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Steven Shaw in Latke contest


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  • 2 weeks later...

My latke recipe was: Caramelized-onion latkes, cooked in duck fat, with Sephardic dried-fruit haroset and rosemary-tehina dressing.

The way it worked was that we each made 75 latkes, 5 of which went to a panel of celebrity-chef/author-type judges and 70 of which went to the Beard House members. The panel of judges tasted, voted without comment, and departed before the winners were announced (between the competition and the announcement of the winners, there was a multi-course dinner prepared by the staff of Shallots, probably the best kosher restaurant in America, with branches in New York and Chicago). I'm not even sure who the judges were, though I'm told Mimi Sheraton was one of them. But at no time did we come in personal contact with them.

The panel of judges awarded a winner in the professional category and in the amateur category (there were two actual working chefs, plus three non-chefs competing), whereas the members voted only for one overall winner, lumping the professionals and amateurs together. I have no idea why it is done this

way.

Results-wise, I won the vote of the members, and I placed second among amateurs with the judges.

The professional winner (on the judge's tally) was the chef from Norma's in the Parker Meridien, who did a latke with two dipping sauces, one of which was fruity and the other of which was gingery. Not that different conceptually from what I did, though very different in taste. The professional who lost (Christina Kelly from Maison, formerly from Veritas) made a latke topped with a wild mushroom and shallot mixture that I thought was outstanding.

My ingredients, specifically:

Caramelized-Onion Latkes: Grated Idaho russett potatoes, caramelized and raw Spanish onions, egg and matzoh meal (Fried in equal parts canola oil and duck fat)

Sephardic Haroset: Stewed fresh & dried apples, California figs & dates, Turkish apricots, Angelino red dried plums & black prunes, Monukah black raisins, walnuts, sweet kosher red wine, fresh-ground dried ginger

Tehina-Rosemary Dressing: Sesame tehina, fresh rosemary, fresh-squeezed lime juice

The idea was to have the haroset pinch hit for apple sauce (fruity) and the tehina pinch hit for sour cream (cooling-creamy) -- Sephardic alternatives to the traditional Ashkenazic garnishes. And the duck fat was supposed to be reminiscent of schmaltz (chicken fat). So sort of a fusion dish, but fusion mostly among Jewish traditions.

Happy Hanukah, everyone.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Wow. Uh, Wow.

Caramelized onions. Duck fat.

Wow.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Caramelized is probably a misleading description, because I tried not to let the onions take on much color. That would have adversely affected the appearance of the latkes on the inside. I suppose the onions were really "sweated": Cooked long and slow until translucent and very sweet.

I thought of it because I'm not a huge fan of those chunks of almost-raw onion in most people's latkes. At the same time I don't like latkes that don't have onions in them. I don't know if others have thought of this, but everyone was under the impression that my idea was quite original. I'm sure it isn't, but I did think of it myself.

Anyway, when I made my final set of test batters (this was after a lot of earlier experimentation as to ingredients ratios), I had four: Two with raw onions, and two with caramelized onions; two with the potatoes washed after grating, and two with the potatoes unwashed (the four represented each combination of the two and two). I cooked each in two different fats: One was all duck fat, and the other was half duck fat and half vegetable oil.

All duck fat was too overpowering, so half and half quickly emerged as the way to go.

I liked the latkes better with the potatoes unwashed. Washing made them lighter and airier, but to me that's not the point of a latke.

The cooked onions worked really well, but there was still something missing without those little bits of almost-raw onion (perhaps this is just a quirky preference I developed in childhood, because it's not entirely standard). So I mixed the raw-onion and cooked-onion batters together and -- bang! -- that was clearly the recipe.

In terms of cooking, the big trick is to use a thermometer to get a reading on the temperature of the cooking fat. Just around 300 degrees worked best for the duck fat and vegetable oil mixture. This is lower than the books recommend, and perhaps it produces a greasier latke than 350 would, but it gives a nice, light-gold color that I consider essential to true latkes (latkes are not, after all, hash browns).

The other trick is salt. Salt in the batter, and a tiny bit of fleur de sel sprinkled on each side of each latke the second it comes out of the fat and hits the paper towel. I was amazed that, of all the contestants, including the professionals (I think), I was the only one adding salt to my latkes after cooking. This seems like a no-brainer.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I really like the idea of using duck fat, schmaltz but with more flavor.  

It sounds like you made an onion confit more rather than caramelized onions.  I let the onions get really brown, bringing out their full sweetness before I add them to the latkes.  

Haroset for Chanukah, too funny.

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I thought the duck fat worked very nicely. Someone asked me, upon learning that duck fat was my secret weapon, "Where do you get duck fat?"

Was I rude for saying, "From a duck?"

On nouvelle-cuisine menus, confit has come to mean anything cooked slowly in fat. But I'm still sticking to the real definition: Food (most commonly duck) slowly cooked in its own fat. So I don't really accept the notion of vegetable confit. Also confit really implies submersion in fat, I think.

To sweat is to cook in a small amount of fat over very low heat, in order to soften ingredients without browning. That's probably the most correct term for what I did.

I would have used real caramelized onions but I had two problems: 1) Appearance-wise, they would have worked against me. I figure someone judging a latke competition is going to look for a golden exterior and a white (or appropriately potato-colored) interior. If I had done sweet potato latkes, maybe caramelized onions would have worked with the color scheme. 2) I was concerned that any caramelized onions on the exterior of the latkes would burn too easily when fried. I don't know if there is scientific support for that, but it seemed intuitively correct.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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No question I used the bastardized version of the word confit.  I have probably seen in used on too many menus as a reference to a slow cooking method as compared to the actual dish.  

