Chef and restaurateur Doug Katz makes potato pancakes, or latkes, that are light, crispy, and not at all greasy.
“Right,” says the chef. “Because it’s fresh.”
His son Abe reaches for the plate. “You’re going to try another? They’re like potato chips, right? You just keep eating them.”
At the Katz Club Diner in Cleveland Heights, Abe and Doug just keep making them. “In our family it's a father-son project.”
Abe likes it a lot. “Yeah. Because whenever I cook with him I learn new things, and I get better at it.” He’s 12 and has been making latkes with his Dad since he was 6.
“It was an opportunity for us to do something together," says Chef Katz. "And he started out with little tasks like he would peel the potatoes, and then I would grate them, and then eventually he would start grating the potatoes. Once in a while he’d cut himself, and he’d realize he had to be careful with the grater.”
“Since my hands are small,” says Abe, “I can grate the potato all the way down.”
Russet rather than Yukon Gold
His father agrees that’s an advantage. Those small hands can also get a good grip on the big potatoes the chef prefers.
“Russet potatoes are the longer potatoes and it makes them easier to peel. If you have the round chef’s potatoes, the Yukon gold potato, they’re much smaller.”
Doug smiles as Abe adds, “When there’s dents in the potatoes, you have to go over them a few times to get all the skin off.”
Abe keeps dutifully grating and peeling while Doug keeps up the encouragement. “Beautiful. Great grating.”
Abe sighs a little at the exertion but doesn’t tire of the task. “My triceps are getting bigger.”
He doesn’t worry about scraping his fingers on the grater’s sharp blades. “Well,” the pre-teenager shrugs assuredly, “After all these years, I’ve had practice.”
Smaller is better
Abe's father has taught him that just one well-grated russet potato can make a plate of lacy, crisp little pancakes.
“About 20," says Chef Katz. He prefers them small. “Because you want to be able to pop them in your mouth, and the big ones tend to get a little soggier in the middle.”
Katz has devised a way to prevent both sogginess and discoloration. “It’s the way that I’ve always done it, and it works best for me.”
He says contrary to what we might have heard, if you don’t want the grated potatoes to turn brown in the mixing bowl... “You don’t want to put them in water.”
Lose the water, keep the starch
Many latke cooks chill the grated spuds in ice water to keep them from turning an ugly shade of brown in the mixing bowl.
Chef Katz advises against that. “You’re really interested in the starch from the potato, and when you add water it rinses that starch off. Your latkes won’t hold together as well.”
The chef says they will neither fall apart nor become discolored if you do one potato at a time, one batch at a time. “Our method is one potato, one egg, one tablespoon of flour seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, and grate a quarter of an onion or a half an onion, and that’s it. Whether you need 20 potatoes or one potato you just do that process over and over again so that they always stay fresh and they don’t brown.”
Frying with care
Sizzling in the pan, his son’s latest batch of latkes is quickly getting to just the right shade. “So now, you want to just flip them over. Make sure you get that edge. Just be careful,” the chef instructs. “Yeah, perfect.”
Katz doesn’t worry about accidental injury.“How do you learn to deal with, how to cook with oil?” he asks his son. “By burning yourself,” Abe replies.
That’s happened to Abe a couple of times. “And he realizes," says his dad, "how to be more careful when that happens.”
“Look at those!” Doug exclaims. “They look nice and golden brown. Do you want to try one? And then we’ll try another one with sour cream and apple sauce. But you can try one just to see if you like it.”
Abe really does. “I like how the onion makes it sweet.”
Family holiday tradition
The tradition of cooking latkes together goes back to Doug’s parents visiting Hawken Elementary school at Hanukkah time.
“It was the most fun day just having my parents come in first grade and grate potatoes with us. And they had one of those plug-in skillets, and they would put the oil in and fry off the latkes. And we’d get to sit there and eat it with apple sauce and sour cream.”
Just thinking about that makes him hungry. “I’m going to eat one of these.”
While his dad munches, young Abe reflects on the meaning of the holiday. Cooking in oil recalls what happened back in 167 BC when the oil lamp in the temple under siege didn’t go out.
“They thought it was just going to burn for, like a night, and then they realized the fire just kept on burning,” says Abe, “and it was a miracle.”