Cook | Secrets to making crispy latkes, from the reigning champ

Perhaps you know a child like this: She or he misses every baseball pitch. Can’t connect foot to soccer ball. Falls off the balance beam and careens into others on the dance floor. And yet, you still want that child to enjoy the highs and lows of winning and losing, of competition and perseverance and skill.

Enter the cooking contest, my own personal competitive passion. No real physical coordination is needed except to keep your fingers away from the knife blade.

I’ve cooked-off on a Los Angeles sound stage, in a New Jersey matzah factory, on a cordoned-off Manhattan thoroughfare and, just this month, outside a casino in Las Vegas. But my most satisfying cook-off was at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago one blustery December in 2008.

The latke championship title was at stake, and the competition was fierce. There were contestants frying in canola oil and others who swore by the authenticity of olive. There were big mama latkes, and wee little crispy ones. Everyone had a different technique and approach. I shivered in my Dansko clogs and invoked the name of Judah Maccabee for strength.

Turns out endless hours of latke experimentation and a tiny shot of crazy really does pay off. Figuratively. That day at the latke showdown I walked away from my hotplate with the Jewish equivalent of a gold medal: a kosher cookbook and bragging rights for decades to come.

The trick to a crispy championship latke is to remove all excess liquid from the onion and potatoes before frying. Then of course there is the discoloration work-around. Who out there hasn’t worried about how to keep your carefully crafted shredded potatoes from turning a foul pink, or purplish black? Both problems are easily solved with cheesecloth.

You’ll use the cloth to tight-squeeze extra moisture out of the onions and potatoes, then discard that liquid. For a sophisticated move, mix the leftover potato starch back in with the shredded potatoes. When your batter is mixed and ready to go, soak cheesecloth in lemon juice and lay it over the top of the shredded potatoes to protect them from oxidation. Happy Hanukkah!

 

Little Crispy Latkes

Makes 3 dozen

2 cups shredded onion, drained of excess liquid

1/3 lb. parsnips, peeled, shredded

1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled, shredded

1/3 cup matzah meal

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1/3 cup lemon juice

vegetable oil for frying

Shred the onions. Pile in center of a doubled-over square of cheesecloth, about 18 inches square. Gather it up around the onions like a little sack of gold. Squeeze out excess liquid over a sink. Transfer onions to large bowl. Add shredded parsnips.

Shred the potatoes. Pile in center of same square of cheesecloth used for the onions. Gather cheesecloth up around the potatoes like a little sack of gold. Squeeze out excess liquid over a small bowl. Discard liquid. There should be a little white sludge of potato starch left in the bottom of the little bowl after the liquid has been poured off. Add this to your shredded onions.

Add shredded potatoes to the onion bowl. Add matzah meal, beaten egg, salt and pepper. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Stir in parsley.

Cut a 12-inch-square piece of cheesecloth. Soak it completely in small bowl of lemon juice. Remove the cheesecloth from the lemon juice. Let excess juice fall away. Lay cheesecloth over the potato mixture so it touches all exposed surface area. This will keep the potatoes from turning color.

Heat 1/8-inch of vegetable oil in a large skillet until hot but not smoking. Scoop 1 Tbs. latke mixture into the hot oil. Fry 3-4 minutes on one side, until brown.

Flip and gently press pancake to flatten. Cook another 3-4 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

Josie A.G. Shapiro won the 2013 Man-O Manischewitz Cook-Off, is the co-author of “The Lazy Gourmet” and works at the JCC of San Francisco. Her columns alternate with those of Faith Kramer. Her website is www.thechickencontests.com.

Josie A.G. Shapiro

Josie A.G. Shapiro won the 2013 Man-O-Manischewitz Cookoff and is the co-author of “The Lazy Gourmet.”