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Reinventing Classics — Latkes Benedict

For many of us, Jewish holiday foods hold special meaning because we eat them only once a year. But some of these foods are worth taking a second look at beyond the holiday. They can provide wonderful opportunities for culinary invention at moments when we feel less bound by tradition. Simple, classic dishes that we have made countless times are often the best dishes for variation, particularly for beginning cooks. They provide the basic recipe structure many cooks crave, but leave room for innovation as well. Latkes fall cleanly into this category: classic, simple, delicious — and easy to reinterpret.

During Hanukkah latkes are almost always eaten at dinner, or maybe left over with lunch, but recently they have been popping up on brunch menus in New York City. Often they appear under another name, but they are latkes nonetheless. The popular brunch spot Prune calls them “potatoes rosti,” while others refer to them as hash browns, or otherwise. The pan-fried potato pancakes provide depth of flavor and crunch (and let’s be honest, a curative to Saturday night’s festivities) to any brunch plate. They also add a delightful taste of Jewish tradition to an otherwise average Sunday.

Generally (as we pointed out during Hanukkah), there are two schools of invention for latkes. Some argue that it’s best to mix in your variations, by adding zucchini, beets or parsnips to the potato-onion base. Others crown their latkes with toppings like braised brisket or even caviar and crème fraiche. But there is a third way: incorporate them into something entirely different. I give you Latkes Benedict — a dish born of my being faced with an excessive number of latkes left over from Hanukkah parties every year and my deep love of salad with poached eggs.

The traditional Eggs Benedict consists of half an English muffin topped with Canadian bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce, which is luscious and rich if made properly. The dish’s origins are hotly contested, even among the most reliable food historians. Some accounts place the dish’s first appearance at the Waldorf Hotel when a hung-over diner named Lemuel Benedict asked for toast, bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise. Another tale says it was first ordered at Delmonico’s when a couple, also with the last name Benedict, asked for something “off menu.” Either way, the dish came onto the New York breakfast scene just before the turn of the 20th century. Since then it has been prepared with some, though not much, variation.

I’m not looking to revolutionize Eggs Benedict — it truly is one of the best dishes on any brunch menu if (and that’s a big if) it is prepared well, but it is a fun and somewhat playful dish to reinvent with a latke and kosher “fixins.” It is a somewhat involved process, though, so it is best for a Sunday brunch party or made with latkes pulled from the freezer. (Latkes freeze very well, particularly when revived in a hot oven.)

Below are two variations for brunch latkes, one dairy and the other with meat. Both are excellent served with a salad of mixed greens or spinach dressed in a light vinaigrette to cut the oil of the latke and richness of the hollandaise (for the dairy version). I grant you that the hollandaise-and-latke combination is a rich one, so you may opt to leave the hollandaise off. But if you like to indulge yourself after a night out, embrace your Sunday morning with this Jewish twist on a brunch classic.

Lox With a Twist

See basic latke recipe below. Replace one russet or two Yukon potatoes with one yellow squash and one green zucchini, peeled if you wish, and grated. It will add a vegetal flavor and lightness. After cooking the latkes, place them on a plate and drape thinly sliced Nova or gravlax on top. Add the poached egg, hollandaise and some chopped chives for the finishing touch.

N.B.: Hollandaise takes some practice to make well and easily. If you don’t have a recipe you like, try this one from Epicurious.

A Meaty Brunch

Replace two potatoes with two peeled and grated parsnips for a nutty flavor. When the latkes are done, place them on top of Canadian-style turkey bacon. Top with the egg. Chives are also a welcome addition to this Latke Benedict. If you want to “kick it up a notch,” try adding a pinch of cayenne pepper to your latke mix.

Basic Latke Recipe

6 russet or 8 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1 large yellow or sweet white onion peeled
3 tablespoons flour or more
2 eggs
2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
Vegetable oil

1) Grate potatoes and onions. Mix them together. The mixture will release liquid. Dispose of as much of it as possible. (I suggest using a colander and a couple of clean dishtowels, or cheesecloth.)

2) Mix the eggs in a bowl with the salt and pepper.

3) Combine the potatoes, eggs and flour. If the mixture is still liquidy, do your best to drain it and add more flour.

4) Form the latkes into thick patties between your hands and squeeze any extra liquid out. This is important — the quality of latkes is entirely dependent upon technique.

5) Place into a pan with approximately with ¼ inch of vegetable or safflower oil and fry on high heat. Do not press the latkes down once they are in the pan. Simply flip when the bottom is golden brown. When done, place them on paper towels to drain.

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