Thanksgiving-kah Potato Latkes

My grandparents...

...Ida and Sam Lakin, immigrated to America from Russia in 1917/1921.  At Ellis Island, Chaika Bushaker became Ida Bush and Samuel Lukach became Sam Lakin.  They met and married in New York and from the beginning, although they were hard working partners, they never got along unless they were cooking together in the kitchen…but I don’t want to get ahead of the story.  Sam’s family raised cattle and were butchers in the old country (Winograd, 20 miles outside Kiev, Ukraine).  After finally making to to America, he went to work as a butcher in New York.  He did well and opened up another location.  The crash came and he lost everything.  Alone, he traveled across country by train to settle in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.   Janet (my mom) says,

“He got a job as a butcher in a small market in Boyle Heights on Brooklyn Ave.  The people’s name was Millstein.  He sent for my mother and my brother and I.  We all lived in a rented room in the Millstein’s home.  Everybody went for a walk on Saturdays.  It was like a parade.  Daddy decided to move to Venice to open up his own business.  We rented a room in a house.  It had one bed, no sheets, no pillows, no blankets, no milk and my mother cried.  My father went to Pier Ave in Ocean Park to the Jewish Aid Society.   They loaned him $5.00.  He rented a small butcher shop in Venice, made hamburger for .5 cents per pound and Jimmy Durante became one of his first customers.  Mr. Durante claimed Sam had the best freshly ground hamburger in the city.”

Janet recalls, “Then we rented a little house.  I remember sitting on the steps and crying because I wanted a doll.  My mother took a blanket, a piece of string and tied it around, and told me to cradle it and pretend that it was my doll.  Then we moved to Sunset St. in Venice.  We lived in a basement apartment with no light.  We had to keep the lights on.  My brother and I both got chicken pox in that apartment.  I remember the smell of my mother baking challah every Friday.  My dad started to make a little more money there.  Then we moved to 38 Poloma in Venice. My mother used to starch my dresses until they stood up.  My brother was always weepy.  He hung on to me and wouldn’t leave me alone for a minute.”

“Then we moved to Raymond Ave. We lived on an alley and had no money.   My father rented a spot in Anna and Dave’s Canter’s market in Ocean Park.  The war came and times were good.  He invested in the stock market and bought a Chevy.  Anna died, Dave sold the market and my father bought the building.

During the war Sam and Ida opened their first restaurant on the Ocean Front Walk.  The sailors lined up for Ida’s chili and fried chicken.  The sailors walked Janet and Morty home late at night.  Sam and Ida would go into the restaurant on Thursday and not come home until Monday morning.  Sometimes Ida would come home and sleep buy my father slept at the restaurant.  After the war, service men disappeared and they closed the restaurant.

Sam sold meat to ‘Shtreier’ for his restaurant.   Shtreier asked Sam to open another restaurant with him in downtown Los Angeles.  Sam’s Cafe served the best pastrami anyone had ever tasted.   Shtreier ‘cheated’ him out of money, and again his heart broke.  He left the restaurant and retired.  Janet’s boyfriend Bernie Gootkin remembered going there many times.  He told me he remembered the incredible taste of Sam’s pastrami.  You can imagine how this makes me feel as the restaurants were such bad memories for them, they never talked about it.  I never even knew they had two restaurants until I was 35, long after they were gone.

Sam and Ida had a terrible marriage.  She did not want more children, and he cheated!  But when they were in the kitchen cooking together, it was a ballet.  How they would move around each other in their small space, using the kitchen table to work on, the spotless white tile counter, the old gas stove, the tiny paper trash bag sat on the counter was all they needed because they saved and re-used everything.  They cooked in perfect unison.  They knew the exact flavors they were going to end up with.  They barely had to speak to each other. Sometimes I would play a game with myself,  “Ok, I will sit here and not leave the room until I hear them say something”.   When they did speak, it was to remind the other of a flavor adjustment, a spice to add, not to overcook, to add more liquid to a roasting pot, or for one of them to move out of the way if the other was walking from the stove to the sink with a heavy hot pot, “LUZ!”(Yiddish for move out of my way fast!).  Once in a great while, maybe once or twice a year, I would hear them laugh.  Someone would do or say something so hysterically funny that their serious and wounded souls could not ignore, and the deepest, accented, guttural laugh would work its way up from deep inside.  Just the memory of it would keep my brothers and me laughing for weeks.

