Ours wasn’t much of a potato household. We were – are – Ottoman Sephardim, into lots of rice and a little bit of pasta, and potatoes were a New World discovery that took hold more in northern Europe than in the northern Mediterranean. As far as we were concerned, potatoes were mostly good for filling ojaldres and not much else. My mother’s potato repertoire was limited to baked, mashed, or the very rare purchase of demon frozen French fries, which she insisted on baking because it was ‘healthier.’ Although why she would then fry up a huge platter of breaded fish and think nothing of it is beyond me.
As a potato-challenged people, our forays into latke territory (our Ashkenazi-centric religious school made me feel I wasn’t Jewish if I didn’t eat latkes) were always tentative and always disastrous. As were everyone else’s, only we didn’t know that in my house, and the religious school brainwashers, my only other immediate point of reference, were always insisting latkes were delicious. It was the Emperor’s new latkes. We’d buy the mixes, try making them from scratch, and no matter what, they were revolting. Which didn’t stop me from eating them all. It’s like giving in to that third frozen margarita, even though you know you’re going to pay for it dearly. I’ve decided once and for all latkes are disgusting, as disgusting as knishes, another mashed potato and onion belly bomb whose appeal I have never understood. And I say this being half Ashkenazi, so hold your retorts. My Ashkenazi grandmother was a fabulous, classy cook and she had no time for latkes or knishes, either. But she sure loved a good French fry. As do we all.
But two nights ago I succumbed once more. I’d forgotten I had a Moroccan-Sephardic recipe for pastelicos de patata – who knew? – and gave it a shot. Basically they were meat-&-onion-filled potato croquettes, calling for an egg wash before frying. Even with the egg wash, the potatoes absorbed way too much oil and were horrible. I wound up sharing them with the dog, we both felt queasy, and when I went out and came back in again later I burst out laughing because the house smelled like – well, like latkes.
Story over. At the end of the day, potatoes really don’t take well to frying unless they’re just potatoes and you know exactly what you’re doing. Just ask MacDonald’s – but they use suet. Frying things in oil is what we do at Hanukah, and to a few choice bits of food the rest of the year. And these are the potatoes that go with our fabulous fried fish “in the Jewish style,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, or anything else that begs for a side of fried. Skip the grating, skip the onion, just learn to make great fried potatoes ‘au natural’ and serve them with a good sauce. Here you go:
Impress your friends with your new potato-frying finesse, and have a Happy Hanukah.