For almost every meal I’ve ever cooked, I’ve taken a head-count, and then planned accordingly. The only exceptions are Hanukkah celebrations; I’ve yet to figure out how many latkes are enough. It’s just hard to argue with a potato pancake that’s fried in oil until the outside is crispy and the inside is tender and soft. The crunchy, salty, ragged bits are especially addictive.
It’s a Hanukkah tradition to eat latkes with sour cream, applesauce, sugar or a combination of those toppings. But they also make a fantastic side dish for roast chicken or beef, a festive hors d’oeuvre topped with gravlax or cold-smoked salmon and a little dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche, and a positive start to any day topped with an egg.
All across the world, wherever potatoes are grown, you can find potato pancakes. They can be made with shredded or mashed potatoes, with or without starch, with or without egg, served buried under toppings or unadorned.
Like many universally loved foods, you can serve latkes regardless of the amount of effort you’re willing to put into them. Trader Joe’s sells them frozen in boxes of 8 for $1.99. They’re stodgier than the ones I dream about, but they take 20 minutes in the oven and you don’t even have to heat any oil. Manischewitz and Streit’s make potato pancake mixes ($2.50 a box, in the kosher aisle of most supermarkets) to which you add egg and water, and then fry. Although you don’t have to deal with any pesky potatoes, the mixes make mashed potato patties.
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But latkes are easy to prepare, they make your house smell unbelievably good, and they freeze and reheat beautifully, so even if it’s convenience you’re looking for, there are few dishes that are both more impressive to serve and less expensive to make.
For a batch of about 16 2- to 3-inch latkes, start by peeling and grating one pound of russet potatoes and one small yellow onion. This can be done by hand with a grater, but takes about 30 seconds in a food processor fitted with the shredding disc. Lay a clean tea towel or dishcloth on your work surface and put half the grated mixture in the middle. Draw the sides up to contain it, then twist the ends to squeeze out the excess liquid over the sink. Shake out the dried potato into a large bowl, and repeat with the remaining potato. Add 1 lightly beaten egg, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon salt, a healthy pinch of pepper, and mix to combine. Heat about ⅛- to ¼-inch vegetable oil (olive oil is more traditional) in a large frying pan over medium heat. You can make your latkes any size, but to maximize crispy edges, I make mine quite small. Fry them until they are golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side, and drain on paper towel.
Carrot and parsnip latkes are tender and sweet, and a delicious alternative to potato. Use 8 ounces of each, peeled and grated, with half a small onion. Skip the wringing-out step. Add 2 lightly beaten eggs, ¼ cup flour, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and pepper, and fry just as you would the potato latkes.
For something entirely different, grate 1 ½ pounds of zucchini. Toss with a couple of teaspoons kosher salt and let sit for 30 minutes in a colander. Wring out as you would potato. Add half a small onion (grated), ½ cup flour, 1 egg, and stir to blend. Taste for salt. Make the fritters small (about 2 inches). Serve with tzatziki.
Leora Y. Bloom is the author of Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes.