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Leek fritters are a traditional Sephardic Hanukkah dish

Leek keftes fry in a pan. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

December gray seeps in,

penetrates, permeates —

we search for light.

These short, cloudy, dark December days cause us to welcome this festival of lights, regardless of religious or cultural tradition. Hanukkah expresses gratitude for God’s protection, kindness and blessing.

Leeks (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

A national rather than a religious holiday, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Jews against the Hellenist Syrians in 165 BCE. The miracle of Hanukkah is the jar of olive oil, which contained one day’s worth but lasted for eight days, the time needed to rededicate the temple. That is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, with an eight-branched candlestick, called a menorah in Jewish tradition.

Jewish synagogues always contain a light — the Ner Tamid or Eternal Flame — that burns continually as a reminder of the eternal presence of God. Today, since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, the light is electric. In ancient times, oil lamps were common.

In honor of that sacred olive oil — which was used to light lamps — lights are lit on the menorah. Each day, another candle is lit until eight are lit on the eighth day. Food fried in oil is enjoyed with abandon and has become a holiday tradition.

According to Rabbi Gil Marks, author of “The World of Jewish Cooking,” and the vegetarian cookbook “Olive Trees and Honey,” the idea of frying pancakes for Hanukkah goes back to medieval Italy, where they were prepared with ricotta cheese. Food historian Susan Weingarten has also found that cheese and fried foods were served for Hanukkah in the 14th century.

Today most Americans eat potato latkes for Hanukkah — but the potato wasn’t available in Europe prior to the 18th century. When Jews migrated north from Italy, buckwheat pancakes and carrot latkes became common. Among Sephardic Jews of southern Europe and the Middle East, leek fritters (keftes de prasa) are commonly served for Hanukkah.

Potato latkes (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Leeks have a long history in Europe and Asia. They’re native to a large region stretching from the Mediterranean to India, where they’ve been cultivated for over 3,000 years. During their exodus from Egypt, the Jews complained of the lack of leeks and garlic to season their dishes. In addition to Hanukkah, leeks are customarily served at the Jewish New Year festival Rosh Hashanah because they symbolize the desire for cutting off one’s enemies. In prayer, we ask for protection against our enemies, that they be “cut off” from us in the year ahead.

Leeks belong to the allium family, which also includes garlic, onions, shallots and scallions. Unlike onions, which are mainly used as a seasoning to add flavor to stocks, soups, and other dishes, leeks are often served as a vegetable.

Many compounds found in allium vegetables are known to protect against colorectal and prostate cancers. While garlic and onions contain higher concentrations of these compounds, leeks are also a good source. Their milder, sweeter taste means that you can eat more of them. Allium vegetables are also good for the heart, lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL and total cholesterol while raising HDL, the “good cholesterol” levels. They’re an excellent source of the minerals manganese and iron, fiber, and vitamin C as well as a good source of vitamin B6 and folate. Taken together, these nutrients help stabilize blood sugar levels. One cup of raw chopped leeks contains just 57 calories.

Leeks look like large scallions. Like onions, they have many layers. The white base flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. They should be about an inch in diameter and about a foot long, with bright white bottoms and straight, thick, crisp dark green leaves. Avoid leeks that are wilted, yellow, brown, or slimy.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, try these leek fritters.

Keftes de Prasa (Sephardic leek latkes)

Ingredients:

3 leeks (about 1 pound)

1 teaspoon salt, divided (or more if you wish)

2 large eggs

1/3 cup bread crumbs or matzoh meal

A few grinds of pepper and turmeric, optional

2 to 4 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley, optional

2 to 4 Tablespoons finely minced and toasted walnuts, optional

Directions:

Cut off the root at the bottom of the stem and the tough green leaves at the top. You can use a good amount of the tops, just stop when they are really tough.

Slice leeks into rounds. Separate the rounds and rinse several times in a bowl of water until you are confident that all dirt and sand is gone.

Place leeks in a saucepan, cover with water, and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer until soft and tender, but not mushy — about 10 minutes.

Drain in a colander. You can reserve the water for soup to make another day, if you wish.

Cool the leeks until you can handle them, and squeeze out any liquid with your hands. You should have about 1 1/2 cup. Or put the leeks away until you are ready to mix and fry them later in the day (or even the next day).

Break the eggs into a large bowl. Add the remaining salt, pepper, turmeric (if using), bread crumbs, parsley and nuts; stir to combine. Fold in the cooked leeks. Leave to rest for a few minutes to give the bread time to absorb the egg and form a mixture dense enough to shape into small patties. If it still seems too moist, add a bit more bread crumbs to bind the ingredients together.

Heat about 1/4 inch of oil in a large skillet over a medium-high flame.

When the oil is hot (but not smoking), gently spoon one or two tablespoons or so into the pan and try to shape it to be round. Cook 3 to 4 minutes or until golden, then flip over to brown the other side. Be sure not to crowd them in the pan. Repeat with the remaining mixture until all the batter is used up. Remove with spatula and drain on paper towels. Taste one and adjust salt if necessary.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 2.

Keftes are delicious plain, but you can also serve them with a tart smear of plain Greek yogurt or sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Option: For a crisper crust, coat each kefte with additional bread crumbs before frying.

Traditional Potato Latkes

Ingredients:

3 large potatoes (about 4 cups, grated)

1 medium onion (about 1 cup grated)

2 eggs

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, according to your taste

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, according to your taste (or a bit of cayenne)

3 to 6 Tablespoons matzo meal or flour

Oil for frying — about a half cup

Directions:

Peel or scrub the potatoes and grate. (I use the grating attachment of the food processor.) Transfer to colander and squeeze out excess liquid, then place in a bowl. Grate the onion using the steel knife of the food processor; stir into potatoes. Beat eggs with salt and pepper, and stir in. Stir in matzo meal or flour to achieve desired consistency.

Fry on hot oil, using about an eighth of a cup batter per pancake and flattening with a spoon. When the bottom is crisp and brown (about 3 minutes) flip and cook the other side. Remove from pan and place on paper towels to absorb access oil. Serve fresh and hot, with applesauce or sour cream; serve soup or salad as a first course if you wish to make it more of a complete meal.

Serves 3.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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