Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brad's Hanukkah Latkes

We look forward to eating Brad's latkes every year. He usually only makes them once or twice during Hanukkah, so it's a special meal we all love. All five of us agree that of all the many ways to cook and eat potatoes, latkes top our list.

We've been using a recipe originally from the New York Times, but I can't trace down the recipe online. I copied it onto a recipe card that's now spattered with grease stains and has been photocopied a few times. Brad's modified it over the years with some of his steps for making and handling the mixture, but it's still basically the classic latke recipe enjoyed by us for over ten years and by Jews and gentiles for centuries.

Best Latkes

2 medium russet potatoes
1/2 onion
1/4 cup flour
1 t salt
1 egg
vegetable oil

1. Peel and grate the potatoes by hand. Brad uses a hand grater to get bigger pieces of potato than if he used a Cuisinart. This way the texture ends up more like hash browns.
2. Grate the onions into the same bowl as the potatoes, alternating onions and potatoes so they're mixed up together. The acid in the onions stops the potatoes from turning brown.
3. Squeeze the water out of the grated mixture of potatoes and onions and pour into a glass measuring cup.  Wait about five minutes for the potato starch to sink to the bottom of the measuring cup.  Pour off the liquid on top and then add the starch back into the grated mixture. Mix together well. The starch creates a firmer body to the pancakes.
4. Add in flour, salt, and egg, mixing everything together in the bowl.
5. Heat vegetable oil (we use canola oil) in a saute pan on the stove on medium high heat.  Brad uses two pans at once to cook the latkes faster.
6. Carefully place scoops of mixture into the pan and press into a round shape. Brad uses a 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop the mixture and makes his latkes about 3" in diameter. Fry on each side until a nice golden brown color.  Be sure to turn on the stove top fan.
7. Place cooked latkes in a single layer on a plate with paper towels to soak up the extra oil. Keep stacking paper towels in between layers of cooked latkes.

Brad tripled the recipe this year using six potatoes, which resulted in thirty-three latkes. We had six left over to enjoy the next day.  Serve with applesauce of your choosing.

These latkes truly deserve their place of honor at this festive holiday meal. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, the flavor and scent of onion hovering just under the potato's earthiness, dipped in applesauce that brings a light sweetness, tartness, and pureed feel to the tongue. We don't speak much while eating, mostly making moaning and grunting noises, swiftly reaching for the next latke and scooping out more applesauce to put on top. Amanda eats hers with her hands, the rest of us use forks. The crispy morsels of crumbs on the plate get eaten too, too yummy to leave. How a humble potato can turn into this luscious latke exemplifies the transformational power of cooking, and reveals the miracle of the oil which we celebrate this time of year.


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dim Sum Meal

We walked almost a mile from the San Francisco Hyatt Regency to the Oriental Pearl restaurant in Chinatown where we had dim sum lunch reservations.  I was excited about the lunch because our kids hadn’t ever really had a proper dim sum meal despite my Chinese heritage. Rachael Ray had recommended this restaurant, so it had to be good.  Here we could have an authentic Chinese meal. We found the restaurant and walked up the stairs.

Everyone looked at the menu.  It included some set menus for those who didn't want to order a la carte.  One was called 'The Dim Sum' and another 'Dim Sum Deluxe.'

“How about The Dim Sum set option?” I asked Brad.  He nodded. 

The waiter came back to the table. “Have you decided what you want to order?” he asked Brad. Brad said “Yes, we’d like the dim sum meal.”  “Which dim sum meal?” asked the waiter.  “THE dim sum meal,” Brad said, laughing. He pointed to the menu and the waiter nodded. Brad said, “I’d also like the order the spicy beef stir fry.” The waiter took the menus and left.

Valerie asked, “Can I have some tea?”  I sighed and said, “Fine. Do you want some too, Jacob?”  Jacob nodded and said, "Okay." I poured hot tea for her, me, Brad, and Jacob. Amanda drank ice water.

The waitress came to the table and placed a little plate of vegetarian spring rolls down. We all ate one except for Amanda.  “Are you sure you don’t want one?” I asked Amanda. She said, “No, they're gross.” It made a crunching sound when we bit into it, with warm and flavorful vegetables inside.  “Are you sure?” I asked her.  She shook her head again.

Then the waitress brought some potstickers.  “These are Jacob’s favorite,” I said. Jacob enthusiastically ate three; the girls didn’t eat any.  Valerie said, “I don’t like potstickers.” Then the waitress brought shrimp dumplings. I told the kids, “You really should try one. They’re delicious!” Jacob and Brad tried them but the girls didn’t eat any. I happily ate the leftovers, savoring the almost translucent white rice dough encasing the soft, sweet, pink shrimp flesh inside, like a beautiful noodle wrapper protecting a delicate treasure.

