Spicing up Hanukkah tradition
By Lou Fancher
(Arguably) Never before have potatoes fried in olive oil caused as many smiles and exclamatory cheers as they did at a Latkes “Chopped” competition, hosted by Chabad of Contra Costa’s Jewish Women Circle in Walnut Creek.
The challenge, loosely modeled on the Ted Allen-hosted Food Network cooking show, “Chopped,” invited participants in the pre-Hanukkah event to plunder a “market pantry” and use three-out-of-six mystery ingredients to make one-of-a-kind winners.
Five teams selected from potatoes, eggs, flour, winter vegetables, spices, herbs, condiments and other items to create fried potato pancakes known as latkes.
Olive oil was used by the Maccabees to light the menorah that long ago was to burn only one day, but miraculously lasted for the eight days needed to press more oil. To commemorate, Jews worldwide eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.
Berkowitz provided an immediate, contemporary connection: “Latkes are a creative way to celebrate because women are compared to oil in that we always rise to the top.”
And rising to the top in the challenge were the members of the Table Five team, having used a blend of aioli, avocado, sun-dried tomatoes, horseradish and a splash of Jack Daniel’s whiskey to create the winning dish.
Berkowitz said the team’s international mix of Chinese-, American-, and Russian-born Jewish women was “neat,” and might have led to their unique culinary approach.
Based on presentation, taste and creativity, Berkowitz said taste was the deciding factor.
“The competition was pretty close: the numbers differed by only three points and were almost a tie,” she said. “They got a ’10’ for taste and hit it over the top.”
The team’s “Latke Master Award” was a bottle of Invei Malvasia.
The judges were Berkowitz, along with Christine Aloni, culinary recruiter for Auberge Resorts in Napa, and Stella Ohayon, a chef and owner of (now closed) Calistoga restaurant, Triple S Ranch.
But creativity and traditions from multiple cuisines — and Jack Daniels — weren’t reserved entirely for the top-prize latkes. Honorable mention winner Table Three’s Julia Povlack of Pleasant Hill, said, “We threw everything in: sour cream, horseradish, Jack Daniel’s. We went with Asian meets West for the most interesting flavor profile.”
At Table One, Judy Abraham of Brentwood, said she makes latkes only once a year.
“They’re delicious, but they’re fried in oil and you can never eat just one. With these, we are going to ‘wow’ the judges.”
The final presentation featured latkes made with mystery ingredients, including potato chips, chili lime spice, balsamic vinegar, cumin and other spices, plus artful garnishes — eggplant disks, chopped radishes and a tomato “flower.”
Irina Nosovsky of Walnut Creek, said she also makes latkes only in December because to her they are “the flavor of Hanukkah.”
Watching reality cooking shows is a casual habit. “I watch with my son. We like the energy,” she says. Inspired by one show, she ventured to make a Cassava cake.
“It’s a Fillipino dessert. It was completely new ingredients we never use in Jewish cuisine. It turned out so good. Very sweet.”
Ohayon said that while judging the latkes, she looked for taste and the right proportion of ingredients.
“Making them not too soggy is tricky. It mustn’t be greasy. The dough must be fried nicely, but when you bite it, it isn’t spongy or floppy; oil doesn’t come out,” she said. “I’m looking for mystery ingredients in a traditional food with a different flip.”
Aloni sought flavor and creativity in her judging of the latkes, but most recalled the
atmosphere when asked about her favorite food memory.
“I’ve traveled to 25 countries to find chefs for my work. There’s a restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa, where you start in a dark room for 12 tastings, then you go to a light-filled room with a different menu. It’s 25 courses in all. I remember a piece of cured beef, served on the stem of a rose as if it was the flower.”
Amid the smiles and cheers at the end of the night, the camaraderie of good-hearted competition proved it true: When it comes to cooking and eating, atmosphere is everything.