MY LATE UNCLE Jimmy’s menorah rests in a bed of peacock feathers and lights on the mantel. Tonight we’ll light the fifth candle commemorating the Jewish Festival of Lights, Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or to get technical, חֲנֻכָּה.
Being a bi-family, next week the menorah will be packed away and something Christmasy will takes its place. But as we are in the midst of the first holiday, I thought we’d discuss the potato, which is, after all, a plant.
As it happens, one uses potatoes for latkes, the potato pancakes that are integral to the festival, unless one uses zucchini, which is . . . no. I have written of latkes before, but the tale is eternal. Like the retelling of the Passover story: Once again the candles are lit and the potatoes fry.
I don’t grow potatoes, though I did once inadvertently, when a sweet-potato vine in one of the window boxes miraculously developed a spud. I remember (this was several years ago) staring at it in wonder when I yanked the frostbitten plant and discovered this misshapen growth that could only be called a potato. A pretty stunning event, that.
We didn’t eat it. There was something distressing about the thought of consuming what seemed like a cyst at the base of five feet of bedraggled foliage.
It was like vegetable soup, which was a problem for me until well into my 30s. I found something unpleasantly mysterious about that thick greenish sludge with unidentifiable bits submerged. Then one day I said to myself: What do you think is in vegetable soup? And I replied: vegetables?
That was an aha! moment, and neither here nor there, though I now eat vegetable soup with no distress.
Returning to the subject at hand, the potato. Specifically the latke, in which potatoes are the dominant feature, and even more specifically the latkes my mother made.
Mama could make grown men cry with her latkes, which I consider to be about as aspirational as one can get. I’ve gotten close enough that there have been occasions when I have heard the words: “These are better than my mother’s.” Could there be a more heretical statement from a Jewish guy’s lips?*
These have a perfectly crisp and golden-brown crust with a soft, almost creamy interior. For this Mama used a grater with a wire grid, which does not shred the potatoes, like hash browns, but makes a slightly chunky mush. I use the food processor fitted with the “S” shaped blade, which I have just discovered is called the sabatier blade, which is not only faster and easier than a grater but also leaves your knuckles intact. Mama passed away before the dawn of the food processor, which is a shame. She would have been delighted.
Her basic recipe makes 6 to 8 latkes:
2 large potatoes, grated
1 small onion, grated
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Scant teaspoon salt
Scant teaspoon pepper
½ cup matzoh meal (or flour if you don’t have meal)
**Pinch of sugar
Peel the potatoes and cut them into 6 to 8 pieces. Peel and quarter the onion. Using the sabatier blade on the food processor, chop 4 or 5 chunks at a time. Each batch should take about 12 seconds on high. Do not overprocess. The result should be a slightly lumpy mass.
Put the mush into a large bowl, add the egg, salt and pepper, sugar if using, and mix well. If the batter is extremely watery, you can pour off some of the liquid. Generally this is not necessary—draining can deplete the moisture. If water drifts to the bottom between batches, mix it back into the batter.
Add the matzoh meal, which makes for an exceptionally light latke, or flour. What you want is a batter that’s the texture of oatmeal.
Heat oil in a large frying pan until a flick of water flits across the surface. Drop blobs of batter from a serving spoon into the hot oil and lightly flatten. You want them to float, not stick to the bottom of the pan.
Fry about five minutes per side, until golden brown. Timing will depend on how big you make the pancakes. To keep them crisp, remove them with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain on a wire rack or brown paper bags—either is preferable to paper towel, though that will do in a pinch. Eat as immediately as possible.
If you’re frying for a crowd, doubling or tripling the recipe is easily done: Just double or triple the recipe. The problem with making bigger batches is that it’s hot, tedious work when you’d prefer to be drinking with your guests. Also, wine and hot oil do not mix well, I have found.
The solution, which took me 30 years to realize, is to fry them to a pale brown earlier in the day, leaving them to cool on the rack—not in the fridge, which gives them an off flavor—and then, just before the meal is served, re-frying them in hot oil for about a minute per side, until golden. Pretty much as one would do with French fries.
If the pan is big and the oil is hot, you should be able to serve 25 to 30 latkes in about 5 minutes.
* This is not the case with goy (not Jewish) boys, who generally have nothing to compare them with, and simply find these delicious.
**My big sister, Jeanie, who makes divine latkes, says to toss just a pinch of sugar into the batter: “It’s magical.”
LittleBird Stephanie talks about her gardening, sometimes. But she’s also a very good cook.