When I use caramelized onions, I have the oil at a lower temperature and watch the latkes very carefully.  There is a small window between an excellent latke and having burnt bitter pieces of onion on the exterior.  I also found that scallions, which I add as well, have a tendency to burn, so I have to be careful with them as well.  I agree with you that they should be a light golden color, not cooked to a dark brown, which helps reduce the chance of the onions burning.

All this latke talk has me craving one.

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Quote: from Fat Guy on 9:28 am on Dec. 11, 2001

On nouvelle-cuisine menus, confit has come to mean anything cooked slowly in fat. But I'm still sticking to the real definition: Food (most commonly duck) slowly cooked in its own fat. So I don't really accept the notion of vegetable confit. Also confit really implies submersion in fat, I think.

Delicious though your latkes sound, I am going to disagree with you about the meaning of 'confit'.  It comes from the verb 'confire', which simply means 'to preserve'.  Restaurants do indeed serve confits of duck and other meats, where the meat has simply been cooked in some fat or other as you describe.  I regard these as not true confits.  Once the duck, let's say, has been cooked in the appropriate fashion, it needs to be preserved for at least a week, I would say, in the cold fat, before it starts to take on the mysterious, velevety unctuousness (yeah!) of a true confit.  When I make a confit of duck or rabbit, I always give the meat twenty four hours in salt (with aromatic herbs) before cooking - I don't know if that's the French way.

It follows that I can't see anything wrong with referring to preserved fruit or vegetables as confits too.  I mean, we talk about 'preserves', don't we?  That's all a  confit is.

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It would be correct to say that true confit must be both cooked in its own fat and preserved. One example of a definition, from Barron's:

confit [kohn-FEE, kon-FEE] This specialty of Gascony, France, is derived from an ancient method of preserving meat (usually goose, duck or pork) whereby it is salted and slowly cooked in its own fat. The cooked meat is then packed into a crock or pot and covered with its cooking fat, which acts as a seal and preservative. Confit  can be refrigerated up to 6 months. Confit d'oie and confit de canard are preserved goose and preserved duck, respectively.

But I would not leap from that to saying that etymology equals a definition. Confit derives from a word meaning preserve. It does not follow that it means preserve only. The word has a clear and traditional culinary definition that I would like to . . . preserve.

Andy, you're a cooking-competition veteran, are you not? You should plan a trip to New York next year around this time and enter the Beard House latke cookoff.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Language does indeed evolve (which is why the science of etymology, er, evolved), but this doesn't mean that mistakes can't occur.  If a mistake is suffiiciently widespread, it often graduates to being correct:  one example is the word 'sleek' which originally just meant 'fat', but is now generally accepted to mean something utterly different.  It is worth trying to rectify mistakes if they obscure something important, which the misuse of 'confit' does - namely the very distinctive taste which arises from being preserved.

(Edited by Wilfrid at 11:24 am on Dec. 11, 2001)

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Steven - you are correct that I am a veteran of several, rather prestigous it must be said, cookery competitions. It sounds like a bloody good excuse to visit NY as well. I wonder if I could get sponsored by somebody to do it? Perhaps I could cook latke for charity, a bit like all those marathon runners that get free trips to NY if they collect so many £1000s of pledges.

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Confit and confiture, for all their similarity and obvious shared derivation, are not the same thing. Nevertheless, Fat Guy is on shakey ground going to a dictionary rather than a food book, in my opinion, in this situation. However, my old worn American edition of the Larousse Gastronomique would have also supported him by listing only confits of meat under the heading "confit." My edition was printed in 1961.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux, I agree confiture is probably more acceptable when discussing preserves of fruit and vegetables.  I just think it's pushing it to say that using confit is wrong.  It's clearly a noun form derived from the third person singular of the verb confire and although it may often mean more than just "a preserve", I am convinced it mean at least that.

I looked up 'confit' in Webster's on line, but they think confire means 'to prepare', which I think is wrong, so they weren't much help.  My Larousse must be a lot more recent than '61, so I will take a look when I get a chance.

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Bux, I didn't use a regular dictionary! I used Barron's Food Lover's Companion, 2nd edition. I think it's the best English-language food dictionary, though it's not flawless. Larousse is more detailed, but the translation and transition into an English-language edition has not been as effective as I would have hoped. Still, in the event of a disparity, I'd probably go with Larousse.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Sorry, "Barron's" just rang the worng bell for a moment, but Larousse was on the same side.

Wilfrid, I was just quoting an old referrence. I'm inclined to agree that words change meaning quickly and conservatives and purists are fighting a lost cause. You can pull out all the references you want, but when 80% of the food world uses a word to mean something new, no scholarly effort is going to move the language back.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux, your point is correct of course, and is a general truth about ordinary language.  There is, however, a period of transition during which the attempt to give a word a new meaning can be resisted, sometimes successfully.  My real objection was to the increasing, but by no means universal, use of 'confit' to mean braised in fat but not necessarily preserved - which really loses something important from the original meaning.  The 1984 Larousse (American text) supports me there in it's confit entry - and I shall continue contradicting those who use the term wrongly.

On the other issue of whether preserved fruit/veg/etc can be called 'confits', the water remains slightly muddy.  Larousse discusses confit exclusively in terms of meat.  But the entry right before that deals with 'confire' - the preservation process - and discusses that in terms of meat, fruit and vegetables.  I guess that issue will remain contentious.

Is it too late to wish Steven luck with his latkes?:biggrin:

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