The crows outside my window, on the barren twisted tree branches, sentries that come and go, inhabiting silence and stillness until something makes them all take flight. There are four of them now, watching the sky, resting or marking time for me, actually I can only see three now in the tree, where before there were twenty or more.
I have no idea what makes them come at this particular time of day, it changes from day to day. Sometimes it is noon, right now it is 3:15. If I were moving about in my cabin, they wouldn’t come and rest still on the tree. It is only because I am sitting in stillness so my movements don’t startle. There is no movement on my part, other than the beating of my heart, the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard and the wiggling of my toes under the wool blanket. My breath too is moving, but its movement is quiet and I am learning to still myself from these birds, these crows outside my window.
The other birds that come to visit are the tits and the robins. I’ve left food for them all around my cabin and they alight on my windowsills and peck away at the seeds and grains. The tits are the opposite of still and fly away if I exhale too deeply. They are very colorful and chatter. The robins are braver and will sit and watch me from behind the window, or even if I’m outside, they’ll come and watch me, wondering what I am up to and if there is food connected to my presence, which, of course, there is.
I’m grateful for these bird beings, in ways I cannot express. They make me feel happy, alive, connected and protected in some way, as if the Holy One is sending messengers to keep an eye on me and to remind me of the vast wild world around me. Every time the birds take flight, I delight. Just now a hundred or so wheeled about in the field above my cabin. Some more are now resting on the tree outside my window seat and I, the lucky one, get to sit and watch them as they preen, as they align on the moving wind-swept branches, balancing themselves and then taking off to their next rendez-vous with the tree down the steam or in the fields nearby.
I’d like to be one of these birds, even if only for just a day. Whoosh, some signal just was transmitted and now they’ve all flown away, not a one is left on the tree for me. But, still, I wait for them and know they will be back, when it is right for them, it will be right for me.
I will sit here and wait for them to come again to “my” tree. I am waiting and waiting here in this cold dark time, when the daylight hours are from 8:30a.m-4:00pm. It’s 3:26 pm right now and it’s already getting dark. I’ll light the second night of Hanukkah candles here in my window. If the birds were coming at night, they would see three small lights in the night. I won’t turn on the lights. I like the long hours of dark and the small amount of light. It makes me go inward and turns me towards the crows and the wind within my heart and soul. I like the not knowing where all the edges are and the muted blending of darkness that covers me like a blanket, obscuring my details and leaving me as only a body, here, born of flesh, but made mostly of soul. A lump of stuff just resting and waiting for the next message or messenger to arrive, and I’m in no hurry, no hurry at all.
Aloe Vera juice and ice-water on hand for when you burn yourself, and you will probably burn yourself, I do and I’m a seasoned pro!
So, I hand grate a lot of potatoes, uggghhh! It takes a long time and you have to be careful not to get your fingers grated in the process. I have made them with a food processor, but I have to tell you, the grater gets the potatoes thinner and into smaller pieces that cook quicker and absorb slightly less oil. You can make your own decision about this. I never bother peeling the potatoes, but I do clean them really well and remove any bad spots. Use a big bowl for this. I have also experimented with grating them into water and straining them. I’ve concluded that this particular idea is just one more step in a long and intense process, and it doesn’t seem to make any real difference. So, I no longer do it. I just grate them into a big bowl and try and pour out as much of the potato juice as I can.
I add the juice of one or two lemons, depending on how many potatoes I’m using, and stir that up, then I grate two or three carrots. The ratio of carrot to potato should be 1:3. So, one carrot for every three potatoes, for the non-math oriented folks. Since I am one of those kinds of people, it’s always a good idea to repeat myself when numbers are involved. You may have noticed, I rarely give exact amounts or numbers of things in my recipes. My apologies, I just don’t do numbers very much or very well. It’s an organic kind of thing in my kitchen with amounts shifting all the time.
I throw in some chopped parsley, fresh thyme and freshly pressed garlic (remember to remove the center parts, see Esti’s Parsley Sauce for pictures), lots of salt and pepper and then about 7-10 eggs and a bunch of larger crumbles of feta. If you are making these gluten-free, then you are done with the batter. If you want to add some Matzo Meal or flour then go ahead and put some of that in. I’ve made latkes so many different ways. I have not yet experimented with coconut flour or almond flour to see how that works. I often just go flour-less, since so many folks are not eating wheat or gluten these days.
You then will need three frying pans, four is too many to manage. If you use only one or two, good for you, it will take you another hour to be done, but you probably won’t burn yourself and need the aloe. Since I am always making these for a crowd, I am the three and sometimes four frying pan kind of woman. You can use any oil you want, but this recipe is about frying things in hot OIL.
Oil-rich foods are traditional for this time of year and this holiday because they are an additional way to get oil into our celebrations. The oil connects us to the miracle of the sacred oil lasting for eight days in the re-dedication of the Temple that is part of our traditional Hanukkah story. So, frying foods in oil and having lots of oil is just part of the holiday. I alternate between sunflower oil and coconut oil, depending on which I am more in the mood for. Both flavors are good.
