Laughing matter

Sweet Potato Beet Latkes 1

Jim and I bundled up to walk around in the snow last week, to deliver holiday gifts to a few neighbors. I zipped up my thigh-length down jacket. This coat—as opposed to the shorter one, whose zipper I split a couple weeks ago—goes over the new belly. (The wavy weave of the baffles makes the zipper do a little zigzag up my midsection, mind you, but it still zips.) I bent down to lace up those big warm boots, and what with the strain on the front of the jacket, I couldn’t quite reach the laces well enough to give them the tug they require. My husband actually laced up my shoes for me.

I’m changing, these days. I don’t wear pants with real zippers. I’m becoming more patient, without meaning to at all. All that elementary school Stop! Drop! And Roll! rehearsal is finally being put to good use; now I have to sort of barrel-roll out of bed, because yanking myself up sit-up style is no longer an option. My hair’s growing gangbusters. I even burp more, and it never seems as funny to other people as it seems to me. And oh, yes: I’ve almost stopped stressing completely. Goodness knows I didn’t expect that to happen.

But there’s one single thing, in these most recent weeks of pregnancy, one change that’s surprised me more than all the others.

It’s my laugh. It’s different.

It’s always been a wheezy, open-throated sort of thing, a laugh inherited from my father that starts loud but looses momentum as soon as it’s begun. It often entailed an unusually loud squeak or honk right there at the end—a sound just goosey enough to draw stares, but not so interesting or ungraceful that the laugh itself becomes the subject of more chuckling. And oh, jeez, giggling’s always been out. I couldn’t giggle right if my life depended on it. Yes, there was always just the shout, then the silent part, then maybe that little hee-haw, with the noise always seeming to come out when I was actually inhaling.

Lately, though, it’s been different. I must have more matter, down deep in the belly where laughs ring best, because all the sound waves are bouncing around in a very new way. My laugh isn’t broken up into separate acts anymore. It’s become a continuous ripple of sound, each little segment (what are the individual sounds in a laugh called, anyway?) neatly partitioned and identical to the next. It’s so textbook. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really mine.

The thing is, I’m suddenly enjoying laughing a lot more. It’s not that I ever disliked it, but now, I realize, it hasn’t always been comfortable to laugh. I’m generally a happy enough person, but I’ve never laughed as much or as long as most people. I liked being happy, but I never loved to laugh, Mary Poppins-style. Now, though, it comes more easily.

This weekend, the snow came for real, and we laughed even more. We decided to button up our lives for the weekend, just sit tight in our little neighborhood while the rest of the world continued to function (or not function, in Seattle’s case). And oh, goodness, it was fun.

Friday, we made the meatballs on the cover of the January issue of Gourmet—it started as sort of an apology, because I’d hated the previous issue so much—and homemade fettuccine, to go with them. Frank kneaded the pasta (I have no qualms about making dinner guests work for their food), and Michelle kept stealing his meatballs, and somehow we all seemed to forget the things that make life hard sometimes. We laughed at how much we all ate, and sat in front of our fireplace’s first real fire, and all was well and wintry.

Saturday, there was more snow. I laughed when I tried to fit into my ski pants, and again when I tried to figure out how to get Jim’s to stay on. We tromped around the neighborhood in big boots, and laughed at our dog, trying to make friends with her little doggie boots. Then we read, and made a tart for the neighborhood party that night, and latkes for Sunday, when we’d planned to have ten people for a big Hanukkah shindig.

Sweet Potato Beet Latkes frying

Then Sunday, it snowed more. Two by two, our dinner guests canceled—rightly so, for weather, or ill-equipped cars, or canceled airline flights—until we’d been whittled down to just me, and Jim, and the dog and cat, and enough latkes to feed the Maccabees. We laughed at the fact that we have a refrigerator filled to the brim with food, and no one to feed before we leave for the east coast tomorrow.

But two people is enough to light the menorah, so we ate latkes, and more mushroom tart, and celebrated, just the two of us. Jim put on the pajama pants Hanukkah Harry brought him—the ones with martinis on them—and did a little celebration dance, and pulled a muscle. We laughed at that, too.

Truth is, that’s what I like about Hanukkah: It celebrates the miracle of light, but it’s never just the light that lasts. There’s always something to be thankful for. This year, it’s especially easy.

