Somewhere between an email from a lonely coed who wanted me to check out her webcam and a plea for assistance from the family of a displaced African dictator, I came upon an invitation from the James Beard House in New York City to participate in a latke-making competition.
There were to be three professional chefs and three "amateur chefs" (that would be my category) competing, and former New York Times restaurant reviewer Mimi Sheraton, among others, judging. I typed, "sure," and pressed send.
Then I panicked.
Matt Seeber, my best chef (professional category) friend and then chef at the wonderful but destined-to-fail restaurant Bid (owned by the Sotheby's auction house), was on the phone counseling me within moments. "A what competition?" (He's a gentile.) "Okay, well come over to the restaurant and we'll practice making those things." Returning the courtesy with one of my own, I inquired as to which night might be best.
"A slow night," he said. "That would be any night we're open." (Matt's now the chef at the phenomenally successful Craftsteak in Las Vegas.)
My first idea was to serve the latkes with bacon, it being axiomatic that everything tastes better with bacon. But research revealed that someone had tried that in a previous year and not been judged well. The preparation sounded great. The latkes -- potato pancakes, traditionally served on Hanukah -- had a hole stamped out of the middle, into which was nestled a quail egg and some bacon. The Beard House isn't kosher, but I guess when it comes to disrespecting tradition there's only so far you can go. I decided I wasn't going to do anything blatantly un-kosher. But boy, I thought, wouldn't the latkes taste good if they were cooked in . . . bacon grease? I mean, that's got to be better than Canola oil, right?
Then it hit me: there is one substance in the universe that's as good as bacon grease, and that substance is duck fat. A Google search revealed plenty of purveyors of kosher ducks, so no theoretical problem there. It's not that far from chicken fat (schmaltz), which is a widely accepted European Jewish food product. Why didn't anybody think of this before, I wondered?
I got myself a seven-ounce container of D'Artagnan duck fat (don't ask me why they sell it in increments of seven ounces), made up a standard latke batter of shredded potatoes, diced onions, eggs, matzoh meal and salt and pepper, fried up a few latkes and plated them up with the standard condiments of apple sauce and sour cream on a red plate. The white sour cream looked great against the red plate.
Shit. That's why nobody cooks latkes in duck fat: in kosher cooking you can't mix meat and dairy, so duck fat and sour cream together is out of the question. Another problem: the latkes were awful. They were limp, undercooked on the inside and burnt on the outside, and they tasted like all fat and no duck.
Still, I believed -- I was too emotionally invested in duck fat to give up. Did Thomas Edison stop trying to invent the light bulb after his first few experiments failed? Did Christopher Columbus turn his ships back at the first hint of poor weather? Did Evel Knievel stop at jumping only a dozen Pepsi delivery trucks? Visionaries don't just quit. I left a voicemail for Matt: "I'm going to need you to order me like five pounds of duck fat, okay? Do they even measure it in pounds?"
While I waited to hear back, I considered the sour cream problem. Nowhere in the Beard House competition rules -- or the Talmud -- is it written that you have to serve your latkes with sour cream, so I figured I'd just substitute something else. I'd already been thinking about how apple sauce was sort of one-dimensional, and had decided to replace it with something along the lines of a fruit compote. I hijacked a family Passover recipe for Sephardic stewed dried fruit haroset -- on Passover, the haroset symbolizes the mortar for the bricks the Hebrew slaves built with in Egypt. It usually tastes that way too, but this recipe is quite tasty. I'd grown attached to my red plate idea, and really wanted the whiteness of sour cream as part of the composition.
I made a list of white foods. Nothing. I wandered the aisles of a supermarket looking for white foods that could form the basis of a good latke condiment. Nothing. On the way home, defeated, I stopped at Falafel Express for a snack. The cook assembled my falafel platter: first the falafel balls, then a small green salad, then a lemon wedge.
And finally, a beautiful white sesame tehina sauce. I had my white condiment, courtesy of a Middle Eastern street food.
From there on, everything I ate triggered thoughts of the latke contest. One night, at dinner, I looked at the caramelized onions on my plate and my mind raced: onions are an ingredient in latkes . . . wouldn't latkes taste even better made with caramelized onions?