Both of his partners had been orthodox Jews.  Consequently Sam and Ida developed a hatred for religion and religious people. They only went to temple on the ‘high holidays’.  Ida, my bubbe, bought me bacon sandwiches in a little cafe next to the Temple every Yom Kippur, the ultimate revenge. They helped the temple in Santa Monica (Mishkon Tephilo) raise the money for its founding by donating all the chickens for the fundraiser dinners.  The temple is still there.  In fact my mother and father, Janet and Leon, re-met each other there and were married there.  My grandfather’s name plate is on two of the seats in one of the rows near the front (closer to God!).  Our Jewish Holiday dinners were just dinners with lit candles.  No religion at all.  But the best food you can imagine – prepared with heart and soul – and perfection of flavors.

I saw everything in their kitchen.  Fresh plucked poultry, brains and sweetbreads, whole livers, home ground hamburger,  hand chopped gefilte fish, roasts, soups…food that was perfectly matched to us and our life events, whether in sickness or in health, as it was perfectly cooked in their kitchen ballet.  Everything was impeccably fresh and homemade.  And never overly salted or overly sweet.

…and now, here you have our family recipe for potato pancakes, aka “Latkes”.  This is the greatest, most perfect potato pancake recipe in the world, updated by me for today’s kitchen.

Ida’s potato pancakes, aka “Potato Latkes” (pronounced lat-ka’s, like ‘pappas’)

  • 7 or 8 small potatoes (or 3 or 4 russet potatoes)
  • 1 large onion plus extra to flavor the frying oil
  • 2 eggs separated
  • 2 to 3 t kosher salt
  • 1 t white pepper
  • 1/2 c chopped parsley
  • corn oil and chicken fat for frying
  • apple sauce, sour cream

Peel potatoes and cover with cold water.   Using the grating blade of your food processor, grate the potatoes and onions alternately.  Turn this mixture into a colander which has been suspended over a bowl.  This mixture is the first step, it is too coarse.  Remove the grating blade and replace the chopping blade to the processor bowl.  As the potatoes and onions are draining, return half the mixture to the processor bowl and pulse to chop coarsely (do not process too fine). Empty chopped contents back to colander draining bowl and process remaining potatoes and onions, and empty to draining bowl.  You can assist the draining by pressing or squeezing the mixture with your hands. When mixture is sufficiently drained, and a looking a little bit dry,  this just takes a few minutes if you have not over processed it, transfer the drained potatoes and onion into a clean mixing bowl.   Let the liquid which has drained off the potato onion mixture stand and separate.  Pour off the liquid and discard it, then with your fingers, scrape the remaining fresh potato starch that has collected at the bottom of the bowl, back into the grated and chopped potato onion mixture.   Add the 2 egg yolks, matzo meal, salt, pepper, parsley and mix gently with a wooden spoon.  Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the mixture.

To fry, heat about an inch of corn oil. To flavor the oil, and achieve the correct and classic potato pancake flavor, add a quarter raw onion to the oil, and add chicken fat to taste, I usually use about 1/4 cup.  My grandmother used chicken fat and no oil at all.  Drop the potato mixture into the hot fat, about 2-3 T per spoonful.  Do not make them too big, they will enlarge during cooking.  Fry to golden brown on both sides, turning only once.  Drain on brown paper bags.  Be mindful of the onion – as it turns too black, remove from the hot fat and replace with a fresh quarter.

Serve hot with applesauce and sour cream accompaniment on the side. Prepare as close to serving time as possible, although you can keep them warm in an oven. I have kept them warm in hot ovens and cooler ovens.  If they are golden brown, a hot oven will keep them crisp.  If they are too dark, a hot oven will turn them darker so use a 250 ° oven.

A few words about the recipe.

Potatoes used to be small, remember?  So 7 – 8 was the right number.  Today’s russet’s are very large, so use only 3 to 4, the equivalent of 7 or 8 small potatoes.

Onions used to be smaller too, but I use a big one.  Lots of grated onion keeps the potato mixture from turning brown, and supplies a great balance of flavor.

My grandmother never used oil to fry the pancakes.  She used pure, home-rendered chicken fat.  Although the flavor achieved by using chicken fat is nonpareil, I use a mixture of 3/4 oil to 1/4 chicken fat.  This makes the latkes lighter and healthier while still supplying that special and perfect old-world taste.

Don’t forget to use onion to flavor the oil.  This supplies the correct onion flavor to the oil for the old world taste.