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Sonoma County chef’s advice for frying perfect latkes for Hanukkah

A latke is a latke is a latke ... or is it?

If you think you know latkes but you’re still making your bubbe’s traditional recipe and smothering it with applesauce and sour cream, think again.

That’s delicious, but so Old Country.

Bruce Riezenman, a longtime Sonoma County chef who co-owns Park Avenue Catering with Ari Weiswasser of the Glen Ellen Star, prefers to top his latkes with slices of his Citrus-Cured Salmon, a dollop of crème fraîche, a sprinkle of herbs and a handful of briny capers.

“That’s the food that I always think about when we talk about Hanukkah,” he said. “It’s pretty much the only time of year I make them ... with the crème fraîche and capers, that’s a beautiful thing.”

The chef has spent a lifetime perfecting the delicious potato pancakes he used to eat as a child with his parents and grandparents during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The holiday accompanied by gift giving and games such as spinning the dreidel begins this year on Thursday, Dec. 10.

One of the chef’s secrets to making latkes is to use the onion juice to keep the potatoes from oxidizing and turning brown. He also recycles the potato starch, squeezed out of the spuds and drained in a bowl, to help bind the pancakes together.

“That’s what makes this recipe more unique than most,” he said. “I use the starch to mix back in with the eggs and matzoh meal.”

Raised in Brooklyn and Queens, Riezenman and his family always celebrated Hanukkah with a menorah burning with Hanukkah candles and the requisite fried foods, symbolizing the miracle of the oil in the temple.

As the story goes, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) celebrates the second century B.C. rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors during the Maccabean Revolt.

After driving the Syrians out, the Jews rebuilt the temple’s altar and relighted its candelabrum, its symbolic branches designed to keep burning every night. Even though there was only enough olive oil to keep the candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights.

“That was the miracle of Hanukkah,” Riezenman said. “Not being a very religious person, I’ve always looked at the holiday as reflecting the freedoms we have in this country. When my kids were young, I would explain that we can put a menorah in our window, and no one is going to bother us.”

Through the years, Riezenman has also shared his recipe and techniques for making top-notch latkes — creamy and pillowy on the inside, wispy and crispy on the outside — with his kids.

This month, due to the pandemic, Park Avenue Catering is offering a special Hanukkah dinner for delivery or pickup that includes a Green Salad with Tahini-Apple Cider Vinaigrette, Caramelized Onion Braised Brisket, Roasted Winter Veggies and Jelly-Filled Challah Donuts. You also can add on a half dozen or a dozen latkes, so you don’t have to fry them up at home (to order: parkavecater.com and click on holiday).

But if you’re up to the challenge, here are Riezenman’s top 10 secrets to making the most delicious latkes you’ll ever serve at your Hanukkah table:

1 - Make sure to keep everything cold before making the mixture.

2 - Use a food processor to grate the onions, pulsing them into small pieces (stopping short of pureeing them).

3 - When you grate the russet potatoes, grate them into long strips.

4 - Add the chopped parsley and chives to the potato mixture at the very end, then mix until you see that they are well distributed. That lets you know that all the ingredients are integrated. Keep stirring the mixture as you make new latkes, to reintegrate the liquid into the mixture.

5 - Make the latke mixture at least 20 minutes early and refrigerate. That way the matzah meal can absorb the liquid from the onions and potatoes.

6 - Use a large tablespoon to scoop the latke mixture out, and do not press the mixture together. You want to make loose pancakes that will stay airy in the pan.

7 - As the frying continues, be aware that the latkes will brown up more quickly.

8 - Take the latkes out when they have a nice brown color on both the top and the bottom, then transfer them to a baking sheet and hold in a 350-degree oven for about 10 more minutes. That way, they will continue to cook through to the center while staying warm.

9 - If you are giving a party, you may want to fry up the latkes ahead of time, then hold at room temperature. When ready to serve, put them in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so to reheat.

10 - When removing latkes from the pan, place on paper towels first to absorb the excess oil.

“Potato latkes have been a Hanukkah treat in my family for as long as I can remember,” Riezenman said. “Over the years, I have replaced the traditional applesauce and sour cream with Citrus-Cured Salmon, dill, capers, sour cream (or crème fraîche) and a gentle squeeze of lemon. The lemon and briny capers add a lot and brighten the fried latkes.

“One of the challenges of latkes is keeping the potato mix from turning brown before cooking,” he added. “I’ve solved this with two tricks: grate your onions first and make sure that all ingredients, including the potatoes, are very cold when making the mix.

“If you are going to cook the latkes ahead and reheat, make sure you cook them all the way or the centers will oxidize and turn dark.”