Heat the oil to medium high, you can turn it down once you get going, but it needs to be pretty hot. Have lots of pot holders on hand and dishtowels on hand. Have two or more trays in the oven with cooling racks over them so you can put finished latkes on the rack and let the extra grease drip onto the pan below. Keep the oven on 250º so the latkes you’ve made stay warm, while you keep frying the rest of them.
This is the tricky part and the time-consuming part and the get yourself burned part. I wish I could say there was another way to do this, but basically, it’s a labor of love or love of tradition or some form of craziness. Take a slotted spoon, or a 1/2 cup measure and ladle the latke batter into three or four patties in the hot oil. Let them cook for a good five minutes or more per side, depending on the thickness. Smush them down so they are flatter after you turn them. I sometimes turn them too soon and then they are not golden brown and so I have to fry them on that side again.
The speed of this process and the timing are pretty hard to get down perfectly. It’s sort of a dance between flipping, checking, frying, ladling and then putting them on the trays in the oven so they stay warm until you are done. If you want to be just a servant to your guests, you can omit the keeping them warm in the oven part and just fry them and then dish them out. People always say they only want one or two, but end up eating four or more. I promise you they will eat more than they say they will. There’s just something deeply compelling about a latke, cooked properly and served hot.
How to Eat Them:
You can serve them with applesauce (see my recipe) and sour-cream, with Esti’s Parsley Sauce and Greek yogurt, with hot-sauce of your choosing, with whatever condiments you like. There will rarely be left-overs, but if there are, they are good with eggs the next morning.
Apparently, if you cool the potatoes the night before, by putting them in the fridge, they cook better. This is the tip I got from the appliance repair man who was over at our house this morning. I cannot verify this, but am putting it in as a tip that may prove to be true. I only make these ONCE a year and last night was the night, so my testing this particular theory will have to wait. You can let me know if it makes a difference for your latke frying.
How to Survive Them:
To survive Latkes, only eat them one of the nights of Hanukkah, not all eight! Or make sure you eat lots of bitter greens (like mustard greens) or radishes, daikon is my favorite, and lots of green salads as well. This is the secret to making your tummy happy with vegetables and flavors that compliment the fat-oil zone you get into this time of year by over-eating latkes. You can also substitute yams for the potatoes, but those are very different tasting, and still need to be cooked in lots of oil.
Ethan’s baby quilt detail, made by Nicole Barchilon Frank
And lo, the people were cold in their homes. There had been sanctions and bombing and great privation for years. There was war, there was famine, there was pain.
And one day in the time of greatest darkness an Angel of God appeared dressed as an old woman. Her hair was silvery gray like the stars on cold winter nights. Her robe was pitch, like coals when they are dead of all fire. Her eyes were so black that when you looked into them, you might never find your way out again. And in all this darkness, yet she shone.
For on her robe were eight magic pockets, each one with a different light flowing from it. In one, all the children dipped their fingers and golden honey poured forth. In the second pocket, all the mothers came with their sick children and as they dipped in a warm healing salve poured forth. The fathers came and placed their hands in a third glowing pocket. From this pocket each father drew a long golden moment of rest from worry and strife. The lovers came tentatively out of their hiding places, afraid even to risk loving in such dark times. They put their hands in her fourth pocket and withdrew a radiant moment of absolute stillness and quiet where they could be alone and gaze into each others eyes. The elders came, some could barely move. And from her fifth pocket they withdrew a lone golden thread. Each thread was theirs alone and when they felt ready to sleep their final sleep, she instructed them to close their eyes and place the thread upon their navels and fall asleep to wake in the Holy One’s arms.
From the sixth pocket the warriors drew, and they wept and wept and wept as they pulled from her heart new golden hearts full of hope and strength. As they wept the roads filled with their tears and all the parched soil drank deep.
They all drew from her seventh pocket and were given a true Shabbat with dancing, laughter; time for contemplation, study and incredible foods overflowing the roads so all could be fed.
Finally when it seemed all had come forward a lone child approached the woman. She was lost, orphaned and ragged. Her hair was matted with thorns, dirt and lice. She came to the woman and rested her small head in the holy folds of the woman’s dress. The woman herself, drew from the eighth pocket a healing rich oil. She ran her fingers through the child’s hair and all the dirt and grime fled from her sacred touch. The oil smelled of roses, lavender and honey. As the child’s hair began to glow the woman pulled her hands away. As she did so, all the people drew near to the child. They wrapped her in their arms and carried her home with them.
It was the 25th of Kislev; they say when the woman came to visit. Some whispered “She was Dinah, the wounded one.” Others were sure it had been Miriam. Still others swore she was their long lost sister.
In darkness filled with sparks of light,
This midrash was originally written by me on December 16, 1998. Our teacher Rabbi Naomi Steinberg had asked our class to come up with a midrash about Hanukkah. We were on the eve of going to war somewhere. We seem perpetually to be on this eve of going to war or engaging in violent conflict. As a pacifist I am always looking at violence and its tremendous costs and trying to find a non-violent story was something that I felt called to do. The traditional Hanukkah story is full of hope and violence and exploring the theme of light in a hard time was a way for me to connect to this story from an internal place. I still tell the traditional story as well, and study it and learn from it. I just heard this old woman telling me her story and wanted to share it.
A midrash is “a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.” – Wikipedia