Potato pancakes

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Last month, my mother taught me how to make potato pancakes.

Although, true to family tradition, the recipe consisted of a list of ingredients and no quantities. My mother herself was taught the recipe for potato pancakes in the 80’s. She was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her fourth U.S. city after immigrating from Taiwan less than a decade earlier. She had big hair, big glasses, and two young children. Not only was she new to this country, but she was also new to cooking, especially for a family of four. So my mother picked up recipes wherever she could, including from the other mothers she’d meet at PTA meetings, music lessons and ice-skating lessons. My sister was in elementary school, and most of her friends were of Jewish heritage. Even though I was only 4 at the time, I can still remember trips downtown to get poppyseed hamentaschen, and the brightly colored clock tower at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

At some point, one of these Jewish mothers kindly taught my mom how to make latkes, and since then this Jewish staple has become one of our family’s staples. Of course, everyone has their favorite version of the latke. During college, I once sat in on a Latke-Hamentaschen debate and was sorely disappointed to find that the latke team was pontificating in defense of what could only be described as an oblong patty of mashed potato, fried. My family favors the asymmetrical, scribble-shaped latke that is heterogeneous in texture with both crunchy and soft battery bits, and full of ropy strands of potato.

I made these for three weekends straight before finally getting them right. There are only a few things you need to keep in mind when making these. First, the oil must be very hot. Too cold, and you risk a greasy, soggy pancake that only burns and never crisps. Second, you must be generous with the oil. Technically potato pancakes aren’t deep fried, but they are certainly cooked in enough oil to almost cover them. This is important because these latkes are full of crags where the potato strand criss-cross. Too little oil means that while the bottoms brown, the tops just dry out–plus, you run the risk of having undercooked potatoes. You want enough oil so that when you tilt the pan, the crags can get bathed in bubbling, hot oil and start cooking just a little. Finally, when all the ingredients are combined, it’ll look like a fairly dry batter, but that’s fine. Don’t give in to the temptation to add water to the batter.

By the way, you’ll note that I don’t do any washing or straining of the potatoes before mixing the batter. I’ve never felt a need to, because I’ve never had a problem with these being anything less than wonderfully crisp. I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes for their waxy texture, but I’m sure any potato will do. Also, the suggested optional herbs may sound like a bizarre combination, but they are surprisingly good and add a savory depth to the latkes.

Potato Pancakes (Latkes)
Serves 2-3

2 medium sized Yukon Gold potatoes, about 4 inches long
2-3 scallions or half a small onion
1/4 c flour
1 large egg
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
1 tsp pepper, or more to taste
1/2 c canola oil, or your favorite frying oil
1 tsp each of rosemary, sage and mint, or other desired herbs (optional)

  1. Slice the potatoes into thin ropes. I do this by first halving the potatoes, then slicing the potatoes into 1 mm-thick slices, and then micro-julienning these slices again at 1 mm for an end potato rope with cross-sectional area of 1 square mm.
  2. Chop the scallions or onion into 1/4 inch pieces.
  3. Mix the potatoes, scallions/onions, flour and egg to form a dry batter.
  4. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet or frying pan. Once the oil reaches 400F, scoop up a small bundle of the potatoes and drop it in the oil–I find that one heaping spoonful corresponds to a pancake about 3 inches across. Flatten the potato strands so that you have the potatoes on nearly a single layer.
  5. Fry for about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown, occasionally tilting or shaking the pan to bathe the tops of the pancakes in hot oil–you should be able to see the oil bubble up on the surface of the latke. The oil temperature should be kept between 350-400F, and the oil level should be just lower than the tops of the pancakes. If while cooking you notice the oil level is low, add more oil as needed between batches.
  6. Remove from heat onto a paper towel-lined plate to blot grease. Enjoy immediately while warm.
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