116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One of my first friends when I moved to Minneapolis was this guy Glen Foreman. I worked in a funky, but very nice restaurant, the Loring Cafe, and both Glen and I lived across the park from there. Soon enough, that friendship turned into making food together. Man, that was rough going, at first. Sharing a bottle of wine and telling stories with some snacks is one thing, but trying to cook a fine dining meal in an efficiency apartment is something else. Yeah, the smoke alarm went off. More than a couple times.
Glen brought me to his parent's place for a family meal, and I was totally blown away. I was exploring everything about food back then. Never stopped really, but I was especially zealous back then. His family made fairly traditional, but casual, Ashzkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) food, and I was absolutely hooked. When his Mom found out I was an eager young cook, she put me right to work. I was more than happy to help and learn. It was comfort food, but way different from the Midwest casseroles I grew up on.
The things that really stuck with me from those years were pickled herring and latkes. Really, that kick-started a permanent love affair with Eastern European food in general. But latkes, now those are something else. I love some nice crispy hash browns, and latkes are like hash browns if they grew up, went to college and moved to the big city. They are like hash browns coated in a thin layer of pancakes.
A latke is not all that different from hash browns. Here in flyover country, we all know that the simple things, like hash browns, are make-or-break for a regular American greasy spoon diner. Last month, I ranted about how Irish boxty cakes were becoming a hot go-to item on menus these days. I fell into a black hole, wondering about how latkes and boxty were incredibly similar. I realized I had to make two different recipes because potato recipes seem simple, but are deceptively complicated.
I always find it fascinating when two different cultures manage to come up nearly the same thing. Both latkes and boxty historically preceded potatoes in Europe. Latkes used to be made with turnips, beets, rutabagas or whatever root vegetables were available. Not just for breakfast, either. These vegetable and egg fritters were dinner. A perfect starch on the plate.
The same tricks that work with boxty cakes work on latkes as well. Squeeze the water out of the potatoes. Separate the starch out and mix it back in. Latkes use eggs and flour to help hold the cakes together, and have minced onions added to give them some extra pep.
Glen says the most important thing to remember is that whichever kid has been the most naughty has to shred the onions.
As always, have fun with this recipe. If you're not playing with your food, maybe the kitchen isn't the place for you. Substitute some, if not all of the starch ingredients for other vegetables — beets, turnips, zucchini, whatever is coming out of your garden right now. Less starchy vegetables like carrots or zucchini don't need to have the excess starch squeezed out of them.
They do freeze very well. This is one of those recipes where you can make a big batch on your day off. That will reward you with "instant food" when you're in a hustle and a bustle mode. If you're going to make them to freeze them for later, I would recommend frying them lightly first. This will let them relax and set flat when you fry them later, helping them get better surface connection with the pan. You're not trying to cook them when you pre-fry. Just getting that net of shreds to settle together. Tread gently.
Also, as a word to the wise: whenever you are cooking something starchy and sticky like potatoes, do yourself a favor and rinse of your cooking tools as you go. One minute of potato starch sticking to a bowl or grater, and it's really not going to want to clean up. If you rinse it off right away, it'll be a breeze to clean later. Wash as you go. That's some solid kitchen technique in general, but it's a must with potatoes.
My pal Glen is currently the chef de cuisine at Josephine Estelle in New Orleans and a seriously great guy. If you run into him, please buy him an olive shot for me.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for more than 30 years.
1/2 yellow onion, minced or grated
2 big russet potatoes (1 1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Mince the onions first. A sharp knife will produce the least amount of tears. You can use the shredding disc of a food processor or a box grater, especially if you have a naughty child hanging around. Place the potatoes in a medium sized mixing bowl.
Crack your eggs and scramble them into the onions. This is nice to do before you shred the potatoes. That way, you can toss the shredded potatoes into them right after squeezing the juices out. The egg will coat the potatoes and help prevent them from oxidizing and turning gummy.
Shred the potatoes. A food processor will give the nicest, big shreds. The large holes on an ordinary box grater also will work fine. Place the potatoes on a big chunk of double layered cheesecloth and squeeze the juices out into a second bowl. Some folks like to twist the cheesecloth bundle around a wooden spoon to help get some leverage.
Put the freshly squeezed shredded potatoes in the bowl with the onions. Mix them all together with a couple forks. You want to do this right after shredding them. Even after squeezing out the juices, they will want to turn brown. The coating of eggs helps keep them from oxidizing.
Don't be shy about over working them. When you agitate the shredded potatoes like this, they will start to breakdown on the surface and develop a slightly shaggy texture. We want this. Giving the potatoes more surface area helps it hold onto the batter it's mixed in, and more micro-surface helps them fry into a nice shattering crunch.
After a couple minutes, the juice you squeezed out the potatoes will settle, which means the starch has settled to the bottom of the bowl. Gently drain the browned water off the top, leaving the sticky white starch in the bottom of the bowl.
Add this starch to the potatoes, eggs and onions. Mix it up good. Stir it a few more times to get a nice rough shag on those spuds. Sprinkle the flour in slowly, continuing to stir in between spoonfuls. Let it disappear into the mix and then add a little more. The flour is going to bind with the eggs, starch and flour to make a thin film of pancake batter that just barely coats the strands of shredded potatoes.
I like hamburger sized latkes, which are about a half a cup of this mixture, each.
Precooking the patties a little bit on low heat is really the best. Whether you are going to finish and eat them right away, or freeze them off for later. It lets them settle into shape, bind together, and settle into a smooth surface that's going to get the most frying action out of the hot oil.
So for the first go around, fry them gently over low heat.
Drop a half cup of the potatoes mixed with the batter into the hot pan and use a slotted spatula to shape them into a patty. If the batter starts to leak out and run away, pull it back toward the patty with a spatula. Cook for a minute or two, flip and then cook the other side. We're not looking for color or anything dramatic at this point. Just get them to set up and hold together as a patty.
When they are half cooked and holding together, transfer them to a baking sheet. If you're going to freeze them for later, this is when you do that. Once they firm up in the freezer, you can transfer them to a zip-lock bag or other sealed container.
When you are ready to cook them for a meal, heat up a good amount of oil in a heavy fry pan, maybe an eighth of an inch. Using a large pan is nice, it will help them get nice and brown if they have some space in the pan. If you have an electric griddle or a laser thermometer, 350 to 365 degrees is an excellent frying temperature for the oil.
Drop your pattied, parcooked latkes in — slowly. Very slowly. Maybe one per minute. I like to use a 14-inch fry pan and only cook 2 at a time. Feel free to flip them to check on their brownness. Just remember, when you flip something in a pan of hot oil, flip away from yourself. Never toward. Hot oil splatters are not fun. I call this "flipping off" because I don't want to splatter hot oil all over my arms.
You want them to be a deep brown. Little spots of golden brown peeking out. Very dark brown on the edges.
They will spurt, bubble and pop. Then they quiet down a bit. When they stop "talking," lift an edge with a slotted spatula to see if they are starting to brown. If they have some nice brown color on them, flip them over and cook the other side.
When they are browned on both sides, transfer them to a plate with some paper towels on it to soak up the excess oil.
Eat them while they're hot! They are traditionally served with a dollop of sour cream and applesauce. I've never been big on applesauce, but hey, you can do whatever you want with them at this point. They're great on a breakfast plate and make a nice accompaniment to a meat and potatoes dinner.