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Cooking Off the Cuff: The Return of the Potato Fritter -- Welcome Back!

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Quite a few years ago, a staple of my pre-dinner finger-food repertoire was a crunchy, eggy, savory potato fritter. I don't remember where I picked up the recipe and I certainly don't know why I stopped making these things: they're delicious and fun, and they perform a magic act when you cook them, forming a soft, cheese-custardy blob with a crisp exterior edged with tendrils of even crisper potato.

Last week I needed precisely that sort of snack (crunchy, eggy, savory), but the closest thing to a recipe I could find was in an e-mail I wrote to a friend in 2007 explaining the fritters for an article he was writing on appetizers. It read, in toto, "Shred potatoes (long shreds); add egg; add parmesan. Fry." If I hadn't made them ten or a dozen times in the past, that wouldn't have been enough to go on. I would have looked at the resulting mixture and thought it wasn't holding together, and I probably would have added flour or breadcrumbs. But that would have missed the point and put the kibosh on the magic, the key to which is a fairly liquid batter which automatically clings to the potatoes in the perfect quantity.

Other than knowing that, there's no trick to putting these together and only one trick to frying them. I made them twice over the past week. The first time, I used the so-called ribbon grater on a box grater from Microplane (the right-hand image in this picture), which yielded almost-paper-thin strips perhaps a quarter inch (6 mm) wide. The second time, I used my food processor with a 2 mm julienne attachment. I could also have used the fine holes on a standard box grater, which is how I think I used to make them, though I don't really remember. The only criteria are that the shreds be at least an inch long, preferably longer, and that they be thin enough so that they'll cook through in the few minutes it takes to fry the fritters.

For 18 fritters (more or less, depending on size), fetch and peel about a pound (450 g) of potatoes (russets are the norm, but this time I used yellower-fleshed German butterballs with success). Beat three eggs in a big bowl and stir in around three ounces (85 g) grated parmesan, say 3/4 cup tamped down, though you're better off weighing it. Season with black pepper and more salt than you think you need. Now shred the potatoes, wrap them in a dish towel (or cotton surgical drape - thanks for those, Roberta) and squeeze out as much of their water as you can. Do not rinse them: their starch is part of the magic.

Add the potatoes to the batter and get ready to fry. Heat around 3/4 inch (2 cm) neutral oil in a skillet 10 or 11 inches (25 or 28 cm) across until it reaches 325 or 330 degrees F (say 165 C), then take a table fork, give the mixture a stir, and use the fork to deposit modest portions of potato/batter in the pan and to spread it very slightly in the oil (using a fork, not a spoon, is the other trick that ensure the right consistency). Now for the usual advice: Don't crowd the pan. I get about half a dozen per batch. As they start to brown, see if they need to be loosened from the bottom of the pan, and if they do give them a little nudge with the fork or a narrow-bladed spatula. When one side is golden, turn them, wait for Side B to get crisp and, if you like, turn them again. The tendrils must be crunchy, but on the other hand the central blob oughtn't to dry out (though these will still be delicious if overcooked). Drain them on paper towels and fry another batch. Note that, because you've used a fork to move the fritters from bowl to pan, there'll be leftover egg-cheese mixture. For health and safety reasons, I discard this.

Because those little tentacles (the fritters do look like some sort of sea creature in a tempura bar) are so thoroughly fried, they will remain crisp while the fritters cool down enough to be eaten, so you needn't keep the first batch warm while you fry the second and, probably, third. The other night there were two left over; to my surprise, they were still crisp and delicious nearly three hours later, which means you could make these ahead of time and reheat them or serve them tepid.

I use these as a drinking snack, and that's how I've presented them. But if you think of them as tater tots from a parallel dimension of excellence, there's no reason you shouldn't serve them as the potato part of a main course.

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