You may have guessed it: I have nothing nice to say about frying. Years ago, while fishing for a stubborn schnitzel in the frying pan, I burned my hand. While a scar reminds me of my aversion to frying, I will be the first to admit that there is no Chanukah without latkes.
In my catering career and for my friends and family at home, I have made thousands upon thousands of them and always watch them disappear at a flatteringly alarming rate. There is no doubt about it: latkes are a wonderful treat, and once we enter a house where their heavenly fragrance wafts through the kitchen, even a Spartan dieter will sheepishly watch his or her noble resolution turn to dust.
Frying (stir-frying does not fall into this category, as it requires very little oil and minimal cooking) is the nemesis of every health-conscious cook, me included. However, on special occasions such as Chanukah that call for fried foods, I follow these guidelines to efficiently and safely fry holiday treats.
Keep it dry: Too much moisture will steam food instead of frying it, yielding soggy results. Before you begin, be sure to dry whatever you are frying thoroughly with paper towels.
Keep it thick: Use a firm (not runny) potato batter to form thick patties, which will absorb much less oil than thinner ones. The outside will be crisp and the center will be tender, yet cooked through.
Keep it hot: Less-than-hot oil will seep into your food, making it indelibly greasy. If you add oil to the pan while frying, chances are the oil was not hot enough to begin with. If you wait for the oil to get hot, you will need to add very little, if any, to finish frying an entire batch of food. How hot is hot enough? Drop a smidgen of batter into the oil. If it sizzles and rises to the surface, the oil is hot and ready for frying.
Keep it steady: Do not crowd the pan. First of all, you will make handling the food more difficult. Also, crowding will bring down the temperature of the oil. Adding what you are frying at steady intervals ensures that the oil has time to return to the desired temperature.
Keep it lean: Rather than using spatulas or slotted spoons which sop up unnecessary oil, work with two forks when removing items from the pan. Lift each fried item with a fork on each side, and hold it vertically for a second or two over the frying pan: You will be surprised by how much oil drips off it. Immediately place the items on a plate lined with several layers of paper towels, which will absorb any remaining unwanted grease.
Keep it white: Peeled potatoes oxidize when exposed to air and turn an unappealing gray color. So when making latkes (or a potato kugel), get everything ready before your peel and grate the potatoes, adding them immediately to the otherwise finished batter.
Keep it fresh and hot: If you are entertaining a large group, it won’t be enormous fun spending the afternoon frying while everyone is having a good time. If you must fry in advance, follow all the above guidelines, but fry each item until it is ninety percent cooked through, no more. Store it in a shallow pan in one layer. You can also place the latkes in the pan vertically, like a deck of cards; you will be able to fit quite a few in a pan in this position (again, one layer). Cover tightly. Refrigerate or freeze, depending on how long in advance you are preparing the dish. Reheat uncovered, at about 350*F, for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until heated through.
Levana’s Perfect Potato Latkes
(yields 24 latkes)
- vegetable oil for frying
- 1 cup flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 medium onion, grated in a food processor
- salt and pepper to taste
- pinch nutmeg
- 8 large Idaho or russet potatoes, peeled
Heat 1/3 inch oil in a heavy frying pan until very hot. While the oil is heating, place the flour, eggs, onion, salt and pepper, and nutmeg in a bowl, and mix thoroughly. Quickly grate the potatoes in a food processor, using the thin grating blade for soft latkes or the thick grater blade for crunchier latkes. Immediately add them to the batter, mixing with a spoon and without pressing on the solids in order not to draw unwanted moisture. Work very quickly so they do not have time to get discolored. Form small patties with both hands without ever squeezing, and lower them into the hot oil (at this point reduce the flame just slightly: leave it on high but not the highest), or drop the batter by heaping tablespoons. Fry until golden, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve with applesauce, yogurt or sour cream.
Vegetable latkes: Replace the potatoes with a mixture of zucchini, carrots and parsnips. Add seasonings of your choice such as oregano, garlic and basil.
Sweet potato latkes: Substitute sweet potatoes for the regular potatoes, and add brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger to taste.
Potato Kugel: Add 1/3 cup of vegetable oil to the potato latke batter. Pour the batter into a greased loaf or square pan, and bake uncovered in a preheated 375 degree F oven for one hour or until the top is golden brown.