The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is synonymous with many inedible things: the menorah, rotating dreidels, the number eight, iconic folk songs, unusually long burning oil and, of course, the consecration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. during the uprising of the Maccabees against a Hellenistic Empire.
But for many Jews, it’s all about food.
Aside from the usual holiday staples like matzo dumpling soup, brisket, roast chicken, and challah bread, Hanukkah highlights fatty fried treats including the deliciously crispy potato latke.
It might as well be steeped in Ashkenazi Jewish genes that each family should have their own latke recipe. Some prepare the dish like a crispy hash brown patty, others (like mine) opt for a more pancake-like consistency; some use red potatoes, others use Yukon gold; some fry in vegetable oils, others insist on schmaltz (rendered poultry fat); some season with salt and pepper, others get creative by adding sugar and spices (or an even more radical idea: Sichuan pepper).
Try as we all can, few latkes are ever so golden and crisp but deliciously chewy as those at Ben’s Deli, a chain of kosher-style restaurants soon entering their 50th year of comfort food. for ravenous New Yorkers.
But Ben’s classic take on the potato pancake isn’t based on a misty-eyed, age-old family connection to the old country.
“I wasn’t happy with the way the potato latkes were prepared,” Ben’s Deli founder and owner Ronnie Dragoon told me. “So this wasn’t a long lost recipe and it wasn’t my late mother’s recipe either, but I wanted them to be the best potato latkes out there.” “
If you’re Jewish (or just a deli lover) with roots in New York City, or more specifically the suburb of Long Island, chances are good that Ben’s holds a nostalgic place in your life.
The chain’s iconic neon red logo, art deco dining rooms, cartoonish Dragoon artwork, and gag giveaways (for example, a t-shirt with a Ben’s beef salami stick, titled “The Longer It Hang.” .. The Better It Gastes ”) have graced its many locations throughout the region. The platters filled with sliced cold meats, rye bread, pickles and coleslaw from the chain have been served at many bris, baby baptisms, shiva, synagogue receptions or various social gatherings.
When Ben’s first opened, it was a fixture among first- and second-generation American Jewish families in the region, serving as a reliable meeting point afterwards. shul during the weekend. “People would go to other tables to say hello to the other devotees,” Dragoon recalls.
But as time passed and food trends continued to shift away from salty or fried, classic Jewish-style delicatessens often became a novelty. Or worse: Many of them have closed establishments, following the plight of endangered diners in the tri-state area.
“Every generation removed from the immigrant experience is less loyal to the kosher deli,” lamented Dragoon. “Before, there were one or two kosher grocery stores in every Jewish town on Long Island. Now you can’t find them.
Ben’s Deli has, in fact, lost a few locations over the years, including its founding location on the South Shore, but after half a century, it still dots the island with three locations, in addition to a Manhattan location that replaced Garment District. Lou G. Siegel’s deli institution after an eight-decade run, a Queens dining hall and outpost in Boca Raton, where many loyal patrons of yesteryear made their migratory retreat.
But Ben’s kept going, Dragoon said, and maybe that’s in part thanks to the brand’s relentless efforts to adapt. The addition of his plant-based and diet menus was particularly proud of the owner of Ben’s Deli in our conversation. And over the years, the family-owned chain has also introduced a selection of new paninis, wraps, specialty burgers and the holiday option to have your latkes made with “healthier” flavors like spinach or sweet potato.
But the stars of Ben’s Deli are – and always will be – Jewish staple. The matzo dumpling soup. Homemade cold cuts like corned beef, tongue and pastrami. ‘Jewish peasant dishes’, as Dragoon describes them: Beef Flanken in the Pot (a chicken soup in the kitchen sink with a scoop of matzo, kreplach, peas, carrots and prime rib porridge and oily; also my go- made to order since I was a teenager), stuffed derma (a tasty concoction of animal fat and sausage-like matzo flour), traditional goulash, baked potato knish, chopped liver, kasha varnish (buckwheat porridge with butterfly noodles, often served with gravy), and gefilte fish (if you don’t already know, you probably won’t want to know it).
And, of course, the latkes.
Dragoon said he has continually played with the recipe over the years, including using monthly deli manager meetings to “make sure we are doing the best of the breed”, tweaking the formula based on improvements. the quality of an individual grocery store.
Although Ben’s latkes are not based on a specific family recipe, their genesis is rooted in mimicking in-house techniques, but adapted to scale. When Dragoon, who describes himself as the “young puppy,” founded his first restaurant in 1972, he recalls, his Jewish deli peers were running their potatoes through a large crusher. “Potato pancakes should be grated on the ‘punch’,” he said, referring to every home cook’s experience with bloody hands while scraping the last piece of a potato on a surprisingly sharp old-fashioned grater. “And so I had a machine that did that. Because the flavor of the potato, when you crush it, is not the same as when you grate it.
And so that’s what made latkes so successful, said Dragoon, which has caught the eye of other esteemed delis.
“The owners of the famous Carnegie Deli called me up and told me Ben’s potato latkes were better than theirs, so I could do them a favor and show them. And show them I did it, and they were thrilled, ”he boasted. “I didn’t mind spreading the gospel of excellence, even to competitors! “
- 3 lbs (9 medium) white all-purpose potatoes, peeled
- 0.5 lb (1 large) yellow onion
- 3 large eggs
- 1.74 teaspoon kosher salt
- 0.25 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- .25 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 cup of flour
- Applesauce, for dipping
- Grate the potatoes and place them in a bowl filled with cold water. Grate the onion. Add the potatoes and onions to a colander and drain well, pressing down to release all the liquid.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Add the potatoes and onion to the egg mixture. Stir to combine. Add the flour and mix to combine well.
- Heat 1 inch deep of oil in a large, heavy skillet. Using an ice cream scoop, pour a generous half a cup of the potato mixture into the hot oil. Using the back of the ice cream scoop, flatten the potato mixture to three-quarters of an inch thick. Cook, turning the latke halfway through cooking, until browned on both sides and cooked through in the center.
- Remove the latke and place it on paper towels to remove excess oil. Serve with applesauce.
- Makes 10 servings.