Gluten-free everything seems to be all the rage. My friends in New York City tell me gluten is so reviled these days that you can practically hold up a bank while wielding only a bagel.
My experience in the large cafeteria that I run in the U.S. Embassy in Uganda mirrors this paradigm shift in our food pyramid. Grains and wheat seem to wreak havoc on a large part of the population’s digestive tracts, and so, as a result, I’ve noticed more requests for gluten-free meals and cakes than ever before.
You would think that’s not such great news for a pastry chef, but quite the contrary. Learning how to cook with alternate flours has sent me down an exciting path of discovery regarding new ingredients and healthier approaches to cooking traditional favorites.
One of the first recipes I adapted to this trend was for latkes after many of my non-gluten eating customers began lamenting the fact that they couldn’t enjoy their favorite treat on the Hanukkah menu. Even though potatoes fried in oil are not what anyone would deem a health food, making latkes without flour actually makes them crispier, lighter and so much tastier. So good, in fact, that when Latke Day rolls around in our embassy, I can look forward to making hundreds to satisfy the masses — Jewish and non-Jewish — that gather excitedly in the cafeteria early in the morning.
In terms of what to serve with latkes, I’ve adopted the traditional Ashkenazi accompaniments in the form of applesauce and sour cream. This despite growing up in a Sephardic household that has disdain for mixing sweet and salty on the same plate. But follow your own preferences: You would be completely justified serving your potato pancakes with slices of smoked salmon, a dollop of crème fraiche and chopped dill, or Russian-style, as a bed for caviar or salmon roe and a squeeze of lemon.
Take it from someone who’s slaved on the industrial latke production line: Follow my instructions, and I’ll bet you never go back to the old days of adding flour to the mix. But, please, whatever you do, don’t think about the calories. They’re worth it — and then some.
4 1/2 pounds of russet, Idaho or Yukon
Gold potatoes, unpeeled
1 large white or yellow onion, peeled and
cut in half
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon of freshly grated black pepper
(optional or to taste)
3 to 5 cups of canola or peanut oil
(do not use olive oil)
Wash and scrub potatoes with a vegetable brush or scrubber and remove all sand and dirt. Using the large holes on a cheese grater or the grater attachment of a food processor, grate the potatoes with the peel on, directly over a large bowl of ice water. Skipping the peeling step will save lots of time and energy.
Grate the onion into the same bowl of ice water and then swirl this mixture around with your hands; let it sit for 5 minutes. Notice the water getting cloudy — that’s the starch being pulled from the potato. You are going to use this to make the pancakes hold together, so don’t throw it away.
Line another dry bowl with a few dry kitchen towels and begin grabbing fistfuls of the potatoes and onions, squeezing as much moisture as you can out of them. Wring the water out over the bowl of ice water to catch the starch, placing the dry potatoes in the towel-lined bowl. Repeat until all the potatoes in the original bowl are dry.
Let the ice water settle for 15 minutes while you press and squeeze the potatoes and onions one last time with another dry kitchen towel. After 15 minutes, the ice water will clear and a thick white paste will form at the bottom of the bowl. Carefully pour off the water, leaving about 3 tablespoons of potato starch. With a spatula, collect the starch and add to the dry potatoes, along with the eggs, salt and pepper, and mix thoroughly.
Start frying immediately, so your potatoes don’t oxidize and turn black. Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan on medium heat just until it shimmers but before it reaches its smoking point. Take a 1/4-cup scoop and make a test latke to check for salt. If the seasonings are to your liking, continue scooping 1/4 cupfuls of the mixture into the hot oil, flattening the pancakes with your spatula after putting them in the pan. It’s important to keep the latkes on the thinner side, so the insides get a chance to cook before the outsides develop too much color and burn. Don’t overcrowd the pan so that the latkes can properly crisp.
Leave to cook about 4 minutes per side, flipping only once, or until they are golden brown and have crispy edges on both sides. Adjust the heat accordingly. Replenish the oil in between batches, making sure to let the new oil heat up before adding more mixture to the pan.
If you have a lot of latkes to make, set up a wire rack to keep them crisp longer. Otherwise, you can keep them in an oven heated to 200 F on a paper towel-lined baking tray while you continue frying. Latkes are best served pan to the plate, but if you aren’t willing to sacrifice yourself to the task, the oven may be your best option.
Makes about 40 latkes.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.