The Latke King from Hanukkah Heights
Shared by Adam Zolot
Recipe Roots: Margate City, NJ > San Francisco, CA
Adam Zolot grew up by the beach in a small, heavily Jewish town called Margate. If you’ve played Monopoly, you might recognize the street names like Atlantic Avenue and a neighborhood called Marven Gardens. It’s just downbeach, as some locals say, from Atlantic City. But to Adam, who now lives across the country in San Francisco, Margate, at this time of year, is “Hanukkah Heights,” he says. “It was so Jewish, the norm was Hanukkah. [As kids,] we didn’t have Christmas envy.” Instead, the non-Jewish kids in school, as he recalls, had Hanukkah envy. “It’s an interesting thing to go out into the world from that,” says Adam, who is the director of operations for Feastly.
Farther up the island, in Atlantic City, his grandfather Morris Zolot started a small family restaurant empire. Among the group was Junior’s, his mother’s restaurant, which Adam describes as a “Jersey sort of slant to a coffee shop” near the Atlantic City court house. The restaurant wasn’t kosher or specifically Jewish, but many of the island’s Jewish lawyers ate there regularly. “That meant she had fried matzo, latkes, matzo ball soup, brisket, corned beef, and pastrami on the menu, even though it wasn’t a deli.”
Adam grew up in the kitchens. “I was always under foot as food was being prepared,” he recalls whether it was in the restaurants or at home with his great grandmother, nicknamed Big Bubbe, who emigrated from Kiev. “There was always this spirit of cooking,” in his family, Adam adds. “I was infused with it, year after year.”
While the entire family cooked, not everyone agreed on recipes. When it came to latkes, “my mother, my aunts, everybody made latkes in the family.” And everyone made them differently. There wasn’t exactly a rivalry, Adam says, “I think it was more subversive.” An aunt or his mother would say “Oh, I think we’re going to host this year,” because they wanted to eat their own style of latkes.
The exposure to different latkes helped form Adam’s own very strong opinions on the Hanukkah classic. “I could probably recreate my grandfather’s latkes or aunt Esther’s, but these (see the recipe below) are uniquely mine.” They are intentionally petite in stature, small enough to be picked up and eaten with one’s fingers at his annual Vodka::Latke party, where he estimates he serves 500 latkes of different varieties, with these as the anchor.
“What it comes down to, if you dissect the essential components” of a latke, he says launching into an almost scientific discussion, is that it’s really all about the crispy, lattice exterior. A smaller latke, “gives you the greatest surface to crispy ratio.” Another crucial element, which he borrows from his grandfather Morris, is liberal use of schmaltz, mixed into the frying oil. “I’ve gone down many paths to come to what is the ideal latke in my perspective...The devil is in the details. If you want to elevate the form, you need to catch the subtleties” he adds.
While Adam’s opinions about his own latkes are unwavering, he says he can “tolerate” latkes made by a novice. Adding: “Latkes are like sex, even when they’re bad, they’re good.”
Adam Zolot's Latkes
Time 45 minutes
4 large (about 2 lbs) russet potatoes
2 small to medium yellow onions
½ cup sour cream, plus more for serving
2-3 heaping tablespoons of matzo meal
½ cup schmaltz (or duck fat)
kosher salt (to taste)
canola or vegetable oil (for frying)
finishing salt (like Maldon Sea Salt)
apple sauce for serving
1. Peel and shred the onions on a box grater into a mesh strainer or fine colander. Let any excess liquid from the onion drain. Set aside.
2. Peel the potatoes and let them sit in a large bowl of cold water until you are ready to grate them, to keep them from browning. Grate them on the short side of the potato into thick shreds. After each potato, add them into another large bowl with a 2 tablespoons of the onions. By adding the onion at this point, you will stop the potatoes from browning. Continue through all of the potatoes and onions until all are combined. Each potato should go with about 2 tablespoons of the grated onion.
3. Take a clean dish cloth and scoop half of the potato and onion mixture into it. Wrap it up like a burrito and twist the ends. Continue to twist the ends in opposite directions creating a deep squeeze on the mixture. Wrench the roll from the center out and press it hard into the bottom of your sink until the liquids really start to leave the cloth. Continue with the remaining onion-potato mixture until all of the mixture is dry.
4. Return the dry potatoes and onions to a large bowl. Scramble eggs then mix in eggs, sour cream, and a little schmaltz. Add matzo meal until the mix feels a little like wet sand. Add ½ teaspoon salt to taste.
5. In a cast iron fry pan (this works best with cast iron, but a non-stick or stainless can work well) coat the bottom with canola oil. Throughout the process, you’ll want to keep a thin layer (maybe 1/4”) of oil at all times. Before each batch, scoop a tablespoon of schmaltz into the oil before you add your potatoes. With your hand grab a scoop of the mix about the size of a golf ball. Put it in the hot oil (you should hear a sizzling sound right away, if not, your oil is not hot enough) and lightly press down to spread it out. Fry until both sides are golden brown. About a minute and half per side.
6. Before serving, garnish with a sprinkle of finishing salt. Serve immediately with sour cream and applesauce.