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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 11/30/2010

Smoke Signals: Light up the Hanukkah latkes

By Jim Shahin

As Hanukkah approached, I had an idea: How 'bout barbecuing latkes?

Latkes are potato pancakes, fried in oil and often served with sour cream and applesauce. They usually grace the dinner table at some point during the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, which, this year, begins at sundown Wednesday.

Recipe Included

As I considered methods and means, my thoughts turned to my cousin Kathy Brackett, who is Arab American.

I had never tasted Kathy’s latkes. But she was my go-to brain trust because
a) she is a fabulous home cook,
b) she is extraordinarily creative, and
c) she has made latkes for Hanukkah parties hosted by she and her husband, Yoram Tanay, an Israeli Jew.

And you thought James Carville and Mary Matalin made strange bedfellows.

Kathy and Yoram each embrace their heritage. By that I mean they don’t shy from a good argument about the Middle East. How they dig into their positions over the main meal, then glide effortlessly to topics of travel or sports without the slightest hint of tension while serving dessert is a marvel to behold. They are like some weirdly successful experiment in multiculturalism.

Of the ties that bind the two, one of the strongest is a love of food. They are both marvelous cooks. Yoram once ran his own catering business. Kathy, while not a professional, is storied for her repertoire of knock-you-back-in-your-seat meals, from a sublime roast chicken to puffy, beautifully turned-out pita.

In their house, she makes the latkes. He appreciates them.

I have made latkes through the years, but I had never tried barbecuing them.

I called Kathy. Instantly, she began spilling ideas like a slot machine on tilt. Fry, then smoke. Smoke, then fry. Fry, grill, smoke.

She came over to my house one afternoon and we went at it. I set up the grill for indirect heat. She set up a fry station while my wife, Jessica, grated potatoes and onion.

Kathy made a first batch of latkes in the traditional manner, forming grated raw potatoes and onion, beaten egg, a little flour (or matzoh meal, which we didn’t have on hand) and salt into pancakes and frying them to crispy perfection. Meanwhile, she made applesauce from some tart and sweet apples we purchased earlier in the day from the Penn Quarter farmers market.

I scattered wood chips on the fire, let them start smoking, then put the latkes on the grill, away from the heat. I put the lid on the grill and let them smoke for about five minutes. When I took them off, they had a lovely, light wood smoke flavor, and, surprisingly, the essential crispness of the pancake was still intact.

It was time to experiment. We wrapped potatoes and an onion in aluminum foil and put them directly into the fire. We grilled and smoked apples for the applesauce. We added smoky chipotle pepper and its sauce to a bowl of sour cream.

Each bite elicited a shriek of delight or a harrumph of deliberative concern, sometimes both.

“I love the smoked potato latkes,” Kathy said. “But they came out more like fried mashed potatoes.”

She discussed the two primary schools of latke thought. One, that the latke should be slightly crunchy with shredded potato on the inside. The other, that it should be a soft fluff on the inside. The first one is by far the more common. But the second one had its proponents, her husband not among them.

“Yoram won’t like them, because of their texture,” Kathy said.

He joined us after work, setting a formal tone in his suit and tie. We sat Yoram at the head of the table. He tried the various combinations. Fried, lightly smoked latke with sour cream, then with chipotle sour cream.

“Mmmm,” he said, “I like this.”

Then he tried the fire-roasted latke. “This,” he announced, "is not the right texture. I like the flavor. But the texture. . . .”

Kathy engaged his assessment. Yes, she acknowledged, it was more a mash than a shred. But the mash was an acceptable style. She went on to name some restaurants that make latkes that way.

Yoram would not hear of it.

“It’s good. But it is not the right texture,” he repeated.

The two went on like this for a few minutes, the Arab-American wife, who cooked the latkes, locked in debate with her Israeli-Jewish husband, who was eating them.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “I like it. It’s just the texture. But I like the flavor.”

“Okay,” she said. “You like it.”

And the conversation moved on to something else. At least in that household, on that evening, there was agreement between Arab and Jew: Barbecuing latkes is a good thing.

Fire-Pit Latkes
4 main-course servings

Fire-roasting lends a satisfying primal flavor to potatoes and complements the flavor of the potato pancaks known as latkes.

If you prefer a less-mashed texture, leave the potatoes in the fire for only about 5 minutes on each side. They will take on the aroma and taste, but will remain uncooked enough that they can be shredded. In this recipe, grill roasting removes much of the moisture from the potatoes and onions, so you will likely not have to drain the water out of them as you do when grating raw potato and onion for latkes.

