The best Jewish food recipe I ever found came to me not at a friends house, or at a cooking seminar, or while leafing through old cookbooks at my Bubbe’s house (which is where all my friends get them). No, I got my best recipe when I was covered in dust and spackle at 10:00 at night, halfway through a project to finish my basement.
Before I provide details (or the recipe), there are a few things about me that I would like to clarify:
First, I am NOT a carpenter, handyman or otherwise skilled craftsman. This was my first attempt at finishing any room, let alone a basement, and I made so many stupid mistakes during that ordeal that I would accuse Tim Allen of spying on me if the comedy routine he did on stage hadn’t preceded the nightly comedy of errors in my basement by a good 4 years.
Second, I am NOT a good cook. I have trouble following, much less remembering recipes so when someone starts saying “oh, it’s just 3 tbspn of frbdrgrf and a pinch of hurkamur, then whisk it in a 17 quart #5.4 smakerl dish for 27.8943 minutes” my eyes just sort of glaze over.
But I like sweet potatoes. And believe it or not, THAT’S important to this story as well.
I’m in the basement on a cool and quiet evening in November. Everyone else in the house is asleep upstairs, with 2 floors and several doors between us to keep out the sounds of my slamming, hammering and sanding (but most importantly to keep out the swearing – because I really have NO IDEA what I’m doing). I’ve got the local NPR station turned on because I need to be able to hear myself think (not that I had many valid thoughts about what I was doing) and because anything else I’d listen to would wake everyone in a 7 mile radius.
Lo and behold, a program comes on about Chanukah. I roll my eyes and immediately regret that decision because spackle dust gets lodged behind my retina and I have to spend 10 minutes flushing my face before I can see again. By the time I get back downstairs they are talking about food, specifically latkes.
I really have never liked latkes much. Blame it on the ground-mush-premix they served at my synagogue growing up. Blame it on a mis-spent youth. Whatever the reason, latkes actually come in below matzo products on my list of “happy Jewish holiday food”.
So when the folks on the radio started talking about alternative latke recipes, I turned off the sander and listened a bit. And when they mentioned sweet potato latkes, I actually sat down by the radio. It sounded incredible! It sounded like something I’d actually want to eat.
It also sounded like they were about to give a recipe, and I was sitting in my basement at 10pm, surrounded by power tools and drywall.
I found out that I can gouge words into sheet-rock with remarkable accuracy when motivated.
In the morning I brought my wife down to review my handiwork.
“Um… honey, you wrote on the wall. Actually, you wrote IN the wall.”
“Yeah!” I said, still enthusiastic, “do you think you can make that.”
“Leon, this isn’t setting a good impression for the kids.”
“I’m sure it will cover up,” I reply, “but how about the recipe??”
That evening I discovered that sweet potato latkes are, in fact, just as good as they sounded. I also discovered that some drywall problems can’t be fixed no matter how much spackle you use. My wife still looks at that part of the wall and rolls her eyes.
But each year we make at least 5 pounds of sweet potato latkes, along with a token pound of the regular kind.
Sweet Potato Latkes (courtesy of NPR, circa 2000)
1 lb sweet potatoes
1 piece fresh, or 2 Tbspn regular ginger
1/2 cup flour
1 Tbspn sugar
1 tspn salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tspn baking powder
Shred sweet potatoes and mix with ginger. Mix all other ingredients together into a batter, then mix in the shredded potatoes. Fry in 1/2 inch of oil. About 1/3 cup of batter makes one latke.