There’s the way the snow brings out the best in the entire neighborhood. There’s our good health, mine and Jim’s and little someone’s. There’s a sheet pan with latkes that were supposed to last only one night, but will, without a doubt, last at least eight. There’s the airplane that will take us back east, weather willing, for 12 days, to share the holidays with friends and family and rescue us, thank god, from having to eat all those latkes ourselves.

And now, there’s the fact that my very own laugh seems to have made me happier. Now that’s a miracle. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m glad it’s here.

Happy holidays.

Sweet Potato Beet Latkes 2

Sweet Potato-Beet Latkes for a Crowd (PDF)

In this colorful version of traditional Hanukkah latkes, the way the beets caramelize in the oil makes their naturally sweet flavor come bursting through. Shredding the potatoes and beets by hand gives the latkes a more genuine texture, but if you’re like me, one glance at that bag of tots, and you’ll head straight for your food processor’s shredding disk. It doesn’t hurt—with potato latkes, the way you cut them affects the way the starch comes out of the root, which affects the texture of the latke, but not so with beets and sweet potatoes, which are far less starchy.

Latkes can be made a day ahead, drained on paper towels, then refrigerated overnight. Reheat them for 5 to 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven, until sizzling hot. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.

TIME: 1 hour 30 minutes total
MAKES: 10 servings (about 40 latkes)

3 pound sweets potatoes, peeled
1 pound beets, peeled
1 large onion, thinly sliced and then chopped
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 eggs, whisked to blend
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying

Using a food processor or a box grater, shred the sweet potatoes and beets. Transfer them to a giant mixing bowl, along with the onions and flour. Whisk the eggs, salt, and about 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl, add to the vegetables, and mix until thoroughly blended. (I found my hands worked best.)

Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium heat. Add oil until it comes about 1/2” up the sides of the pan. When a bit of the potato mixture dropped into the oil sizzles madly, it’s ready. Drop the mixture by 1/4 cupfuls into the oil, and fry 4 to 6 minutes per side, or until golden brown on both sides. (If the latkes seem to fall apart when you flip them, be patient; they’re not done yet.) Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain briefly. Taste the first batch, adding additional salt and pepper to the potato mixture, if needed, then continue frying in small batches, adjusting the heat and adding more oil as necessary. Serve the latkes hot, just as they come out of the pan, or keep drained latkes warm on a foil-covered baking sheet in a 300-degree oven.

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14 Comments

Filed under appetizers, recipe, vegetables, vegetarian

14 responses to “Laughing matter

  1. Noah

    Good luck on the trip — happy holidays!

  2. Flour? Flour?!?

    Whatever happened to using matzoh meal in your latkes?

  3. I know, Greg, it’s a sin. With potatoes, I’d just use the starch that collects at the bottom of the bowl… but alas, can I blame the goy of the house that I don’t keep matzoh meal around? Let us know how much to use if you try it with the matzoh…

  4. Lauren

    Jess,

    This is so beautiful. Just reading it made me warm and happy. I’m so glad for all of the amazing blessings in your life and I’m definitely going to try the meatballs :)

  5. Jen

    Jess,

    Such an enjoyable post. Thanks for sharing these special moments with us.

  6. Jenny

    Ooo….did someone say mushroom tart?

  7. Bree

    Hey, even Ratner’s famous Jewish deli in New York uses flour in their latkes (I used their recipe Sat night)…it’s just as good! Happy Chanukah, Jess, and safe travels!

  8. I love the thought of your newly-developed laugh–how rich! :-)

    Now as for these Sweet-boxin’ beet (get it!?) potato latkes…perfect snowy weather fare for Seattleites who can’t get out of the house because there’s not a single snow plow within the city limits.

  9. Hey Jess- This is my first time visit your blog. I must say.. I’m totally hooked. Your writing is totally and completely soul warming. Your style is full of ease and beauty. What a lovely post about snow and the holidays and laughter. So special. I’m so glad to have found your corner of the Internet. I’ll be back again and again.

  10. Leslie

    Sounds great. Oh and there is ONE snow plow in Seattle, but it’s stuck on Beacon Hill :)

  11. I always love trying new meatball recipes.

  12. dinnerwithjulie

    Wow, sweet potatoes and beets! you are a genius. But I already knew that. What a lovely post.

  13. Pingback: A fall recipe redux |

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