This post is a little late on the draw, so let’s rewind and pretend that I didn’t procrastinate and we’re still in the festival of lights. Latkes is the first food that pops into people’s heads when they think “Chanukah.” Jewish or not, the fried potato pancakes with their fluffy center and crispy outside are synonymous with this time of year. But for me, latkes never really had anything to do with the holiday. Sure they were around when the family gathered at the table for our annual Chanukah party, but that’s because they were always on the table.
For a good chunk of my life I could count the number of Fridays I didn’t come home to a plate full of my grandmother’s famous latkes resting on the counter covered with a paper towel. There’d be no other sign that she spent the morning grating potatoes and mixing them in a large pink plastic bowl with a couple of eggs some salt and a pinch of black pepper. The kitchen would always be spotless, but the air smelled of crackling potatoes, as poignant as it did when they hit the hot oil. Ima was the only one who ever cooked them in the house. My mother never so much as added and egg to the batter or peeled a potato. I, myself, have only made them once.
But when thinking back on the fried foods that filled my childhood, holiday or not, it’s my grandmother’s vegetable cutlets that have always given me that feeling of “ah, so this is why life’s worth living.” Recently, I sat down with Ima and asked her to give me the recipe. She started by listing off vegetables from most important to least important: onions (everything starts with onion in our house) carrots, cauliflower, celery… “Mushroom?” I asked, unable to remember the exactly medley, “If you have it,” she responded. “Broccoli?” “If you have it.” The amount of eggs she said equal, “Till you see it’s good, mamala,” and the same went for the salt and black pepper. Neither of us could remember if there was matzo meal, but when I set out to make it on my own, I decided against it.
The “if you have it” idea of cooking, is really important to me and you will see it come up a lot as you follow me on this journey. Because cooking is therapeutic to me, it’s important that I just go through the fridge and cook something spontaneously. It’s also very important to me, as it is to my grandmother, that food doesn’t go to waste. So if I ever make something, but you don’t have that ingredient, just swap it out with whatever you do have. But I digress.
So I set my sights on this journey of recreating probably one of my favorite foods in the whole world. I want to be honest: it didn’t start off well. So here’s the thing, I just moved into a new apartment where the gas isn’t on yet, because gas companies know you need them and truly have found the best way to torture a person is to keep them on hold forever and then tell them there are no appointments for weeks. So, in the meantime I’ve been relying on an induction burner. The problem, however, is that it hates me. I ask for a lower even heat, it gives me no heat. I ask for a bit higher, it turns anything in the pot to a nice black cracker. I’ve spent most hours of the past couple of weeks fiddling with it, screaming “why won’t you listen to me?”
The whole point of fiddling with the burner temperature was to navigate away from using a lot of oil. I don’t fry a lot, and so my plan was to cook them by just covering the bottom of the pan with oil, but not drowning. I tried all shapes and sizes, some fell apart, most burned. So, I started again. Dumped the oil and floating bits of charred veg cutlets into the trash, added more oil and reheated. After a bunch of misfit vegetable cutlets I finally came out with a few eligible bachelors and called it a night. Did it taste just like my grandmother’s? Of course not, nothing ever does. But they did taste pretty good. Also, it takes a little, but it’s a pretty easy recipe that’s not a recipe.
I am going to share with you how I did it, don’t fear measurements, because I never do. Take on the Italian “the right amount” mentality with my grandmother’s “if you have it” one, and you’ll be fine.
Here’s how it goes: Heat a frying pan with oil ( covering about 1/4 of the pan).
Onto the main event: I used two carrots, one yellow onion, about a 3/4 cup cauliflower riced (about half a head), two slates celery, a handful of white button mushrooms. Take all your veg and put it in the food processor and pulse, you don’t want to obliterate it, just make sure it’s finely chopped or riced.
You’ll notice it’s “liquid-y.” Put it in a cheese cloth or just a kitchen towel and squeeze out the water. Add 1 large egg (2 if it seems to not stick together), slat and black pepper to taste. The form patties about the size of your palm and drop them in the oil.