Then came the sui mai. “Kids, this is sui mai. It’s really good, a classic dim sum, with pork in it.”  Brad ate one and said, "It's okay, I guess." Jacob ate his up but the girls didn’t want one. I realized Amanda, the smallest and sternest of our group, was going to be starving if she didn’t eat anything and asked the waitress for a bowl of plain steamed rice for her, along with a fork.

Brad said, “I’m not really that into the dim sum. I’m glad I ordered the beef stir-fry.”   I grumbled under my breath, annoyed at his complaining. Next came the BBQ pork bao.  “Kids, this is like a Chinese hamburger. You’ll like it, just try it.”  Valerie took a little nibble, made a face and said, "Eww!" Amanda shook her head and said, “I don’t like dim sum.”  She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, eyebrows furrowed.  I peeled the square piece of paper off the bottom of the bao and bit in. The pure white dough on the outside contrasted with the bright pink-red, sweet and savory chunks of pork on the inside. I probably could eat bao every day.

The flavors of the shrimp dumplings and the bao reminded me of big banquets in L.A. that I’d gone to when I was a kid. The big Young family on my mom's side celebrated special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries with these banquets.  Those meals could stretch out for hours and had more exotic dishes like shark fin soup, whole roasted pig, roasted duck, abalone, sticky butterfly pastries, and bird’s nest soup. It wasn't unusual to have ten or more courses at these meals. 

Amanda got her bowl of rice and shook some soy sauce on it. She started eating it with her fork. Then came the pyramid shaped taro in pastry, which I’d never had. It made a crunching sound when we bit into it. Valerie wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooh, it’s mushy inside. It tastes weird. What is taro?”  Brad said, “It’s a root that they eat a lot in Hawaii.” Amanda ate her steamed rice while we all took a few bites of the taro. I had to admit, this one was kind of strange with a purplish-gray color inside. Nobody ate all of theirs.

Then came some rice with mushrooms and Chinese sausage wrapped in a green lotus leaf. Amanda opened one up, at first intrigued by the idea, but then she smelled it and frowned, saying, “Mom, this looks really disgusting.”  Valerie agreed, “I’m not going to eat it either. It smells funny.”  Jacob, Brad, and I all gamely tried it and ate a few bites. She was right, it did smell funny and it was very sticky, almost gelatinous.  “This is Chinese sausage, you guys,” I explained in a wavering voice.

The last dish served was custard in pastry, more familiar looking and probably French inspired.  Valerie ate hers and said, “Mmm, it’s good. You should try it, Amanda.”  Amanda poked it and shook her head again.  The rest of us ate our custards. I ate the one Amanda didn’t eat. I’d stopped counting calories by this point.

The stir fry beef dish arrived with two big spoons for serving. Brad put some onto his plate and ate it quickly.   Jacob, Valerie and I ate some too. Amanda shook her head no.  Brad polished off the rest and said, “I’m sure glad I ordered that beef. It was good.” I had to admit that it was better than the dim sum.

I felt disappointed that the food wasn’t better and that the kids didn’t appreciate it. I know Anthony Bourdain would say my first mistake was listening to Rachael Ray. I had expected too much of the meal, not only a gastronomic feast, but that the kids would somehow feel connected to their Chinese culture. I failed at both of these objectives, but at least they got to try and taste new things and it added to our Chinatown adventure. We’ve even joked since then about THE dim sum meal.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bagels from my Bubba

The comforting, yeasty smell of bagels makes me think of my grandmother Inez Neiman. Whenever she and my grandfather Zacky visited us from L.A., they always brought a big brown paper grocery bag of plain and onion bagels with containers of cream cheese. This was before we had any bagel shops in town, so I always associated bagels with visits from my grandparents.

There's nothing like the chewy satisfaction of eating a whole bagel hand to mouth, the thin crispy crust yielding to the soft goodness inside. I can't eat a bagel without smelling its insides with almost every bite. My all-around favorite bagel flavor is poppy seed, although I have a soft spot for sesame seed and the more modern cinnamon sugar. Lox schmear makes a creamy complement to the savory flavors, and I've never regretted topping toasted halves with butter.

I like all bagels, whether from Noah's, Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto, or Bagel Street Cafe. My favorite local bagel shop is Posh Bagel at 869 Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park. Here you can get twelve for the price of ten, an improvement on the baker's dozen. You can find over twenty-four mouthwatering kinds of bagels and twelve kinds of cream cheese, good coffee, whitefish, bagel chips, sandwiches, and pizzas. They also make delicious bagel hot dogs, a sure-fire lunch for the family (meaning everyone ends up happy and sated).

I don't look like I had a Jewish grandmother but I really did. After my dad was orphaned in China during World War II, he was adopted by a Marine named Arthur McCartney, and raised by the Neimans in Southern California. So I've grown up feeling part Jewish (and even ended up marrying a Jewish guy) partly because I grew up with my grandmother's culinary concoctions of chopped liver, brisket, kuchen, latkes, rugelach, and of course, the bagels from L.A. Explaining my part-Jewish family can be complicated. But eating a fragrant Posh Bagel warm from of the oven is simply divine.