I got my four cast-iron skillets and two deep-frying thermometers through security at Sotheby's, walked through the Bid dining room -- populated by maybe eleven people – to the kitchen, where my tub of duck fat awaited. I caramelized several pounds of onions and made four batters. The variations were: caramelized onions versus raw onions; and grated potatoes versus shredded potatoes. I heated up a quarter-inch of cooking fat in two pans -- one duck fat, one vegetable oil -- and cooked one of each of the four types of latkes in each, then repeated the exercise until everybody on the Bid kitchen team had tasted all variants.
The only conclusive findings from this first experiment were that grated potatoes make better latkes than shredded potatoes (a long-standing belief validated at last by a team of culinary professionals). There were, however, divergent opinions and much indecision about the other permutations. Latkes cooked in duck fat were too much of a good thing -- and I just couldn't find a good frying temperature. The ones in vegetable oil fried up as golden brown as a food stylist's wet dream, but were flavorless by comparison. The caramelized onions were too sweet, but they did have a great taste that the raw ones lacked.
I appealed to Matt, demanding that he rule between duck fat and vegetable oil.
Caramelized onions or raw?
It was Solomonic: there was no need to choose. Each element had favorable components -- I could combine them. The neutral vegetable oil would lend its properties to the flavorful duck fat; the caramelized onions would enhance the raw. The only remaining question was ratio. After hours of tasting that brought the Bid kitchen team to a state of exhaustion and gastrointestinal distress, the winning ratio was 50-50, for both fats and onions.
I was glad to be keeping oil in the recipe; part of the Hanukah tradition is to eat foods fried in oil, symbolizing the one-day supply of oil in the lamps in the Temple that burned for eight days -- the miracle of Hanukah (I later learned that European Jews had fried latkes in goose fat for centuries before I thought of it. Dang). Chika Tillman, the Bid pastry chef who now owns the Chikalicious dessert bar in Manhattan, helped me tweak the condiments (ground dried ginger in the haroset and rosemary in the tehina) and sketch out a plating composition kind of like a yin and yang centered around a latke. We also came up with a few other minor innovations, like sprinkling a little coarse salt on each latke after cooking. And so I had my latke and condiment recipes, ready for competition.
The Beard House advertising went out, introducing the contestants. It was said of me that, "With tastes that tend more toward France than the Lower East Side, you can bet he will prepare something creative and delicious for his latke entry." This worried me. Such big talk would not only raise expectations, but also turn the anti-snobs against me. Besides, if I have such French tastes how come I don't know why duck fat comes in seven-ounce containers?
I arrived at the Beard House with my equipment, my latke batter, my condiments and eighty red plates.
Things fell apart almost immediately. The Beard House kitchen is an embarrassment: most visiting chefs do as much of their cooking as possible in nearby restaurant kitchens and bring the nearly finished food over for final heating. You can't do that with latkes, which degrade logarithmically from the moment they're removed from the oil. Visiting chefs also have the kitchen to themselves; I had to share it with five other competitors: a woman from Long Island who hosts a large annual latke party, a young Jewish woman from Mexico who used to be an intern at the Beard House, Alex Porter (from the restaurant Norma's in the Parker Meridien hotel), Christine Kelly (from Avenue restaurant) and Chris Broberg (then pastry chef of Petrossian, now at Cafe Gray).
I had half a stovetop to work with; Broberg had the other half. The restaurant ranges were so hot they interfered with my thermometer readings, so I had to judge the oil/duck fat temperature by telepathy. The warming oven was too far from my station, which created a traffic jam, but I was actually able to produce my latkes on schedule. The same could not be said for the professionals, though, so my latkes had to sit, while they finished theirs late.
When it came time to plate the latkes, we were informed -- surprise! -- that we had to share presentation plates: there would be one of each type of latke on a large white plate. My red plate idea went out the window -- as did any hope of a special composition, when two helpful volunteers grabbed the condiments and started
spooning them willy-nilly.
We served about eighty guests this way. In the end, the panel of professional judges voted, as did the entire assembled audience of mostly Beard House members. The professional judges ranked the professional and amateur contestants separately. The audience voted for a single best latke specimen.
