As a restaurant chef, Jordan Stein hears the sounds of vegetables sizzling in oil and inhales the aromas of grilled salmon or braised beef every day.
At this time of year, special sights, sounds and aromas remind Stein of holiday scenes from his youth. Brightly wrapped gifts, 5-pound sacks of potatoes and gallons of oil recall the Hanukkah celebrations in his grandmother's home.
West Hartford, was young, 30 to 40 family members would gather to eat potato pancakes, exchange presents and play the dreidel. "In my house, we had a grand piano, and just like [gifts] under a tree, there were presents on top of the piano — mounds of presents. You'd get to shake them" to try to figure out what was inside, Stein recalls. "When we were really young, we [celebrated] all eight days of Hanukkah. But when everyone was older and working, we picked one day" to celebrate.
Hanukkah begins this year at sundown on Sunday. When Stein celebrates the holiday, he prepares potato latkes, the symbolic food of the Festival of Lights. Frying the pancakes in oil recalls the miracle of the holiday. During a rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews had only enough oil to light the candles for one day, but the oil lasted for eight days.
"Whenever I see potato latkes, I think of my grandmother's pancakes," says Stein, who serves the crispy pancakes with beef tenderloin on the Pond House's banquet menu. He also offers a variation — sweet potato pancakes served as an appetizer at parties or banquets.
The family recipe is quite simple: shredded potatoes and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper and fried in oil until golden brown. There is no flour, matzo meal or eggs in the mix; the natural starch in the potatoes holds the cakes together, Stein says. There is no need to peel the potatoes. "She never peeled them," the chef says. "She felt that the starch stays in and makes the [shredded] potato stick together better."
Stein also theorizes that his grandmother, like other frugal immigrants, chose not to waste any food, including the potato peel. The pancakes also make use of a plentiful winter ingredient, and the hearty nature of the latkes doubles as a comfort food at this time of year.
Appetites respond to the season, and the "body is on a clock, too," says Stein, whose Pond House menu reflects fresh, seasonal foods. The chef buys from local vendors, including Urban Oaks farm in New Britain, whose greenhouses produce winter crops. When a vendor sends Stein a vegetable order, "sometimes we don't even know what we're getting," he says. "It's a surprise" — and Stein creates menu specials accordingly.
For Hanukkah, however, there are no surprises, at least on the menu. The joyous holiday "revolves around food," the chef says. While the entrée may be a roasted chicken or a slow-cooked brisket, depending on a family's preference, the universal dish for the Festival of Lights will be potato pancakes — and lots of them.
Tips For Success
Chef Stein shares these tips for making the best potato latkes:
Use all-purpose white potatoes rather than Idaho or Russet potatoes.
Don't peel the potatoes. The skin protects the starch in the potatoes and is a source of nutrients.
Cover the bottom of the frying pan with about 1/2 inch of oil. "There should be enough oil that, when you shake the pan, the pancakes move around."
When pancakes are cooked to golden brown, remove them from the pan and drain on paper towels or, if desired, on the bottom of a cardboard egg crate.
Applesauce and sour cream are traditional accompaniments. For a "razzle dazzle" presentation, sprinkle the pancakes with chopped green onions.
JORDAN STEIN'S POTATO LATKES
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Chopped green onions for garnish
Applesauce and sour cream
Stein uses proportions rather than exact measurements. Figure on 1 medium potato to make 2 to 3 pancakes. There should be 5 parts of shredded potatoes to 1 part onion. (Example: 5 cups shredded potatoes to 1 cup grated or chopped onion.)
Mix together onion and potatoes; add salt and pepper to taste.
Cover bottom of a frying pan with about 1/2 inch of oil. Heat oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, drop spoonfuls of shredded potato mixture into pan. Cook until golden on one side; flip pancakes and cook until golden. Remove pancakes from pan and drain. Garnish with chopped green onion, and serve hot with applesauce and sour cream.
ONE GREAT DISH