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Latkes – Belarus National Dish – Day 30/Dish 15

February 5, 2010

Leaving the Caribbean is a painful departure.  But adventure awaits and Belarus is our next destination.  For the first time we will enter the European Continent by an alternate route to the Mediterranean Sea.  Our ship must sail the entire cold North Atlantic, traverse the English Channel and enter the Baltic Sea near Copenhagen Denmark and Malmo Sweden.  We land at Riga Latvia and take river boats and motorcars overland to Belarus.  Landlocked between Russia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, Belarus is a former member of the USSR and home to 9.5 million people.

The name Belarus is literally “White Russia” and before anyone gets too excited about the cold frothy cocktail that shares the name, it is not a term that all Belarusians would appreciate, especially those that do not care for their former landlords.  Established in its current form in 1939, Belarus was absorbed into the Russian Federation shortly thereafter.   The use of White Russia or it variants was first used By Soviets in an attempt to reclaim Russian Territory from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  To some extent, the history of Belarus is one of being the rope in a game of “Tug-Of-War” between various parties, sometimes more than two at one time.  The name has changed too many times to recount here but has settled as Belarus in recent times.

During WW2, Belarus was badly decimated by opposing German and Russian forces.  In the struggles, nearly one third of the population was killed.  This staggering number must represent a dark place in the hearts’ of Belarusians.  Imagine if one out of three of your neighbors were killed by violence.  The prewar population did not recover until 1971. During the war, it was technically owned and controlled by the Nazi’s but it was returned to Russian protection in 1944.

When the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor blew up in Ukraine in April of 1986, nearly 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus.  Hundreds of thousands had to be relocated following the disaster and thousands were affected by the radiation itself; many succumbing to radiation induced diseases.   Today some areas are safe for resettlement, but the shadow hangs over this disaster much like the incredible loss of life in WW2.     

Today Belarus is independent from outside direct control since declaring Independence in 1994.  Alexander Lukashenko has been the elected President since 1994 despite many cries of rigged elections and intimidation and the violent beating by police of opposition candidates during election cycles.  His administration has seen the change of the constitution to lift the limits on terms for the President.  He has maintained an agenda that includes close ties with Russia, both politically and economically.  It would seem that the nation is still divided by the desire to partner with Russia and the desire to be independent. 

The economy of Belarus is comprised primarily of agriculture and manufacturing.  This can be attested to in the cuisine which is similar to all Slavic areas.  Use of locally produced ingredients such as root vegetables, cabbage and pork are common themes in Belarusian Recipe books and culinary traditions. Mushrooms, radishes and potatoes play a role as well.

The national dish of Belarus is the Latke, a Potato Pancake often bound with eggs and onions.  This simple peasant dish is the type of recipe that would be easy to make and filling, with inexpensive and locally available ingredients.  It is a dish that is repeated often in the region in different forms as well as around the world by an astonishing assortment of cultures.  It is a recipe that was popular with the Jewish populations of Europe including Belarus.  Most of the Jews were killed by Hitler’s forces during the Nazi reign of terror.

I give this dish a 2 for difficulty.  With a few basic ingredients and techniques, most cooks can reproduce these tasty treats as either an entrée or an appetizer.  I am using a horseradish sour cream sauce for a topping along with simple natural Applesauce, but you can vary that with sweet, sour or savory ingredients such as Berries, Stewed meat etc.  It is farmers or peasants food by definition as are so many national dishes.  The ingredients could all be found in minutes on any farm in the region.  An important side note is that Latkes can be frozen after preparation but do not hold well in the refrigerator.  You can reheat frozen Latkes in the oven at 350 degrees till crispy and hot.

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Rating:

Appearance:  3 out of 5                                                                                                                                  

Aroma:  4 out of 5

Flavor:  5 out of 5!!!  The first 5 out of 5 in Flavor!  They are delicious especially with the garnish.

Total:  12 out of 15

Ingredients:

2 1/2 pounds Idaho, Russet, or Baking potatoes (about 4 large), scrubbed

1 large onion, peeled and quartered

2 large eggs, separate whites and yolks and keep both (see tutorial)

3 tablespoons Matzoh Meal (Substitute crushed Crackers such as saltines)

1 to 2 teaspoons Kosher Salt (check for seasoning BEFORE adding the eggs)

Corn, Canola, or Vegetable Oil for frying

To serve and garnish:

Sour cream (you can add shredded horseradish and salt to taste to make an authentic regional garnish)

Applesauce

Preparation:

Line a large baking sheet with two layers of paper towels; set aside.

Using the coarse holes on a hand-held box grater or the medium-coarse shredding disk of a food processor, shred the Potatoes and Onion together. Transfer Potato-Onion mixture to a large colander that is set over a mixing bowl.

Using both your hands, squeeze the potato mixture vigorously, as if you’re wringing out a pair of wet socks. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potatoes, letting the moisture drip through the holes of the colander. Once you have finished squeezing, let mixture stand for a minute or two.

Lift colander out of the bowl. Carefully, pour off the watery brown liquid in the bowl, but save the layer of pale beige paste at the bottom. (This chalky-looking stuff is potato starch, and you need it to help your latkes stick together.) Scrape up the paste, dump in the potato mixture, and mix together with a large spoon.

Mix in Egg yolks, Matzoh Meal (or substitution), 1 teaspoon of the Kosher Salt, and a good amount of freshly Ground Pepper with your hands until it is evenly incorporated.

Pour Egg whites into a clean, dry bowl. Using a balloon whisk or a hand-held electric mixer, beat the Egg Whites until they hold stiff, shiny peaks. Using a rubber spatula or large spoon, gently fold the Egg Whites into the Potato mixture.

Pour Oil into a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) to a depth of 1/2 inch.  Over medium-high heat (setting 7 on an electric range), heat the Oil until a shred of Potato mixture instantly sizzles when dropped in. Fry a quarter-sized “test Latke” first to check for seasoning, and add more Salt or Pepper as needed. Then, without crowding, spoon the Potato Mixture into the oil, flattening each generous spoonful into a flat disk.

Let fry until deep golden brown(do not burn), about 5 minutes, then flip over and continue frying until both sides are well browned, about 8 to 10 minutes for each batch. (You may need to add additional oil to fry subsequent batches.) Using a spatula, transfer latkes to the paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Blot any excess oil with additional towels. Serve immediately with sour cream and applesauce.

http://www.chow.com/recipes/10812

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