Written by: Jim Berman CCI
Some time in early fall, I decided my long-term goal would be to open my deli. I grew up on deli food and miss it so - the soft, seeded-rye; stinky chopped chicken livers; the dew on the windows from the corned beefs… corning; the grease-glazed knishes; mountains of yellow potato salad. Delaware is not a haven for such gastronomical delights beyond chicken 'n dumplings and steamed crabs. My very indiscriminate love of good food was born of my experience with really good deli food. So, in seven years, I want to open a deli. I have never been good with the more subtle nuance of fine dining, am not very adept at any particular nationality's cuisine nor do I know how to fling a pizza dough. I do enjoy really good deli fare and think many other people do, too. So, the goal is to bring my sunset years into focus flanked by two slices of that rye bread shmeared with spicy brown mustard and pastrami. Between now and then, however, I have to figure out how to do it without losing my shirt.
The plan is to explore, in ridiculous detail, the favorites that make up the menu of classic delicatessens, legendary for blending the food of immigrants, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, with American appeal. I do not really need to delve headlong into the history of the deli as institution in this country; like the colloquialisms that bespeckle our geography, the food offered at delis varies from town to town. For that matter, the food can vary from street to street! So, knowing about the deli itself is not quite as important as knowing well what is contained therein. New York delicatessens are legendary, and for good reason. Katz's Deli is a landmark, a shrine, to the cornerstone of what defines a quintessential delicatessen. Even the more touristy places like Maxie's and Roxy in Times Square eloquently do justice by offering an array of classic deli dishes. Deli food is not limited, though, to the big island. While I haven't yet visited every city in the country, I would guess that there are some respectable delis throughout the country. Certainly, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have all done me well when hankering for some matzoh ball soup and a Reuben. Some venues offer local specialties or eclectic tastes of the particular deli operator. New York delis often have the trademark, paper-thin pizza. Further west, pizza is in the pizzeria across the street from the deli. Up north, subs or hoagies are on the same menu next to blintzes and brisket. So it goes that flavors vary by locale. The classics, though, like Bach, Sinatra and The Beatles, may be interpreted differently, but are always on the playlist. Call them standards, call them 'must haves,' there are just some dishes that must be there to be called a deli. Singularly, one item is profoundly indicative of classic deli fare and must have a presence to pay respect to the title 'deli.' So, Potato Latkes are the "Let it Be," "It Had to Be You" and "The Brandenberg Concertos" of the deli repertoire.
"If they aren't crispy, raise hell!" announces the menu at Pickle's Deli at Bally's Park Place in Atlantic City. Or so the copy of their tome-like menu I creatively borrowed many years ago still rings true. Potato Latkes are to what the menu refers. From the East Coast and its denizens of schmaltz-stuffed delis, to the tip of Florida and southerly migrated hordes of gently-aged citizens to California's waistline-watching sprout eaters, little pucks of potato fried crisp carry history, celebration and great taste in sour cream slathered bite after bite. The flavor of the traditional potato pancake should cascade with crispy edges of pan-fried potato, mouthy onion and a heart warming drenching of oil.
Latkes, while generic in the material from which they are cut, refer simply to a pancake of any construct, the Potato Latke cannot be mistaken for a flapjack of any other origin. In many incarnations the world around, there are latkes everywhere, some cloaked in the pancake costume; rösti from Germany, boxty in Ireland, draniki in Russia… we even have hash browns in the US! The potato latke, as it is known as part of the celebration of Hanukah, reflects the commemoration of the oil found to keep the lamps lit following the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. The oil is the element of the celebration during Hanukah (the festival of lights… lights kept lit with… yes… oil!) rather than the potato. Tales tell us the original latkes were made with cheese, especially since potatoes were not cultivated until sometime in the sixteenth century.
Today's delis serve potato latkes like a hamburger joint serves French fries. The latkes must be made well as they are, often, the benchmark for what the entirety of the meal will hold. The best potato latkes of which I know, come from Herschel's Deli at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. I got to spend a few minutes with co-owner Andy Wash as he expounded on the virtues of very well- made latkes. In an unmistakable Brooklyn twang, Wash is the real deal in exuberantly dispensing a greasy sputter of latke making.
"They absolutely have to be made to order." He states, "places that reheat them or make a bunch at a time, end up with greasy and rubbery latkes."
Wash has spent his entire life around food, in restaurants. His partner's uncle, Herschel, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Later, Uncle Herschel worked in Manhattan's famed (and still standing!) Katz's Deli. The namesake deli carries on Uncle Herschel's tradition with a simple approach to food, including the latkes. "Too many people try to make them too complicated," he tells me. The latkes at the three year-old attraction located in the heart of the market, are comprised of chef potatoes, onions, salt, pepper and egg. Wash tells me that he adds no extra starch to bind the pancakes and is careful not to make an abundance of the batter each day.
"I like to sell out every day. I would rather run out than make too much and serve old stuff." He adds that each three-latke serving is made to order and takes about eight minutes.
The following prescription is for traditional potato pancakes. I say 'traditional' because there are many, many variations on the classic. There are vegetable latkes, Tofu latkes (why??!) and Wasabi-Turnip latkes. And while there are no rules in cooking that can't, in one form or another, be manipulated, some classics need to showcase the simplicity of the dish with a focus on the ingredients rather than the talent of the chef behind the skillet. I have heard a rock band perform Handel's Hallelujah Chorus; it was riveting and exciting. But, the Hallelujah Chorus performed as it was intended is more meaningful; it subscribes to the classic composition, with a predictable nod to the emotion with which it was contrived. The same can be said of the classic potato latkes.
This specimen is as straight-forward as they come; no fussy tinge of technique. Just follow along.
2 cups Finely grated, Yukon Gold potatoes
3 Tablespoons Onion, grated
3 each Eggs
1 1/2 Tablespoons Flour
2 teaspoons Salt
After grating the potatoes, place in a cloth towel and wring them out to remove as much moisture as possible. Place the potatoes in a bowl and blend thoroughly with the eggs. Combine the flour and salt and add to the potato mixture along with the grated onion. In a large sauté pan, heat enough oil to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the pancake. When oil reaches 350 degrees, brown a heaping spoonful of the potato mixture on one side and reverse the process until all sides are crisp.
Drain on a paper towel, if necessary and serve right now!
The only real variable is the type of potato. I tried chef potatoes, Yukon Golds and typical Idaho Russets. The most successful in terms of flavor (are there any other terms?) is the Yukon Gold variety. Garnish with sour cream and/or apple sauce. And take Andy Wash's advice; serve the latkes right away and do not make them ahead of time. Make Uncle Herschel proud and do as you are told. You will be rewarded with crispy-edged, glistening, radiantly tanned pancakes worthy of the work you have invested.