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We were recently asked to make latkes for a catered event and we were thrilled!  We made over 160 latkes for this all-appetizer party for 50 people, along with 5 other menu items and the latkes were the first thing to go — they were a smash hit. And no wonder — who doesn’t love a crispy pile of potatoes after all? Latkes are one of those foods that, for many, represent family tradition and holiday celebration — and that means that for every family there is a grandmother-approved way of making them and eating them. For some it’s extra crispy, for some it’s soft in the middle, for some it’s smoked salmon, for some it’s applesauce. While we don’t want to step on grandma’s toes, we decided it would be fun to mix it up and offer a variety of toppings for this particular party. So we did latkes with creamy horseradish sauce, watercress sauce and smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar, apple-thyme compote and pomegranate-orange relish. The smoked salmon one went first, but I like the apple-thyme compote the best. At the risk of ruffling the feathers of tradition, here are our tips for making the perfect latke, along with a recipe for the watercress sauce that was such a hit. We did one batch with just potatoes and onions and one with some added carrot. In the end, they all tasted the same and you couldn’t really see the orange of the carrot. I’ve done a version with all butternut squash before that were pretty and delicious — a nice alternative to the original.

1. SHRED WITH SPEED – While there’s nothing wrong with using a traditional box grater, there is nothing like hand grating 10 pounds of potatoes to make you never want to cook again. And we are against anything that makes cooking harder than it needs to be. So may we suggest pulling out those grating disks that came with your Cuisinart (or other food processor) that are on a bottom shelf somewhere collecting dust. This is their time to shine. Remove the standard blade from your food processor and replace with the largest grating blade and the whole grating part of this recipe will take under 5 minutes.

2. MOISTURE IS THE ENEMY – Whenever the goal is making something golden brown, moisture is not your friend. This poses a problem when working with vegetables that have a lot of natural water in them, like potatoes. The key to the perfect latke is drying your potatoes before you continue with the recipe. To do this, we like to use a clean, dust-free kitchen towel. Simply dump the freshly grated potatoes in the towel, bundle together and squeeze over the sink. You’ll be surprised to see about a cup of liquid come out. Do this in batches until all of the potatoes are dry before mixing in the other ingredients.

3. DON’T SKIMP ON THE OIL – Sorry, folks, but this is not a low-fat recipe. It’s fried. That’s what makes it delicious. So don’t try to get away with a few squirts from an olive oil spray bottle. You’ll need a solid 1/4-inch of oil on the bottom of the pan to get these to golden perfection.

4. BE CAREFUL. THIS IS HOT OIL WE’RE TALKING ABOUT – May seem obvious but it just takes one burn from a splatter of hot oil to ruin your day. Our advice is to use tongs to gently turn over the latkes – they allow you much more control than a spatula.

4. SEASON TWICE – If there was one single tip we could give you that could turn your home-cooked food from just OK to fantastic, it’s to learn to season correctly. This means using salt and pepper at multiple times during a recipe. For this one, you’ll add salt into the mix AND sprinkle some salt and pepper on the latkes when they come out of the pan. This ensures the flavors are all balanced. There’s nothing worse than a bland latke.

TRADITIONAL LATKES

makes about 2 dozen

4 large russet potatoes, peeled

1 onion, peeled

1 cup flour

2 eggs

1 tablespoon salt

vegetable oil for cooking

Grate the potatoes and onions using the largest grating blade in your food processor. Use a clean kitchen towel to squeeze the vegetables dry in batches. Dump all of the dry veggies into a large bowl and add the flour, eggs and salt. Use your hands to mix together until well combined.

Add about 1/4-inch of vegetable oil to a large skillet and place over medium-high heat. To see if the oil is hot enough, drop a couple strands of potato into the oil – if it sizzles immediately, you’re ready to go.

Drop about 2 tablespoons of the mixture at a time into the oil creating little piles (don’t spread the piles too thin or they will fall apart when you try to turn them). Once golden on the first side (about 3 minutes), use tongs to gently turn over and cook until golden on the other side.

Remove and place on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and immediately sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with your favorite topping.

NOTE: Latkes do not hold well overnight. If you want to make them before serving, your best bet is to make them same day and let them sit at room temperature. Before serving, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven and cook for 5 minutes until sizzling hot. If you have extra cooked latkes, they freeze nicely. Place them on a baking sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, combine them in a Ziploc bag and keep in the freezer for up to a couple months. To reheat, place directly from freezer on a baking sheet in a 375 degree oven and cook for about 15 minutes or until sizzling hot.

WATERCRESS SAUCE 

makes 1 1/2 cups

1 cup watercress leaves

1 clove garlic

1/4 cup fresh dill

zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 cup sour cream

1/3 cup mayonnaise

salt and pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve latkes with a dollop of this sauce and a small piece of smoked salmon.

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Every Jewish family has their version of matzo ball soup. Probably something that was passed down from a grandmother. Just like every Italian family has their version of “gravy” (red sauce for any non-Italians out there) and every Mexican family has their version of pasole. But with Passover coming we were inspired to play around with a basic matzo ball soup recipe and see if we could improve it. We’ve had many a bland, lack-luster matzo ball soup and knew we could do better. The goals were (#1) a light ball that still had that crackery matzo taste, and (#2) a “quick” stock that didn’t take all day. We hit the jack pot on both counts.

For the stock we thought we knew we couldn’t just use store-bought — it just doesn’t have the nuance of a homemade stock. But we thought we could use the store-bought as a base and add flavor by cooking it with some chicken thighs. The result was a full-flavored broth specked with just enough chicken fat to make it feel homemade. Cooked with a little carrot, celery and parsley and we had one fine quick soup base.

For the balls we used Ina Garten’s suggestion of putting some chicken fat into the balls — genius! This is probably something Jewish grandmas have been doing forever but it’s new to us. And after trying everything from baking soda to seltzer water, we found that simply separating the eggs and beating the whites made for the best texture — light enough to float but dense enough to still have some flavor.

After perfecting this recipe, we did it in on of our private cooking parties as part of an “Updated Passover” menu and it was a huge hit!!

Here’s what we did:

MATZO BALL SOUP

serves about 6 people (makes 14 balls)

for the soup:

2 chicken thighs (skin on!)

8 cups chicken stock (low-sodium, organic if possible)

2 cups small diced carrots

1 cup small diced celery

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley stems

for the balls:

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup chicken stock

3 tbl rendered chicken fat (melted and cooled slightly)

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 cup matzo meal

4 egg whites

Place the chicken thighs in a cold pan, skin-side down, over medium heat. Allow to cook for about 15 minutes until the fat has rendered and browned. Remove from the pan, leaving the fat behind. Combine the stock and browned thighs in a soup pot over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Cook gently for 30 minutes. Remove the thighs. Add the carrots, celery and parsley stems. Cook for 5 minutes and turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, chicken stock, chicken fat (from the pan with the thighs), parsley and salt. Stir in the matzo meal. In another bowl, whisk the whites until they form stiff peaks. Add half of the whites into the matzo mixture and stir (the mixture will be quite stiff). Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Use a 1/4-cup scoop to form the balls and drop gently into the water — adjust the heat so the water is barely simmering and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the balls with a slotted spoon and place into the soup. Heat gently for 15 minutes before serving.

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