I learned to make potato latkes from 2nd generations Jews living on the Upper West Side of New York City. I was spending the summer before graduate school living with Gretel and Barnie Conal, former Communists and great cooks. Barnie gave me books and pamphlets by Marx, Engles and Fauerback, the epic novels of Mikhail Sholokhov and plays by Bertolt Brecht. Gretel gave me a few great recipes.
Gretel’s latkes are not light diet food. There are many other great latkes recipes, some cooked in olive oil, that are healthier. But Gretel’s latkes are thin, lacy and crisp with overtones of chicken and onion. I eat them once a year, at Easter, as a vague kind of resonance with the Jewish Passover.
Schmaltz was Gretel’s key ingredient. Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat. You have to prepare the schmaltz in advance, as a bi-product of making chicken stock. In an earlier blog I suggested putting the chicken stock in the refrigerator overnight so you can lift off the fat before using it. This can be the start of your schmaltz. Keep it refrigerated in a sealed jar, and when you’ve collected a cup or so heat it in a heavy saucepan with 2/3rd of a cup of thinly sliced onions, then proceed as below.
Gretel prepared schmaltz in the traditional way. Before putting a chicken in the stock pot, she would cut off all the chicken skin and fat and cut it into thin slices. She would begin to render the fat in a cast iron frying pan. When some oil began to liquify in the bottom of the pan, Gretel would add an equal amount of thinly sliced onions. She would cook the onions and chicken skin until they turned very dark brown. It can get tricky. You have to watch carefully so the onion and skin doesn’t burn at the end. As soon as they are done, pour the rendered fat through a cheesecloth lined sieve. T will be clear and delicious. The crispy onion and skin is called gribenes. Sprinkle on a little salt and you have one of life’s truly decadent delicacies. Once a year!
Success depends upon a specific kind of potato grater. There may be other varieties, but the Kuchenprofi Potato Grater/Shredder is available at Amazon. Kuchenprofi Potato Grater/Shredder in 18/10 Stainless Steel
This grater gives the long, thin rough grated potato you need for success.
The onions should be grated on the finest side of a standard four sided grater. [picture] Progressive International Deluxe Grater.
A heavy cast iron skillet is best for cooking them. I have a 13 1/4 inch skillet, which seems perfect, but I couldn’t find any that size in a quick Internet search. The Lodge 15 inch looks good, but it weighs 13 pounds! Lodge Logic L14SK3 Pre-Seasoned 15 Inch Cast-Iron Skillet
Gretel always peeled the potatoes, but I scrub them well and leave on the skins. They are rich in Vitamin C, Potassium (1 skin has as much as a banana), Iron (almost a quarter of the daily recommended amount), Copper ( another quarter) and large amounts of fiber. Potatoes also have a great deal of undigestible starch that acts like fiber in the digestive system.
I should do a whole blog about potatoes, another wonderful gift of the Americas. They originated in the mountains of Peru, where there are still 4000 varieties. For this recipe, we can shop closer to home.
3 Idaho type baking potatoes
1 large onion
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel and grate the onion on the finest side of 4 sided grater into a generous mixing bowl. [TIP. Don’t trim one end of the onion and it will stay together better during the grating.] Grate the potatoes into the mixing bowl with the Potato Grater/Shredder. Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Add the well beaten egg, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. The batter should be fairly wet.
Frying the Latkes
Now here’s the key to thin, crispy latkes. Cook them in plenty of smaltz (rendered chicken fat) in a cast iron frying pan over a medium high burner. Use about a tablespoon of batter and spread it out as thinly as possible with the back of the spoon. Cook until the latkes are brown on one side, then flip and continue cooking until brown on the other side. Remove the first batch to a paper towel and keep them warm in the oven as you cook up the rest of the batter.
Latkes are best served as soon as they are cooked. We used to stand around Gretel’s kitchen and eat them as they came out of the pan, almost burning our lips. Gretel served them with fresh sour cream from the Jewish delicatessen on the corner and homemade applesauce.