Impossible to answer, really. You have to trust the reviews or ask a friend or just take a chance and try out some of the recipes. I have my favourites and they tend to be no-nonsense guides to real food. All food.

This year, I bought myself a Christmas present from one of my favourite cookbook authors, Nigel Slater: The Kitchen Diaries volume iii: A Year of Good Eating.

Nigel Slater describes himself as a cook who writes. He doesn’t get caught up in the chef side of things.  I love his writing, especially his memoir, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, that was also made into a wonderful movie. I love his recipes, his columns in The Observer Magazine, his cooking series for the BBC, but most of all, I love his approach to food. In Nigel’s words:

“I am concerned about the current victimisation of food. The apparent need to divide the contents of our plates into heroes and villains. The current villains are sugar and gluten, though it used to be fat, and before that it was salt ( and before that it was carbs and …oh, I’ve lost track). It is worth remembering that today’s devil will probably be tomorrow’s angel and vice versa.  We risk having the life sucked out of our eating by allowing ourselves to be shamed over our food choices. If this escalates, historians may look back on this generation as one in which society’s decision about what to eat was driven by guilt and shame rather than by good taste or pleasure.”  from The Kitchen Diaries volume iii: A Year of Good Eating- by Nigel Slater

So, in this month of new beginnings and life changes, I offer you some Food for Thought with some interesting reads that may or may not fuel your current thoughts about healthy diets.

In no particular order…

and, a very interesting read and the documentation of a personal journey from a young friend of mine:

And, if you want a sensible read, have a read of

Happy New Year!

PS- the Avocado Chocolate Breakfast Trifle is, as Jamie would say,  “cracking good!”