Serve with Chipotle Sour Cream and Smoked Applesauce (see related recipes below).

You'll need to soak 1/2 cup of applewood chips in water for 1 hour.

From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin and his cousin Kathy Brackett.

2 large (about 2 pounds) russet potatoes, either peeled or well scrubbed but unpeeled
1 large onion (peeled)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for optional sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying

Prepare the charcoal grill for indirect heat: Light the coals. For a very hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Drain the water from the applewood chips.

Line a large plate with a few layers of paper towels. Wrap each potato and the onion tightly in aluminum foil.

When the coals are white-hot, scatter the wood chips over the coals. Place the foil-wrapped potatoes and onion directly on the coals. Cover with the grill lid and cook for 10 minutes, then use tongs to turn over the packets and cook, covered, for 10 minutes on the second side.

Use tongs to transfer the packets to a heatproof surface; open and allow the vegetables to cool. When the potatoes and onion are cool enough to handle, grate them against the large-holed side of a box grater into a large bowl. (The fire will have reduced the moisture in the vegetables so no squeezing of the grated mixture should be necessary.)

Add the beaten eggs, flour, salt and pepper, stirring to incorporate.

Pour enough oil into a large skillet to a create a depth of a quarter-inch; heat over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers but is not smoking.

Meanwhile, use the grated mixture to form 8 latkes about 3 inches wide. Add as many to the skillet as possible but be careful not to crowd them. Cook for about 3 minutes or until the bottoms become browned and crisped, then turn them over and cook for about 3 minutes or until browned and crisped on the second side.

Transfer to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain briefly. Place on foil and return to the waning heat of the grill to keep warm while you cook the remaining latkes, adding oil as needed.

Sprinkle with salt, if desired. Serve hot.

Per 2-latke serving (latkes only): 360 calories, 8 g protein, 47 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Smoked Applesauce
4 generous servings

You can grill the apples while the potatoes and onion are in the coals below.

6 medium firm, tart apples (2 to 3 pounds)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water

Prepare the grill for direct and indirect heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (350 degrees).

If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. If using a charcoal grill, lightly spray the grill rack with nonstick cooking oil spray before placing it over the briquettes. If using a gas grill, lightly oil the rack.

Cut the apples in half, starting from the stem, then peel and core them; place cut sides down on the grill directly over the hot coals. Cover with the grill lid and cook for about 5 minutes or until the apples are bronzed and lightly blackened, then use tongs to turn them over. Cover with the grill lid and cook for about 5 minutes until bronzed and lightly blackened on the second side.

Use tongs to move the apples to the indirect side of the grill. Cover with the grill lid; let the apples absorb some smoke for about 5 minutes.

Transfer the apples to a cutting board. Chop into 1-inch pieces, then transfer to a large saucepan and place over low heat. Add the cinnamon, allspice, salt and water; mix well. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a slightly chunky applesauce.

Transfer to a serving bowl; serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 90 calories, 0 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 19 g sugar

Chipotle Sour Cream
Makes a generous 1/2 cup

1/2 cup sour cream
1 canned chipotle pepper en adobo, plus 1 teaspoon of the sauce

Make a lengthwise slit in the chipotle pepper; discard the seeds and mince the flesh, transferring it to a small bowl.

Add the sauce and sour cream; mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, or for up to 5 days.

Per tablespoon serving: 30 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Jim Shahin  | November 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Holiday, Recipes, Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, Smoke Signals, holiday, recipes  
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Next: Chat Leftovers: Jazzed-up Joe


Okay -- admission of bias -- Jim is my cousin. Although, he knows that I would never say something is funny if it isn't. In my family -- we don't joke about comedy. I plan on whipping out this article when my husband and I have our next argument. Proof positive that we once agreed on something. Food has often been our common ground. Next, we're going to the Middle East to see if we can help out there.
Kudos to Jim for capturing us in cyberprint. He is a great writer, especially when it comes to the complexity of food and the conjuring of it. And I'm not just blowing smoke.

Posted by: ytanay | November 30, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Really enjoyed reading this article and would have loved to have been a fly on the wall that evening:-) I will be looking for smoke signals (next door) if Kathy decides to try these again during the festival of lights:-) Sounds like an interesting twist on latkas worth trying.

Posted by: acallon | November 30, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

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