There's a simple rhyme that Jewish children chant on Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which starts Sunday night and continues through Dec. 28:
A latke is a pancake, a golden pancake treat.
And inside it is snowy white and very good to eat.
Yes, latke is Yiddish for potato pancake. But why are latkes a treat on Hanukkah - why not gefilte fish or matzo ball soup?
Because Hanukkah commemorates the time when a one-day supply of oil in the Temple lamp lasted for a full eight days. Thereafter, Jews everywhere celebrated by making treats fried in oil, such as doughnuts and latkes.
These days, latkes aren't just for children. And they're not just served in Jewish delis.
Increasingly, fine-dining establishments serve traditional latkes stylishly presented beside or atop a more elaborate entree.
At Maia in Villanova, chef Patrick Feury will be doing a latke with creme fraiche and smoked salmon. Rouge in Center City is serving latkes with beet-cured gravlax, a chive creme fraiche, and grilled capers.
At Lacroix, expect to see a fluffier latke-like blini served with non-kosher caviar. And Lacroix is not the only local restaurant pairing latkes with unorthodox partners: Alison Barshak at Alison Two in Fort Washington is experimenting with latkes and bacon; and Ted Iwachiw of Ted's on Main in Medford serves his crab cakes on a bed of latkes.
But Zahav, the modern Israeli restaurant that was opened to acclaim in May by Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov (Marigold Kitchen, Xochitl) is doing much more than latkes for Hanukkah.
The Israeli-born Solomonov is serving an Ocho Kandelikas or "Eight Candles" menu from Dec. 21 to 28 (except on Christmas Day, when Zahav will be closed).
The six-course Ocho Kandelikas menu, which will be served in addition to Zahav's a la carte menu, will include salatim, eight assorted Israeli salads; hummus served with house-baked laffa bread; burmuelos, a fried savory treat with Spanish origins made with leeks, goat cheese and mint; potato latkes accompanying salmon cured with smoked Turkish peppers and served with a dollop of Arabic yogurt; veal tagine with dates, almonds and Moroccan couscous; and sufganiyot, which are no ordinary doughnuts - they're stuffed with dolce de leche and served with raisin ice cream.
"For perfect latkes, the basic potatoes, onion, salt recipe is hard to beat," Solomonov says.
Latkes taste best when fried in chicken fat, he says. But in an age of fat-phobia, Solomonov uses vegetable oil.
We've reached a point in our global food history when ethnicity rules. Salsa has replaced ketchup on many tables, and bagels have been assimilated into the fast-food culture.
Could the lowly latke, a simple blend of potatoes, eggs, flour and water, be the next successful crossover dish?
Jones, the comfort-food center of Stephen Starr's restaurant empire, has potato pancakes on the menu year-round - along with matzo ball soup.
Latkes are also a year-round staple at Singapore Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant on Race Street in Chinatown. Chef-owner Peter Fong, who immigrated 16 years ago from Malaysia, knew potato pancakes well, but he thought they were unique to the north of China. He added them to his menu years ago at the suggestion of his Jewish customers.
Mark Smith is making sweet potato and chipotle latkes with ancho chile pomegranate glaze at his Mexican restaurant, Tortilla Press in Collingswood.
James Malaby of Blue Plate in Mullica Hill makes his latkes with celery root and calls them celeriac-potato pancakes, plating them with braised rack of veal.
At Matyson, Brian Lofink experimented in the fall with spaghetti squash latkes served with vanilla-spiked applesauce and - a major kosher violation - grilled pork tenderloin. Co-chef Ben Puchowitz said that was too much for his Bubbe, but everyone else loved it.
And London Grill in Fairmount, in its 17th year of pleasing all kinds of palates, has served latkes in December almost from its inception.
"People eat them regardless of their ethnic backgrounds," says owner Michael McNally.
Chef Alison Barshak treats latkes like potato skins - topping them with bacon and cheese. On her bar menu, Barshak envisions a potato latke special, with house-smoked salmon, coleslaw, Russian dressing and Gruyere served between two latkes (instead of the traditional corned beef special featuring coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss on rye bread).
"They go with almost anything," says Barshak. (See accompanying recipes for latkes.)
Latkes, she believes, could become the next french fries.
Makes 6 latkes
For the latkes:
2 large sweet potatoes, grated
1/2 cup onion, minced
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chipotle in adobo, pureed
1/3 cup flour
For the glaze:
1 pint of pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 1/2 of a pomegranate, for garnish
1. To prepare latkes, beat the eggs in a medium-sized bowl. Add the potatoes, onion, lemon juice, salt, chipotle and flour and mix well.
2. Preheat nonstick skillet until very hot and add 1 tablespoon of oil to coat bottom. Place a quarter-cup of the mixture in skillet and fry pancakes for about four minutes on each side. Keep warm and uncovered.
3. To prepare the glaze, place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the mixture until it begins to thicken. It should reduce by two-thirds. Drizzle over sweet potato pancakes and garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Per latkes: 217 calories, 6 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 141 milligrams cholesterol, 766 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 18-20 latkes
4 medium potatoes, peeled
1/2 small onion
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Cut potatoes and onion into 1-inch chunks. Grate potatoes using grater blade of food processor. Spoon onto clean kitchen towel; roll up as for jelly roll. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Transfer to medium bowl. Grate onion and add to potatoes along with eggs, flour, salt and pepper. Mix well.
2. Heat about an eighth-inch of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Slide rounded tablespoonfuls of mixture into skillet; flatten with spoon. Reduce heat to medium. Cook on both sides until nicely browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Continue frying, adding oil as needed, until all mixture is used. Drain latkes on paper towels. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.
Per latke (based on 20): 67 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 2 grams fat, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 96 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 5 servings or 20 mini latkes
1 small white onion
1 pound Idaho potatoes
1 egg, lightly beaten
3-4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh chives, finely sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil to fry in (per batch)
12 ounces smoked salmon or high-grade tuna, small dice
1 tablespoon shallots, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon chives, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon black truffle oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Finely dice the onion. Saute in a little oil until soft. Set aside to cool. Wash and grate the potatoes into a bowl - leave the skin on and use the large holes on the grater. When onions cool, add them to the grated potatoes. Place the mixture in the bowl of a food processor with the metal blade attachment. Pulse the mixture until it turns into a rough paste. Put mixture into a bowl.
2. Add the egg. Sprinkle in 3 tablespoons of the flour and mix together. Add the salt, pepper and chives. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes.
3. Heat a saute pan to medium-high heat. Add oil. Test one pancake for taste and texture. Drop the mixture by the level tablespoonful into the pan. Flip the pancake when brown to cook the other side. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Taste, adjust the salt and flour if necessary. Continue to cook the pancakes until all the mixture is used. Discard the oil after each batch.
4. Mix all ingredients for tartare accompaniment. Put 3 ounces on each plate with potato pancakes. Serve immediately or set aside and reheat in a hot oven. Do not microwave.
Do not make tartare more than 3 hours in advance. Optional garnishes include creme fraîche (with salmon only), herb oil, chive sprigs and fresh chervil.
Per serving: 294 calories, 17 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 1,708 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.