To me — a mottled mutt of German, Irish and Hungarian — the potato isn't just a tuber, it's a life continuum. Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, skillet potatoes, au gratin potatoes: Have potato, will eat. But there is one potato permutation that stands alone. It is usually delivered unto me on days dreary and weary when my world is flat and the dust motes blot out the sun. Thusly pummeled, I gaze into the potato basket (the bottom one of the three-tiered wire number that hangs above the sink, onions in the middle and garlic on top, thank you very much) and find three old potatoes, gnarly with eyes and kind of soft. Another woman might sigh in defeat at such a vision, throw them in the garbage and pick up the phone to dial Domino's.
Dumb broad. She doth not recognize the salvation before her! Three over-the-hill taters are the impetus for potato pancakes.
No, I am not going to tell you to shred those spuds with your miserable knuckle-busting hand grater. This is a recipe that you have to be able to execute when you're exhausted and plumb flat out of everything, or after having several adult beverages. Because although you always make potato pancakes when you have three old potatoes, you also make them at 11 p.m. or later when everyone's sauced to the gills and starving.
This is what I call a pedestrian recipe, suitable for the simple everyday people who understand simple everyday things: chocolate frosting, not ganache; beer, not pilsner; and (oh, for chrissake already) pickle, not cornichon.
Wash those tired old potatoes and cut out any bad parts and eyes. No, you don't have to peel them. Cut the spuds into quarters or eighths (you're talking about 2-inch chunks) and schlep them to your blender or that maddening metrosexual of an appliance: your safety-mechanism-laden-slices-and-dices-flawlessly-every-goddamn-time food processor fitted with the steel S blade. Then pluck a regular cheapo yellow onion from the middle basket, peel it and cut it into quarters, and toss them in with the spuds. Next in are two raw eggs, three tablespoons of flour, and some salt and pepper. Now pulse all that until it gets mixed up proper, but is still lumpier-than-oatmeal lumpy.
Get a big ol' bottle of your regular vegetable oil and get ready to use about half of it. Attention oleic acid freaks: DO NOT reach for the olive oil. It smokes too much for this recipe. If you no likey getting down old-school with the Wesson or Mazola, then get the hell out of the way. Go sit next to the broad with the Domino's pizza, frost your cornichon with some ganache and wash it down with a pilsner.
For everyone who's left, start with three glugs of oil: That is, pour the oil into a 10- or 12-inch skillet until it goes "glug glug glug." Heat it up over a medium flame, then drop about a quarter cup or so of the batter into the oil per pancake. It should sizzle gently. If it lies there like a batter cadaver, your oil's not hot enough. And I never try to do more than four in a pan, due largely to my poor flipping skills.
I wish I could tell you how long to cook these potato pancakes, but the sad fact is, I don't really know. Sometimes I flip them too soon and they're too light. Sometimes I flip them too late and they're a little burnt. Sometimes I get them just right and they're golden brown. Maybe if I didn't constantly fiddle with the temperature control and timed them for about three or four minutes per side, I wouldn't have such troubles, but I am what I am. (Hey! That "sizzle gently" directive is tricky.)
There is nothing neat about potato pancakes. The oil splatters all over the place, and the batter tends to get all wiggy when you plop it in the pan. But by some miracle, you'll still end up with a pretty good-looking potato pancake. Sometimes they're round, sometimes amoeba-shaped. Who cares?
When they're done, I put them on a plate lined with paper towels. To hell with Alton Brown and his cooling racks. I am happy with my delusion that the paper towels wick off all excess oil and practically render the fried cakes into health food.
Put those bad mothers out for everyone to nosh. I'm all about a drizzle of hot sauce on top, but sour cream and applesauce have their place as well. While everyone else eats, you're back at the stove for rounds two, three and, oh hell, however many rounds there are. (You will not believe how many potatoes pancakes you get from three lousy spuds, two eggs and an onion.)
You'll need to keep adding oil for each batch, as the cakes soak it up like a sponge (until you put them on the magical fat-leaching paper towel, of course).
When you're the maker of the potato pancakes, you never sit and eat them; you're relegated to lean against the counter, dithering over whether to flip or not to flip whilst you eat the burnt or botched ones out of hand. Everyone will agree that your potato pancakes are as perfect a thing as they've ever eaten — crispy and hot and rich. So swig your beer and laugh at everyone's jokes. You can vanquish the dust motes tomorrow. For now, throw a shake of salt over your shoulder, and bask in creating something brilliant out of almost nothing.
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