Crisp on the outside and wonderfully seasoned on the inside, these oil-fried potato pancakes are served during the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Latkes, like most other traditional Jewish foods, represent much more than just something wonderful to eat. Chanukah commemorates the Jews’ defeat of the Syrians some two thousand years ago and the relighting of the eternal oil in the temple of Jerusalem. Thus during the eight nights of celebration, Jewish people all over the world light their menorahs (usually using candles instead of oil) and deliberately use oil to fry various foods. In this way, the Jewish heritage is kept alive through this annual re-enactment of events that symbolize the struggle, perseverance and ultimate survival of the Jewish people. However, this is one of those traditional recipes that tastes so great that anyone of any heritage will adore and enjoy serving it throughout the year.
Serve these potato pancakes hot, accompanied with Homemade Applesauce.
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Scrub and peel the potatoes and place them in a bowl of ice water to prevent discoloration and to remove some of the excess surface starch. When ready to fry, remove the potatoes from the water, rub dry and, if using a food processor, cut into chunks. Place the potatoes with the onion wedges into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until fairly smooth. Pour mixture into a triple-mesh strainer that sits over another bowl and place a doubled sheet of paper toweling directly on top of the potato mixture to keep it from turning brown. Allow to drain for 3 to 5 minutes, pressing gently on the paper towels to help remove excess liquid. Alternatively, for a more textural mixture, rub the potatoes and onion against a hand-held grater over a bowl and drain as directed above.
Cover a few wire cooling racks with a double-thickness of paper toweling. Pour vegetable oil into a 10-to 12-inch skillet (preferably cast iron) to measure 1/2 inch. Heat until the top looks shimmering but not smoking (365o F).
Pour the drained potato mixture into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg, matzo meal, chopped parsley and/or chives and mix well with potato mixture. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Using 1/4 cup dry measuring cup, scoop portions of potato mixture and ease it into the hot oil. Use the bottom of the dry measure or a flat turning spatula (not a spoon) to flatten slightly. Fry until golden brown on both sides (turning once) and, using 2 spatulas to help press out excess oil, carefully remove each cooked pancake from the hot oil to drain on the prepared wire racks. Continue frying until you've finished the batter.
Serve hot on a warmed serving tray accompanied by fresh applesauce and, if desired, just before serving, sprinkle the tops of the latkes lightly with chives and salt. (Don't salt the latkes until just before serving since applying salt to the exterior in advance will cause the potatoes to lose some of their crispness.)
The potatoes can be peeled early in the day and kept totally submerged in water. Leave them at room temperature for a few hours or refrigerate for longer storage.
The latkes can be cooked up to 4 hours in advance and left at a comfortable room temperature. To reheat, place them on a wire rack that sits within a large shallow baking sheet in a preheated 350o F oven until hot and crisp, about 15 minutes.
Cooked latkes also can be frozen in a heavy freezer container separated by sheets of waxed paper. (If planning to freeze them, remove from hot oil when lightly golden but not a deep brown.) To reheat, don't thaw but heat on a wire rack within a shallow baking sheet in a preheated 400o F oven until hot throughout, brown and very crisp, about 20 minutes. Cover pancakes loosely with aluminum foil (shiny side up to deflect heat), if the latkes start to become overly brown.