Alice Zaslavsky describes her parsnip and potato latkes as “like an edible plate”, but the lacy, crunchy, deep-golden latkes are wonderful even on their own. Once topped with creme fraiche, dill, finely sliced pickled beet or smoked salmon (and roe, if you’re feeling very fancy), they’re more than worthy of a little reverence.
Eating oily, fried foods is a tradition when it comes to celebrating Hanukkah, which begins on 28 November in 2021. Zaslavsky explains: “The reason we cook a lot of oily foods for Hanukkah is because we’re symbolising the [lamp] oil. It was supposed to only last an afternoon and it lasted for eight days, which are the eight days of Hanukkah. So we eat fried doughnuts, we eat fried latkes.
“What I like about the parsnip latkes in particular – or just latkes in general, because you can use any sort of root vegetable for latkes – is that it elevates a food that is considered dirty, like of the ground, right, and it gives it a special significance. It’s amazing what can happen when you fry something!”
Zaslavsky’s career as a cookbook writer and broadcaster began in 2012: when she was still working as a high school teacher, she made it to the top seven in MasterChef’s fourth season.
“It began as a passion that became an obsession that became a dabble in reality TV. I thought that it would be a really great story to tell my class when I came back, but I did better than expected!”
Apart from her work in broadcast media, she has developed Phenomenom (“with an M!”), a free food literacy and education program for schools and teachers.
“A lot of the food education in schools is health-focused or has a nutrition bent, but actually kids don’t need that. What they need is to feel more comfortable, more at home with food.”
Her approach to food education for children focuses on where ingredients and produce have been grown, the significance of food across different cultures, and how to maximise an ingredient’s potential in cooking.
“When you understand where something’s from, you can better understand how to make it delicious when you cook with it. And you can also understand how to become more conscientious as a consumer.”
Zaslavsky’s family moved from Georgia to Australia when she was six or seven. She remembers her early childhood well: her grandfather’s dacha, a weekender cottage, where her family would grow vegetables and fruit; making fruit straps and sauces out of a harvest of plums, or, during tomato season, making satsebeli – “our own version of passata” – as a family.
“[Georgia was] known as the Soviet Union’s fruit bowl. While the rest of the Soviet was empty-shelved, starving, if we could grow it in our fertile soils, then we had access to it.”
Hanukkah is the first public Jewish event she can recall attending in the former Soviet Union country: “People in the Tbilisi streets piled around the old synagogue in the evening, watching a pantomime of the rebellion story of the Maccabees. I was up on my dad’s shoulders watching the performance on stage, just giggling away and taking in the crowd.
“I realise now how big a deal it was – this public act of rebellion against the freedom of religion that had been denied our people and others under communism for decades.”
Alice Zaslavsky’s parsnip and potato latkes
Prep 25 min
Cook 25-30 min
Makes 16-18 latkes, depending on size
1 roasting or baking potato (160g), washed and scrubbed (no need to peel)
2 medium-large parsnips (360g), washed and scrubbed (no need to peel)
1 French shallot (or small brown onion), peeled
½ tsp salt flakes, plus extra for sprinkling
¼ cup (35g) plain gluten-free flour (or matzo meal)
¼ tsp ground white pepper
½ cup (125ml) sunflower oil and/or peanut oil
Dill or chervil sprigs
Line a bowl with muslin (cheesecloth). Coarsely grate the potato, parsnip and shallot into the bowl. Add the salt and squeeze in the lemon juice. Pop the used lemon half in a small bowl of water and reserve.
Combine the mixture with your hands, squeezing out any excess moisture. Twist the cloth into a swag, using a wooden spoon as a tourniquet, and hang this over the bowl to catch the liquid; you can also use a sieve or colander to keep it elevated. Let the liquid stand undisturbed for at least five minutes to let the starch settle.
Beat the eggs in another bowl using a fork. Add the potato mixture, along with the flour and pepper. Scoop out the starch that has settled on the bottom of the first bowl (it’ll feel like runny glue) and add this to the bowl as well. Use your hands or a wooden spoon to combine all the ingredients very well, almost as you would a meat patty.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, high-sided frying pan. Test that it’s ready by adding a little of the mixture – it should sizzle and colour almost immediately.
Line a baking tray with paper towel. Using a ¼ cup (60ml) measuring cup, scoop out equal portions of the latke mix and shape into flat patties, dipping your hands in your bowl of reserved lemon water every now and then to stop the mixture sticking to your hands.
Working in batches, fry the latkes for three to four minutes on each side, until golden. Drain on paper towel, sprinkling with extra salt flakes as soon as they come out of the oil. (If you like, you can pop them on a wire rack over a baking tray and keep in a 100C oven until all the latkes are ready.)
Serve warm, as the base for all manner of schmears and toppings – my favourite is the classic creme fraiche (or sour cream) and smoked salmon (or salmon roe), garnished with dill or chervil.
Tip: Cold latkes are quite delightful in a lunchbox. You can also refry them for bonus crispy bits if need be.
Extra: If you happen to have some schmaltz (chicken fat) or duck fat in the fridge, add a tablespoon or so to the frying oil, for extra flavour.
Recipe text from In Praise of Veg by Alice Zaslavsky, photography by Ben Dearnley. Murdoch Books (RRP$59.99)