The absolute most perfect use of potatoes, better even than French fries, is to turn them into potato pancakes, which have crunchy mahogany edges, crispy golden midsections, and tender, rich, meaty interiors. They are hash brown on steroids.
When it comes to potato pancakes, the best recipes come from Jewish households, where potato pancakes, called latkes, have been traditionally fried in December for the holiday of Hanukkah for centuries. December is also when potatoes, onions, and olive oil are fresh.
Hanukkah celebrates the expulsion from Jerusalem of Syrian-Greek occupiers by freedom fighters called Maccabees in 168 BC. Legend has it that when the main temple was recaptured, there was only enough olive oil to keep the holy lamp burning for one day. That small amount of oil kept the lamp alive for the eight days it took to harvest, press, and purify more oil, a miracle. Hanukkah became the eight day holiday to commemorate the miracle of the oil, when Jews eat foods fried in olive oil and exchange gifts. Fried chicken, latkes, and a sort of doughnut are also traditional.
There are thousands of recipes, but this simple version, given to me by a rabbi and modified only slightly, is by far my favorite. You can use the oil more than once, but don't try to make it last eight days.
Leftovers can be frozen and later warmed in a 450°F oven, for about 7 minutes, but they will not be quite as crispy.
Secrets of a rabbi's wife
- Use starchy potatoes. They are low in moisture and crisp well. Burbank Russets, King Edwards, and Yukon Golds are good choices.
- Shred the potatoes uniformly.
- Squeeze as much moisture out of the potatoes as possible. A salad spinner does the job well.
- Don't make the patties too large. 3" wide by just under 1/2" is ideal. Leave the edges jagged for extra crispiness.
- Use a 12" skillet that distributes and retains heat well, and that's important as you add cold patties to the oil. Cast iron is a good choice.
- Don't start frying until a sliver of potato sizzles when you drop it into the oil.
- Slide the patties into the oil a minute or two apart to make sure the oil doesn't get cold.
- Don't overcook.
- Keep them in a hot oven when they are done, but not for long.
Yield. 6-8 pancakes, 3" x 1/2"
Preparation time. 30 minutes
Cooking time. 40 minutes
1 pound (about 2 large) starchy potatoes
1/2 cup onion or shallots, coarsely chopped
1 whole egg or the whites of two eggs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon Morton's kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
about 1 cup of olive oil
About the potatoes. Go for Burbank Russet, King Edward, or Yukon Golds.
About the salt. If you use table salt, use about 1/2 the amount.
About the oil. You can also use peanut oil, canola oil, corn oil or a blend of oils if you wish, but fresh harvest season olive oil is the tradition.
About the baking soda. The baking soda makes carbon dioxide bubbles and gives lightness to the interior. Leave it out if you want a denser pancake.
Optional add-ins. I like to add 1 grated carrot and 2 tablespoons of chives, mainly for color.
About the flour. The flour helps bind things together. To make this recipe gluten free, use 1 tablespoon pure corn starch. Argo is gluten free.
Optional toppings. In Jewish homes it is common to serve latkes with a dollop of sour cream or apple sauce on top or on the side and perhaps a sprinkle of chives or parsley. Some people have been seen serving them with ketchup, mayonnaise, cinnamon, or sugar on top. Yuk! Me? I eat mine nekked.
1) Preheat the oven to 300°F. Take a sheet pan and put a rack over it and put it in the oven. This is used for draining and crisping the pancakes and keeping them hot when they come out of the oil.
2) Crack the egg into a large mixing bowl, and beat it lightly with a fork or whisk. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and pepper and stir together with the fork. Don't worry if there are lumps.
3) Peel the potatoes and then wash them. Put them in a bowl of cold water as you work to keep them from browning. When you are done peeling, pat them dry with a paper towel. Now shred them with the big holes on a box grater or a food processor so they are all uniform in size. Mix in the onions.
4) This next step is crucial. We are now going to try to get as much moisture as possible out of the potatoes and onions. If you have a salad spinner, take the taters a ride. One reader says he puts the shredded potato into a potato ricer and squeezes out the juice and it doesn't push the potatoes through the holes. If not, with your hands, pick up a small amount of the grated potato/onion mix and, over the sink, squeeze out as much water as possible. Repeat. Then spread the grated potato mix out on a double layer of paper towels, cover with another double layer of paper towels, and press hard. Another method is to put the mix into the center of a few layers of cheesecloth, a clean T-shirt, or a clean kitchen towel, pull together the edges making a pouch, and twist and squeeze out as much moisture as possible.
5) Add the potato mix to the bowl with the egg mixture, mix gently until the potatoes are all coated.
6) Heat the skillet over high. If you are using cast iron add a few tablespoons of oil and wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. Then add enough oil so that it fills the pan 1/4" deep. If the pancakes are 1/2" then the oil is deep enough to reach more than halfway up the pancake. Heat the oil to about 350°F or for about 10 minutes until, if you drop a shred of potato in, it begins to bubble and fries instantly.
7) One at a time, make patties about 3" across and about 1/2" high, but leave the edges jagged. An ice cream scoop is a good measuring device, then you can shape them. Ease the patties into the oil one at a time about a minute apart, being careful not to splash. You should be able to fit four into a 12" pan at a time, and they should not be touching much. The reason to stagger their start time is to keep the oil temperature hot. If you add four at a time, the oil temp will drop and the pancakes can get soggy. When you add the last one, you should notice the edges of the first one are getting golden after 5 to 7 minutes. Check the bottom of the first patty by lifting it with a slotted spatula. It should be golden, but there still may be milky parts showing. Don't let the edges go brown otherwise when you flip them they will overcook. Flip it, and it is easiest with two spatulas or a spatula and a large spoon so they don't splatter or break. Flip the away from you so they don't splash. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes on the second side until golden. Remove the patty and gently put it on the rack over the baking pan in the oven to crisp even more.
8) When they are all done, scoop out the bits that are left behind in the oil, drain, cool, and eat them yourself. Cook's treat!
9) After they have been in the oven for about 15 minutes the latkes will darken a bit, crisp even more on the outsides, and cook thoroughly through the center. Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve hot.