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Potato latkes with feta cheese and two onions

Potato latkes with feta cheese and two onions
Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

For Jewish parents, the Hanukkah holidays are particularly challenging; they last not one day but eight. Beginning this year at sunset Tuesday and ending at sunset Dec. 28, there will be lots of candles to light, loads of latkes to fry and eight nights of activities to plan for the kids.

Oy vey.

Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates liberation from oppression (especially for kids from school, provided that the holiday coincides with Christmas vacation), and the faith that if you really believe in something hard enough, even a small group of committed activists can make a difference. Not bad lessons to share with the offspring.

In fact, Hanukkah can actually be an opportunity to spend that elusive quality time with the kids in a variety of creative activities that go beyond lighting candles and opening presents. I say let's get them into the kitchen.

Cooking together not only teaches basic skills that every child needs to learn, such as manual dexterity, concepts of measurement and the transformation of raw materials into something delicious, it also preserves and protects a culinary history that is a vital part of Jewish tradition, setting a precedent they'll hopefully pass on to their own children.

Here are some ideas:

Even if your kids are not lentil lovers, they're bound to like quick orange lentil soup, which has a subtle sweetness that comes from a sweet potato-carrot combination. At the same time, you can teach them that the soup has historic significance. According to scholars, lentils were an integral part of the ancient Israeli diet, and there's little doubt that Judah the Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukkah story, and his brethren supped on some variation of them as well (albeit, of course, without the sweet potato, which originated in South America). This is also a good time to teach the kids to use a peeler, cut vegetables and get to know some spices.

To give the soup a festive touch, let the little ones dribble a little coconut milk or half-and-half on top, using a spoon or dropper to write the first letter of each one's name on individual bowls, or "draw" a Hanukkah menorah or a dreidel.

Although most American Jewish children believe that the potato latke (a.k.a. pancake) is integral to Hanukkah, the dish is an Eastern European Ashkenazi tradition. What's basic to Hanukkah is the custom of frying food to commemorate the miracle of the oil, and Italian and Moroccan Jewish mamas usually make fried chicken and even fried desserts rather than latkes. The potato latke came to be only when potatoes, native to the New World, arrived in Western Europe in the 16th century and subsequently spread throughout Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

Before turning them into latkes, you can steam the potatoes or prepare them in the microwave as the recipe suggests. These methods are best to prevent them from getting waterlogged -- a grievous error when trying to make latkes. If you have a ricer, older kids will enjoy mashing the warm potatoes.

Since you've already explained that you can fry a dessert, this is a perfect time to introduce children to bumuelos. They're the Sephardic (primarily Turkish) answer to the Israeli jelly doughnut called the sufgania, but they're much easier and quicker to make. For kids, preparation of the choux pastry dough may seem like magic, and parents may want to take the opportunity to teach the little ones how to crack an egg. Better have some extra eggs on hand, just in case.

Although bumuelos can be served as is, with just a dusting of powdered sugar, no doubt your children will also enjoy making and dipping their bumuelos into the special sauces. If prepared in advance, the sauces should be rewarmed before serving. And although they are best served fresh from the frying pan, leftover bumuelos, if not sticky and icky, can be refrigerated, covered, for several hours, and reheated for about 30 seconds in the microwave.

Be sure to have plenty of plastic tablecloths to cover the table or a work surface, and have paper towels, sponges and lots of napkins on hand.

Who knows -- maybe tomorrow your kids will want a repeat performance, with friends.

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Total time: 50 minutes | Makes 1 1/2 to 2 dozen latkes
  • 2 pounds baking potatoes
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra olive oil (or an olive oil/canola blend) for frying
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped red onion
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, potato flour or tapioca flour
  • 5 1/2 ounces feta cheese (about 1/2 cup), finely crumbled
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

Step 1Scrub the potatoes (do not peel) and cut each into 3 to 4 pieces. Place the potatoes in a large microwaveable bowl with the boiling water. Cover the bowl with a microwaveable plate and cook on high for 15 minutes. Remove the soft potatoes and place them in a separate bowl. (If some pieces are not soft, return them to the microwave, cover and cook for an additional 3 minutes.)

Step 2While the potatoes are cooking, heat a saute pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil, then the red onion and saute until golden, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.

Step 3Wait just until the softened potato pieces are cool enough to handle, then peel the warm pieces. Put the pieces through a ricer, or mash them.

Step 4To the potatoes, add the sauteed red onion, the green onions, the flour, feta cheese and egg. Mix the latke mixture well with a spoon, adding additional flour as needed to form a slightly tacky base. Season with 1 1/4 teaspoons salt and a heaping one-fourth teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Form the mixture into small latkes, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter.

Step 5Heat a thin film of oil in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium heat until hot. Fry the latkes, a few at a time, on each side until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate before serving.

Each of 2 dozen latkes
86 calories; 2 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 14 mg cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 77 mg sodium.
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