Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Potato latkes

It's hell being me. I want you to know that. Hell. When I read all those identity lit books, you know: White Teeth, Small Island, Everything Is Illuminated, Icarus Girl, all that jazz, I laugh bitterly. Ha! They know nothing about identity crisis. Not one thing.

They can try growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the Eighties, being called Esther, surrounded by Jewish neighbours, sent to a school with such a high intake of Jewish girls that on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah we got to watch videos in all our classes because attendance dropped to 15%, be handed a Learn Hebrew book by their very confused father, but throughout all this being also told that they are a Protestant and not at all Jewish, then going to Westminster school and Bristol University only to be stunned and a bit frightened to find out that NOT ONLY is everyone in the world not Jewish, some people will say mean things right to your face about how Hampstead Garden Suburb is full of Jews and how a charity collection at Golders Green station "wouldn't have much luck"... well, then and only then, can these whiney bastards come crying to me about not knowing who they are.

I can never be a Jew because I am a Protestant, despite what my bookish, vaguely "foreign"-looking father might fervently wish, (to give him access to an intellectual hinterland that would explain who he is so neatly). I am a goy, a shiksa. I am not chosen. All my childhood friends were, oh yeah, plenty of identity sloshing around for them. But not for me. Not. ME.

Despite the confusing aspect of my upbringing, maybe it's a good thing I'm not Jewish. As far as I can tell, to be Jewish is to suffer, and God only knows I suffer enough what with my wonky teeth and my weak veins and my chronic heartburn. There's only so much more that I could take.

But my friend Adam really is Jewish. Through and through. If he were a dog and there was a religious section in Crufts, he would win it. He is kosher! One hardly ever meets anyone kosher because it makes socialising with not Jewish people tricky; to be kosher means you cannot eat meat which, (among other things), hasn't been purchased from a kosher butcher. And most people can't do that because all the kosher butchers in London are in Golders Green, which is, let me tell you, the middle of nowhere.

Whenever my friend Adam goes to friends houses for dinner he can only eat the vegetables. So I thought it would be nice to throw him a Friday night supper with proper actual meat and everything.

Only I am going to have to practice for this little performance because, despite my serious identity confusion, I don't know anything about kosher cooking. My plan is to make a dinner of chopped liver and potato latkes to start, cholent (which is a kind of sticky stew made with beans and barley that my husband knows how to make) and then a flourless chocolate cake. But now I'm worried that this is just like a hilarious cliche spoof Jewish dinner, like having a Welsh person round and feeding him three courses of leeks. (My mother is Welsh, just to confuse matters. But she keeps it quiet.)

The element that most troubles me is the potato latkes, which are a kind of hash brown. Frying potato from raw is incredibly hard, because what potato likes to do most is go very soggy and then  !!suddenly burn!!

I took to Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, which has a recipe for latkes, obviously, and she said they are easy, which they absolutely are not. I had to adapt the recipe as I went to save them from sheer disaster.

Anyway, here we go, potato latkes:

Makes about six.

5 large-ish new potatoes, or any waxy potato will do
1 medium shallot
1 egg
oil for frying NOT olive oil - groundnut or peanut
1/2 tablespoon of self-raising flour

1 Peel and grate the potatoes on the big-hole gratey bit of your cheese grater. Put the strips in a colander and rinse them very well in cold water to get rid of the starch, which apparently does unholy things if left to run riot. Then press an appropriate-sized bowl on top of them and squeeze and squeeze until you've got as much water out of them as you can. Alternatively, you can bunch the potato strips in a tea towel and swing them round your head to dry. I haven't done this, but I hear it works

2 Add to the potato strips the onion, grated on the smallest gratey-thing of your cheese grater

3 Whisk one egg with 2 good pinches of salt, and toss the potato strips in it until they're all coated. Sprinkle over the flour and mix in. Claudia Roden says that adding flour makes the latkes taste less nice but she can get bent because a) it does nothing to the flavour and b) there's no way in hell you can get your potato strips to stick together in the pan if you haven't added a bit of flour.

4 Heat about three tablespoonfuls of oil in a pan until very hot. Scoop about one tablespoonful into your hand and shape is as best you can into a flattish oval shape. The mixture will still be very soggy and gross, so squash as much liquid as you can out of it into the bowl and then lower into the pan, turning the heat down as you do to about half its maximum setting.

5 Cook these for a while, about 8 minutes, four on each side. Maybe even ten. Don't let the pan get dry because your latkes will burn; keep topping up with oil and they ought to go golden brown

The first two of these you do will be a disaster and you'll want to cry and smash things and take my name in vain. The next two will be better and by the last ones you do, you'll have nailed it. They ought to be crispy and crunchy on the outside and melty in the middle. Yum yum. Eat hot, with more salt and sour cream if you like. You can also add to the mixture, if you're feeling rakish and smart, ground black pepper and parsley.


  1. Re the question of how to stop the potato going brown after you've grated it, I asked my grandmother - she's 95 - and her response was "Just grate faster". Helpful?

  2. As surrogate Jewish mothers go to learn how to cook from, they don't get much better than Claudia Roden.

    However, if you need some tips on cholent or chopped liver, i'd be happy to offer some advice. Also just so you know, depending on just how religious he is, the way you prepare the liver might be an issue, I explain a bit more in my post.

    Also, cholent is usually eaten on Saturday lunch after synagogue as it needs to cook for about 24hrs to get all that goodness - so make sure you start cooking it on the Thursday night. When you wake up on Friday morning the house will smell pretty special.

  3. Grating faster is the only way - tested everything myself ;)

    My mother would add a bit of what we call in Poland (in Polish though) potatoe flour. And we grate on the small holes - easier to fry and in my personal opinion they taste much better.

  4. You need Matzo Meal in the mix too, and squeeze the potato gratings onto kitchen roll to get rid of the excess liquid.

  5. Yeah but doesn't the kitchen paper stick to the potato and tear in places and roll up into tiny pellets and get into your latkes?!

  6. Kitchen roll has always been OK here but my Father in Law swears by the tea towel for squeezing. And definitely Matzo Meal.

  7. You tease. I'm getting hungry now but it's 22:52 and I got Gastroenteritis.
    Guess I have to wait this one out...

  8. By the way, did you make vegetarian chopped liver? (Well, mocked chopped liver.)
    I have a recipe that really kicks ass and it's the most popular thing on our Seder/Shabes table.
    Let me know if you want it.

  9. Send me the recipe for vegetarian chopped liver only because I'm intrigued as to HOW THE HELL you make chopped liver vegetarian. esther.walker@gmail.com

  10. I love this post Esther... as a Jew from North London I can see your point of view... must have been an all consuming, cloying but lovely childhood, like being hugged by honey...surrounded by the jews of North London.

    I think your jewish menu idea sounds wonderful... if he's a real Jew he wont care that it may be a little obvious... food is food already.

    also, you could try making a simmus... this is a sweet carrot dish that my grandma used to make and serve with Friday night dinner... i'll dig out the recipe for you... plus my great uncle was the Kosher Chicken King of Hull, so if you need some Kosher chicken....