I had never before participated in a cooking competition, nor have I since. The professional judges didn't regard mine as the best, even among the amateurs. The audience, however, chose mine as the top overall latkes. Maybe that makes me a winner, or maybe not. But it felt good.
Caramelized-onion Latkes with Sephardic Haroset and Tehina-Rosemary
Feeds a dozen Jews, or about 20 Gentiles
For the caramelized-onion latkes:
6 medium Idaho russett potatoes
2 medium Spanish onions
3 large eggs
1/4 cup matzoh meal
1/2 cup duck fat
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
Finely dice one of the onions and place it in a skillet over low heat with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and a generous amount of salt (approximately 1 teaspoon) and pepper (10 or more grinds). Cook for approximately 20 minutes. Keep the heat low in order to get the onions thoroughly translucent and only very slightly caramelized. If you let the heat get too high, the onions will get too brown, which will cause the onions to burn when you fry the latkes, adversely affecting their appearance and flavor. When done, set aside to cool to room temperature.
Finely dice the other onion and place it in a mixing bowl.
Peel and grate all the potatoes by hand on a box grater or mandoline. Do not use a food processor or grate the potatoes into water. Just hand-grate them into the bowl that contains the raw onion. After each potato is grated, toss the mixture together with a spoon. The onion will help keep the potato from discoloring too much. There will be
some discoloration, but mostly it will be reversed by the cooking.
Drain the potato/raw-onion mixture in a colander. Press down thoroughly on the mixture in order to squeeze out as much water as possible.
Return mixture to bowl. Add the eggs, matzoh meal, caramelized onions, and approximately 1 teaspoon salt. Combine thoroughly with a fork.
Heat the canola oil and duck fat together in a heavy (preferably cast-iron) skillet until they reach 300 degrees as measured by a candy thermometer. (This is an intentionally low frying temperature, but works well for latkes.)
Take a small handful (approximately 1/8 cup) of the latke batter and, holding it over an empty bowl or sink to catch excess liquid, flatten it into a rough oval with your hands. Slide the latke carefully into the hot cooking fat. You should be able to fit five latkes at a time comfortably in a standard 10.5 inch cast-iron skillet. By the time the
fifth latke is formed and in the fat, it should be time to turn the first one (an average-sized spoon, like you would use to eat a bowl of soup, works better than tongs or a spatula). Peek underneath to see if it is a nice light golden brown; if it is, turn it. Wait a few seconds and turn the next, and continue for all the latkes. When the latkes are light golden brown on both sides, remove to paper towels. Blot both sides thoroughly then sprinkle each side with a few grains of fleur-de-sel.
For the Sephardic haroset:
2 large apples of a variety suitable for cooking (e.g., Rome)
2 cups assorted dried fruits (as a rough guide, my recipe included
dried apples, California figs & dates, Turkish apricots, Angelino red dried plums & black prunes, and Monukah black raisins)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup sweet kosher red wine (such as Manischewitz Extra-Heavy Malaga)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground dried ginger
Peel and core the fresh apples and cut into rough chunks (the size is not particularly important).
Combine the fresh apple chunks with the dried fruits and sweet wine in a saucepan sufficiently large to accommodate some expansion (a 2-3 quart saucepan should suffice). Add cold water just shy of covering.
Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for 1/2 hour. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Put the cooked fruit-and-wine mixture and the ground ginger into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade. The mixture should not be watery. If it is, pour off the excess liquid (this liquid is very flavorful and can be reduced and added back to the mixture if desired). Process for about 10 seconds until you have a
roughly chopped mixture. Add the walnuts and process for about 2 seconds more. Refrigerate until needed.
Serve at room temperature with the latkes.
For the tehina-rosemary dressing:
1 cup sesame tehina
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, picked and cleaned (plus extra for garnish)
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Put the tehina, rosemary, lime juice, olive oil, about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup cold water in a blender or food processor bowl fitted with the metal chopping blade. Mix until thoroughly combined -- at least 30 seconds. Refrigerate until needed. Serve at room temperature with the latkes. Garnish the tehina-rosemary dressing with cut-up sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Steven Shaw (aka Fat Guy) is executive director of the eGullet Society. He has been known to do other things on occasion.