- Rachel Reuben, a chef and champion of Food Network’s “Chopped,” recently spoke with Insider about one of her favorite holiday dishes: latkes, or potato pancakes.
- Reuben developed her potato pancake recipe because she was tired of eating the traditional version made with shredded potatoes, which she said almost always feel greasy and leak oil.
- Reuben purees potatoes and onions with water, then drains the mixture before adding flour, cornmeal, and eggs. Next, she fries the pancakes before putting them in the oven so they come out perfectly fluffy.
- She also told Insider what Hanukkah means to her and her family, and her holiday cooking process.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
No Hanukkah table would be complete without latkes — especially for chef Rachel Reuben, who is known for mastering her own version of the potato pancakes.
The 2012 champion of Food Network’s “Chopped” and owner of the culinary business Food Fix Kitchen, recently spoke with Insider about how she makes her signature potato pancakes — a fluffier, less greasy version of traditional latkes — as well as her holiday cooking process and how she became a chef.
“I got into cooking because my mother was a restaurant chef when she was younger in Europe,” Reuben, who lives in the greater New York City area, told Insider. “I grew up around food and cooking — it was a natural thing.”
Reuben started her career as a personal trainer and ended up starting a business of cooking healthy meals for people and tucking them away in the refrigerator, something that’s since become commonly known as “meal prepping.”
“It’s very prevalent now, the meal-prep thing, but back then nobody was really doing it,” Reuben said. “Then I sort of left professional cooking for a while, and didn’t get back to it as a career path until I was in my 50s and I went to culinary school at the same time as my 19-year-old son. Different schools, though!”
Reuben attended New York City’s French Culinary Institute, which is now called The International Culinary Center. But after going to culinary school, Reuben knew that she didn’t want to work in restaurants.
“I was too old for that,” she said. “I opened a cooking school and taught cooking in my own cooking studio for six years. Then I had to get rid of my studio as I went through a divorce, so I transitioned into doing private chef work and food and wellness coaching — what I’m doing mostly now.”
These days, Reuben works with clients to develop healthy-eating plans for weight loss and longevity. She told us she finds the job rewarding.
“I’ve had several clients who are recovering from their first scare with diabetes and heart disease and they realize they have to get serious about eating well,” she said. “It’s been kind of a long evolution.”
Reuben came up her recipe for latkes in the hopes of making a ‘more palatable’ and less oily version of the dish
Reuben said she developed her potato-pancake recipe because she was tired of the traditionally greasy potato pancakes made with shredded potatoes, which she said almost always leak oil. The chef said she wanted to base her recipe off of the fluffier, fritter-like potato pancakes she found at diners in New Jersey.
“They’re more palatable, fluffier, thicker — not just a mouthful of oil,” Reuben said. “I wanted to develop a recipe that would be like that.”
When she used that recipe on “Chopped” as a side dish, Reuben told Insider that it got a lot of attention, as nobody had ever seen someone put potatoes in a blender to make potato pancakes.
“Ted Allen was like ‘What are you doing?'” she said, speaking of the TV show’s host. “I did that recipe on ‘Chopped’ because it’s really quick and it comes together fast and easy. It’s more like a fritter.”
To make her latkes, Reuben said she first purees the potatoes and onions with water, before draining out the water to get a creamy, potato-heavy base.
“Then we add flour, some cornmeal, and eggs,” she said. “It fries up really nice.”
Reuben said she usually fries the pancakes for color before putting them on a sheet pan and popping them in the oven to finish off the cooking process. That way, she explained, they come out less greasy and perfectly puffy.
For Reuben, who is a proponent of a low-carb diet, latkes are usually reserved for holiday meals and special occasions
“Absolutely I make them around the holidays!” she said, speaking of the potato pancakes. “I’m a big low-carb person. I teach and coach people to eat low-carb, but holidays and special occasions are the times when you should be having carbs — a special treat.”
Reuben takes health into consideration when she cooks, and typically prefers foods that are low in carbs and sugar. And though her take on latkes are carb-heavy, Reuben says they aren’t as unhealthy as other versions might be.
“This isn’t a processed food,” Reuben said of her potato-pancake dish. “It’s made from fresh, whole foods like potatoes, eggs, onions, and a little bit of flour and oil. If you’re going to eat carbs, that’s the way to go — few ingredients and no chemicals.”
Though the potato pancakes used to be a recipe the whole family would help out with, Reuben told Insider the bulk of the cooking falls on her shoulders now that her children are grown
“Sometimes my daughter would be part of the cooking process, but my two kids are grown and very busy,” she said. “When they were younger, it was fun to cook. My daughter really didn’t become interested in cooking until she went away to college. Within two weeks, she called me and said ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been eating so amazingly my whole life — I better learn how to cook, because the food down here stinks!'”
Even so, Reuben thinks it’s great to get more kids involved in cooking. She said that in her potato-pancake recipe, there are several steps that are fairly kid-friendly, including peeling the potatoes and onions, cracking the eggs, and chopping veggies.
Reuben’s son is also an accomplished chef, but they only cook together on occasion due to their busy schedules.
“Now that my kids are older, we individually cook things and bring them together, or I’ll do all the cooking and let them come and relax, because they’re very hardworking kids,” she said. “My son’s life is so different than mine. He’s at a Michelin-star level and works 60-70 hours a week. He’s also one of the opening chefs in a brand-new project in Hudson Yards, The Tavern by WS.”
Reuben said her family doesn’t put an emphasis on gift-giving when celebrating Hanukkah, and that it’s important to remember what it’s all about
In addition to potato pancakes and roasted vegetables, like the ones pictured above from Food Fix Kitchen, Reuben says brisket is always a welcome dish at a Jewish holiday table. Reuben noted that during Hanukkah, however, oil-heavy foods take center stage as an important way to honor tradition.
“The reason we have latkes and jelly donuts around Hanukkah is the story of the oil never burning out,” she said. “It was only supposed to last for a day, but it lasted for eight days, so it’s the miracle of the oil. That’s why fried foods have become popular on Hanukkah — it’s an oil-based miracle. We might be better off not eating fried foods and just doing olive oil shots!”
The miracle Reuben was referring to comes from the story of the Maccabees, who started the Hanukkah celebration when they reclaimed a temple in Jerusalem years after it was vandalized by ruler of the Syrian kingdom Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 168 B.C. As the story is recounted by My Jewish Learning’s Lesli Koppelman Ross, the Maccabees restored the religious site and lit the menorah to commence eight days of worship. Despite using a meager amount of oil, the menorah stayed alight for all eight days: the miracle that Hanukkah celebrates.
For Reuben, who says she isn’t very religious, the Jewish holidays are ultimately a time when she and her family stop what they’re doing, get together, and enjoy some quality home cooking. But the sentiment of Hanukkah is still important to her.
“This holiday is about a miracle,” she said. “You can view life as a series of coincidences or happy accidents, but it’s nice to think about them as little miracles that happen every day.”