Hanukkah, breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner. Cold for a snack. Heated up at midnight (after having eaten a dozen at dinner). Babies love them. Non-Jews love them. So we might begin believing that Jews invented the fried grated potato. But actually, it may be simply the wonderful quality of the luxurious softness and crispness frying gives potatoes that makes humans happy, satisfied and craving more.
My mom and her twin sister, now 86 years old, recall with delight the Saturday nights in their kosher Brooklyn childhood kitchen, slicing and hand-frying their homemade potato chips, as they filled the warm air with their indescribably luscious scent.
Northern European kitchens have long been home to the incomparable rosti: starchy potatoes grated directly into bubbling fat in a skillet, covering the bottom completely and piled high. Then, when the bottom side of the big pancake becomes perfectly crunchy crisp, it’s slid off onto a plate. A bit more oil is then slipped into the pan, and the great lovely round crisp is cooked until it’s mahogany brown on the other side.
The French have long done something similar by crisping just a thin lacy layer of potatoes in butter, then wrapping it around a filet of lamb, beef or fish and putting the package into the oven to finish on all sides to a crackly golden brown.
So, this Hanukkah, shall we satisfy some of our crispy potato cravings while fulfilling the obligation of celebrating the miracle of the Temple oil by trying one or two of these other delightful fried potato traditions? Don’t worry, apples and sour cream will come along too!
We’ll start with homemade potato chips. Finish these just as guests come in the door for your Hanukkah party — you may have to trade places making them all night. The best potatoes for chips are waxy ones with quite a bit of starch. The starch will turn to sugar during frying to become crisp and sweet. The homemade ones are a real treat — they definitely don’t taste like Lay’s!
Homemade Potato Chips
1 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
1 qt. light vegetable oil (canola or safflower are best)
A heavy 3- or 4-quart pot
A flat slotted turner or slotted spoon, and/or metal tongs
Paper towels for draining the chips
1-1/2 cups sour cream, very lightly salted and mixed with your choice of finely chopped scallions, sweet paprika, onion chips or roasted garlic cloves, or a combination of what you like
Heat the oil in the pot slowly until a cube of bread browns to golden brown in one minute (about 360º to 375º). Set up a baking pan with paper towels for draining off the oil. Mix the sour cream for dipping and have the kosher salt ready. When deep frying, always be very careful not to bump the hot pot or put fingers or forearms near the hot oil.
Slice the potatoes about 1/32 of an inch thick.
The easiest way to do this is to slice them (watching fingers!) on the slot side of a new box-type grater (one of the sides has just one slot for slicing instead of many holes for grating), or on an Asian-style adjustable slicer/grater (about $18 at Asian variety stores or Uwajimaya).
The slices should be almost thin enough to see through, but not quite: if they are too thin they’ll burn before becoming golden brown. Try a few slices in the hot oil to find the optimal thickness.
Make slices just before slipping them into the hot oil so they won’t turn brown or lose their starch before being fried. Slip them individually into the side of the pot to avoid splashing; put in about 10 or so at a time, or as many as will fit comfortably in your pot. When the chips begin browning, turn them over and watch carefully; as soon as they begin to get golden on the other side, remove them with your slotted spatula, spoon or tongs. Drain on the towels and sprinkle immediately with salt (before they drain and cool).
Put into a bowl and keep warm — eating them hot with the sour cream is half the reason to make them in the first place! And watch out: they are addictive!
Cool the oil in the pot overnight or until completely cold. If it’s not dark, it can be strained through cheesecloth or a clean coffee filter and used once more.
Makes 3 or 4 dozen; serves 4 or 5 for a snack.
The trick to making this next simple dish is patience. It takes a while to cook each side of this big “latke,” so relax and kibitz while you cook!
3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and held in cold water
2 crisp medium apples, peeled and cored
Kosher salt and pepper
1/2 cup light vegetable oil, or less if using a non-stick pan
2 cups (or so) sour cream
Heat 3 Tbs. oil in a 12-inch non-stick, slope-sided skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Immediately begin grating the potatoes into the pan, using the large holes of a hand box grater. When you have grated 1-1/2 of the potatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then grate the apples evenly on top of the potatoes and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Finish grating the remaining potatoes on top of the apples, spreading evenly to the sides of the pan. Season again with salt and pepper. Slip a spatula under the potato cake and lift up one side carefully, looking underneath to make sure it is golden and not dark brown.
Continue to cook over medium-low heat until the sides of the cake begin to turn golden brown and the apples are soft, about 15 minutes. Grasp the handle of the skillet with both hands (and a potholder!) and carefully slip the cake, raw side up, onto a plate. Then reverse the skillet over the cake, slip one hand under the plate, and, holding the skillet firmly in your other hand, reverse the plate (and the cake) onto the skillet, leaving the cake in the pan crisp side up! The cake should be deep brown but not becoming burned.
Return the pan to the heat and turn the heat to medium-high. Slip the spatula under the cake once again and pour 3 more tablespoons of oil into the pan under the cake to make sure it doesn’t stick and crisps to a deep brown. Turn the heat to medium and let cook another 15 minutes or until crisp all around and soft in the middle. Slip the cake onto a large, warm plate and cut into six wedges. Serve hot with sour cream.
Makes 6 thick wedges; serves 4 to 6.
Fish, Lamb Loin or Steak Wrapped in Crispy Potatoes
For each person you are serving, grate about 1/2 a medium-sized baking potato and use five boneless ounces of your chosen fish or meat. Begin exactly as if you were making rosti, but just grate a thin layer of potatoes into a six-inch skillet. Season and let crisp to a golden brown in a tablespoonful of butter or oil. Then lay one piece of fish or meat on top of the potatoes, season it well and slip the potatoes out of the pan onto a towel. Using your fingers under the towel, roll the potatoes around the fish or meat and put onto a buttered baking sheet, seam side down. Continue making cakes and wrapping until enough have been completed, then bake in a 375º oven for 12 minutes for fish or 15 to 17 minutes for meat. Serve immediately as a main course. Warm, spiced applesauce is almost always a good accompaniment!
The wrapped fish or meat may be frozen until ready to bake; put into the oven frozen at 350º and increase the cooking time to 20 minutes for fish and about 25 to 30 minutes for meats. Do not refrigerate to store until ready to cook, however; the potatoes may get soggy in the fridge and become soft when finished in the oven.