Potato Latkes

Makes 40 hors d’oeuvres-size servings

2 pounds large russet potatoes, peeled and kept cold in the fridge

1 medium onion, peeled, grated and quickly pulsed in a food processor

2 tablespoons chives, sliced thin

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped

1 large egg

¼ cup matzoh meal

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the grated/pulsed onion and the egg in a mixing bowl.

Using the large side of a box grater, grate the potatoes into a strainer that is suspended over a bowl. Once the potatoes are grated, squeeze out as much of the excess potato liquid as you can into a separate bowl and then mix thoroughly with the onion and egg mixture.

Let the liquid from the potatoes settle for 5 minutes and then carefully pour off the water that has collected, being careful to save the potato starch that has settled on the bottom. Scrape the starch into the latke mix; add the matzo meal, chives and parsley along with some salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. Cover the mix with plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator for 20 minutes to allow the matzoh meal to absorb some of the liquid.

Place a cast-iron skillet (or sauté pan) over medium heat with enough canola oil to generously coat/float on the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot but not smoking, stir the latke mix (to make sure the liquids are evenly distributed) and spoon a heaping tablespoon of the mix into the pan. Press down to flatten the mix and repeat until you have filled the pan with as many hors d’oeuvre-sized latkes as will fit. Cook over medium heat until the bottoms are nicely golden brown. Flip latkes over and cook the second side the same way (approximately 4 to 5 minutes per side).

When the latkes are done, remove to a paper towel to absorb any of the excess oil and sprinkle with a touch of salt. Place on a clean baking sheet to keep warm in the oven. Repeat with the rest of the latkes.

Serve with Citrus-Cured Salmon (recipe below), sour cream or crème fraîche, chopped parsley and chives, capers and lemon.

Making your own cured salmon is much easier than most people think and well worth the effort.

Citrus-Cured Salmon

To cure the salmon:

1½ pounds wild salmon fillet, skin off, pin bones removed, single piece

½ cup light brown sugar

3 ounces (in volume) kosher salt

2 tablespoons brandy

Zest of 1 lime, very fine

Zest of ½ orange, very fine

Zest of ½ lemon, very fine

Mix all dry ingredients together with the brandy. Place a large piece of plastic wrap on the counter and put half the salt mixture in a layer about the same size as the salmon in the middle of the plastic wrap. Place the salmon skin side down on the salt mix. Top the salmon with the rest of the mix. Wrap tightly around the salmon, leaving one side slightly open for liquid to escape. Place the salmon in a baking dish and top it with a heavy pan or other flat-bottomed object that weighs at least a pound or two.

Place in the refrigerator overnight. Turn the plastic with the fish over the next morning and put the weight back on it. Do this again every 12 hours or so for a total of 24 to 48 hours depending upon how thick the filet is.

Once the salmon is cured and relatively firm, remove it from the plastic, rinse off the salt mix and pat dry. Re-wrap in clean plastic and hold until you are ready to use.

Brisket, slow-cooked in the oven to tenderize the tough cut of meat, is especially popular as a holiday main course for Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.

Red Wine Brisket

Makes 10 servings

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

1 (5-6 pound) brisket

1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 onions, peeled and medium diced

1 (10-ounce) can tomatoes

2 cups dry red wine

1 cup good-quality beef broth

2 stalks celery with the leaves, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

¼ cup chopped parsley

6 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season the brisket with salt and pepper.

Place a Dutch oven on the stove over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Once the oil and pan are hot, sear the brisket on both sides and remove. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the rest of the oil to the pan. Add the garlic and let it lightly brown. Add the onions and season with a little more salt and pepper. Stir, cover and let cook until the onions are transparent. Remove the cover and add the red wine. Reduce to half the original volume, about 10 minutes.

Place the brisket fat side up on top of the onions. Add tomatoes, celery, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary.

Cover and bake in the oven for about 3 hours, basting often with the pan juices.

Add the parsley and carrots and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes more, or until the carrots are cooked. To test for doneness, stick a fork in the brisket. When there is a light pull on the fork as it is removed from the meat, it is ready.

Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove the fat that has congealed on the top. Slice the brisket while it is cold and put it back in with the cooking liquids until you are ready to heat and serve.

When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the brisket and most of the vegetables and pour the gravy into a sauce pot and simmer on the stove top. Taste it and adjust it for flavor. You can reduce it further to make it more flavorful. Remember that you will need 2 to 3 ounces of gravy per person when you are done.

Put the sliced brisket and veggies in a roasting pan. Pour the hot gravy on the meat, cover and reheat in the oven for about 30 minutes.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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