Eight days before Christmas, some New Mexicans light a luminaria, a candle nestled in a paper sack, then add an additional glowing luminaria every evening until Christmas, when nine burning lights illumine the holiday darkness.
If this process of kindling flames sounds familiar, it is no coincidence. These New Mexicans are crypto-Jews: descendants of converso colonists who practiced Judaism in secret, fearing the relentless persecution of the Inquisition, whose long reach extended into the New World. Even many of those who became Catholics have kept alive their Jewish traditions to this day, lighting candles on Friday nights, abstaining from pork, observing a feast or fast of Esther, covering mirrors during the mourning period, and maintaining many other Jewish practices.
The fascinating story of these crypto-Jews is still being written. Many are rediscovering and exploring their Jewish roots, some even confirming their Jewishness through DNA testing. Some have converted to Judaism: others feel they have been Jewish all along.
Inspired by them, these sweet potato latkes glow with New Mexican spice.
Prepare the lime-sour cream sauce: stir together the sour cream, chives, and lime juice and zest in a small bowl. Let the flavors develop while you make the latkes.
Make the latkes: shred the sweet potatoes using the medium/fine shredding disk of a food processor. (While many recipes call for coarse grating, I find that sweet potatoes won’t release as much moisture when grated that thickly and so don’t bind as well with the other ingredients.) Transfer the shredded potatoes to a colander, sprinkle with about
Put the sweet potatoes in a large bowl, and add the onion, eggs, flour, salt to taste (figure
Regulate the heat carefully as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent oil from splattering, use two spatulas (or a spatula and a large spoon) to turn the latkes carefully. Fry until crisp and golden on the other side.
Avoid turning the latkes more than once or they will absorb too much oil. Before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.
Transfer the cooked latkes to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain. Continue frying latkes until all the batter is used. If necessary, add more oil to the pan, but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch.
Serve the latkes right away with the lime-sour cream sauce, garnished, if you’d like, with cilantro. They are at their best eaten as soon as possible, but, if necessary, you can keep them warm, arranged in a single layer on a rack set on a baking sheet in a slow oven (200°F) until they are all ready to be brought to the table.
© 2008 Jayne Cohen. All rights reserved.