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Latkes: The World's Best Potatoes

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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 browns 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.

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Secrets of the Rabbi's Wife

  1. Use starchy potatoes. They are low in moisture and crisp well. Burbank Russets, King Edwards, and Yukon Golds are good choices.
  2. Shred the potatoes uniformly.
  3. Squeeze as much moisture out of the potatoes as possible.
  4. Don't make the patties too large. 3" wide by 1/2" is ideal. Leave the edges jagged for extra crispiness.
  5. Use a 12" skillet. preferably cast iron, because it distributes and retains heat well, and that's important as you add cold patties to the oil. Wipe the pan clean with oil before starting.
  6. Don't start frying until a sliver of potato sizzles when you drop it into the oil.
  7. Slide the patties into the oil a minute apart to make sure the oil doesn't get cold.
  8. Don't overcook.
  9. Keep them in a hot oven when they are done.
  10. Serve immediately.

Latkes for a Crowd

Here's how restaurants make lots of latkes at once:
  1. Put a large rimmed baking sheet into the oven and pour in about 1/4" of oil. Preheat to 450°F for about 20 minutes.
  2. Slip the latkes into the hot oil and paint the tops of the latkes with a bit of the hot oil.
  3. Bake/fry them for 6-8 minutes on one side until GBD, turn and bake for another 5 minutes or so. Add oil as needed, but wait until it heats up before cooking.

Innovations?

Latke competitions are not as widespread as barbecue cookoffs, but they seem to be growing in popularity. Since I am addicted to potato pancakes, I read every latke recipe I see. Here are some of the innovations I have read about that you may wish to try:
  1. For extra crispiness, use egg whites only or add corn starch.
  2. Partially boil the potatoes for about 10 minutes, let them dry and cool before grating.
  3. Use bread crumbs or matzoh meal instead of flour in the mix.
  4. Coat the patties with bread crumbs or matzoh meal.

Upscale latkes?

Latkes, originally peasant food, have been going upscale lately, appearing on the menus of white table cloth restaurants. Chefs now make them with everything from sweet potato (yum), zucchini, carrot, apples, pears, cauliflower, mushrooms, lentils, celery root, rice, cabbage, parsnips, olives, and even beets (yuk). I have even seen these ingredients added to potato latkes.

I have also heard of adding fresh herbs such as chives, thyme, parsley, or rosemary, and even parmesan cheese.

For garnishes, the shee shee crowd uses crème fraîche and caviar, smoked salmon and whipped cream cheese, sour cream and salmon eggs, Greek yogurt with fresh figs, and watercress sprinkled on everything.

If you're not Jewish and you really want to cross the streams, fry them in bacon or duck fat, and put chopped bacon in the blend. If you are Jewish and you even think about this, well the punishment is worse than growing hair on your palms...

Oy vay!
Hanukkah celebrates the expulsion from Jerusalem of Syrian-Greek occupiers by freedom fighters called Maccabees in 168 BC. The story is 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 350°F oven, but they will not be as crispy.

Yield. 6-8 pancakes, 3" x 1/2"
Preparation time. 30 minutes
Cooking time. 40 minutes

Ingredients
1 pound (about three medium size) starchy potatoes
1/2 cup onion or shallots, coarsely chopped
1 whole egg or the whites of two eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
about 1 to 2 cups 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. 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 corn starch.

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.

Do this
1) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Take a sheet pan and put a rack over it for draining and crisping the pancakes and put it in the oven.

2) Crack the egg into a large mixing bowl, and beat it lightly with a fork. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and pepper and stir together with the fork.

3) Peel and wash the potatoes. 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) We are now going to try to get as much moisture as possible out of the potatoes and onions. 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 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 and make patties about 3" across and about 1/2" high. An ice cream scoop is a good measuring device. Leave the edges jagged. Place them on a platter or sheet pan. Do not stack them.

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 for 5-7 minutes until, if you drop a shred of potato in, it begins to bubble and fries instantly.

7) 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 the 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 5-7 minutes. Check the bottom of the first patty by lifting it with a slotted spoon or spatula. It should be golden, but there still may be milky parts showing. That's fine. Turn it and cook another 3-4 minutes on the second side until golden. The edges may get brown, so be careful that they do not burn. Remove the patty and gently put it on the rack over the baking pan in the oven to drain and crisp even further. If you are doing a large batch you might want to turn down the oven so they don't overcook.

8) When they are all done, scoop out the bits that are left behind in the oil, drain, cool, and eat them, too. 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 kosher salt and serve hot.

What are your latke secrets and how do you serve them?

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2010 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved

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