Sunday, 19 May 2024

Foodie Freak: Potato pancakes like mom used to make

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My wife loves potatoes. No wait, I don’t think you understood what I said, “MY WIFE LOVES POTATOES!” So I have a general rule when I make dinner: if I’m making something that is really exotic or “special” and there is a chance that she’ll hate, say, Sweetbreads a la Gusteau with Anchovy Licorice Sauce (all the kids laughed at that one – it's a dish from the Disney movie “Ratatouille”), I’ll include a heaping side of potatoes to the plate.

More often than not her dinner plate will be returned to the kitchen counter with the sweetbreads untouched and not a molecule of potato remains. If I dare try to make the potatoes healthier by omitting the butter, milk or sour cream she will sulk for the rest of the day as if I took away Christmas.

Another accommodation I make for her potato craving: when I make mashed potatoes for dinner, I cook six to eight potatoes so that there is a lot of leftovers for my wife to make potato pancakes out of for the next few days. Really, she would eat potatoes in one form or another every day if she had the chance.

The potato pancakes she makes are something I had never seen before I met her. I knew from my own heritage about lefsa, a Scandinavian potato crepe, and the rosti, the national dish of Switzerland which is a pancake made from shredded potatoes, and I had even heard of the traditional Passover latkes, but the recipe she makes is unique and evidentially passed down through the generations of her family. Aside from the emotional element involved, the reason my wife likes using mashed potatoes rather than the usually called-for grated potatoes, is because the texture is more like a pancake.

I’ve tried to convince my wife that mashed potatoes made with a food mill are far better than when made with a potato masher, but she stands her ground saying that she likes the little unmashed chunks that the masher misses; she says it makes it more “like Mom made them.”

I argue back with science: the process of mashing and stirring potatoes activates the glutens in the potato starch and it makes them “gluey,” so you have to flick your wrist to get them off of the serving spoon as if the potatoes were from outer space and actually consuming the spoon. The less you mix your mashed potatoes the less gluten you activate. Processing potatoes through a food mill (not the same as a food processor) or a potato ricer mashes the potatoes instantly and doesn’t activate much of the gluten in the potato.

The other nice thing about using a food mill is that you don’t have to peel the potatoes first, you just cook them then put them in the food mill peel and all and the mashed potato flesh falls through to the bowl below while the peels stay in the food mill, thus saving work. But for my wife the issue is an emotional one having to do with “comfort foods” and memories of childhood, so I can’t win this one with logic. By the way, food mills are available locally at specialty kitchen or sometimes health food stores.

Something to keep in mind when making mashed potatoes is that you should try to preheat any ingredients that you wish to mix into your mashed potatoes so you don’t cool the potatoes down when adding them in. While the potatoes cook I melt butter, milk, sour cream, salt and white pepper together. I use white pepper so as not to spoil the look of the potatoes with little black flecks.

Potatoes are high in carbohydrates, fiber and vitamin C, but beyond that they aren’t real nutritional powerhouses. Wild potatoes are full of glycoalkaloids in toxic amounts to humans, but the domesticated potato has had most of these toxins bred out of them. Occasionally you will see the green areas on a potato that indicates the presence of these toxins. The good news is that most of these toxins remain on the surface of the potato with the skin so they can be peeled off, AND they are destroyed around 340 degrees.

Years ago it was believed that the discovery of the cinnamon vine (Dioscorea Batata) was going to make the traditional potato disappear from the planet. To be precise they are in fact related to the yam, although unlike yams they are safe to eat raw. Also unlike the yams they taste remarkably like regular potatoes.

The Great Potato Famine in Ireland made people realize how dangerous it was to rely on the potato as a staple. The cinnamon vine on the other hand grew like a weed (and is considered a noxious weed in many places), had no disease or pest problems, and produced 3-foot-long potato-like tubers that when cooked tasted just like potatoes. It also produces miniature tubers in its flowers so you can have plenty of seeds for next year’s crop.

So with the cinnamon vine we could have potatoes without having to worry about losing a crop, and it would be cheaper to grow since they wouldn’t need to be sprayed for any reason. Hallelujah, we have solved world hunger!

The failure of this plant as the solution to world hunger came directly from its productivity; we have no kind of harvesting machine that can pull a 3-foot-long potato out of the ground. Poof! The miracle replacement for potatoes fell into obscurity. In my yard we grow cinnamon vines, but we do it in wine barrels filled with potting soil. When it’s time to harvest we just tip the barrel over and pull the soil out and spread it around the yard.

One shocker for someone new to these tubers is that they are very mucilaginous so when you slice them raw there is a lot of slime that comes off of them and onto your hands and knife, so use caution when handling. In our house they have come to be known as “slug potatoes” since they release slime like slugs. This slime doesn’t affect their flavor once cooked, and they are excellent when used as a substitute for potato chips.

Now, back to the original potatoes, and the potato pancakes my wife makes from the leftovers. There is one odd thing that I have to mention that you might not believe but when I prepare potatoes I’ll peel them and throw the peels in the compost pile. Yes, it’s an organic gardening habit, but I really have no choice; my garbage disposal is allergic to potatoes. If even one molecule of potato goes down my drain it will clog. Even though I could stuff an entire disassembled Volkswagen Beetle down my kitchen sink and not have a single problem, if one tiny potato peel goes down my sink is useless.

By the way, in case you didn’t know, the United Nations (evidently having solved all of the planet’s problems and having nothing else to do) has named 2008 as “The Year of the Potato.” Hurry, run and tell all your friends!

Tonight’s dinner is going to be fried tofu with a carrot-chipotle sauce ... and lots of potatoes.

Potato pancakes

1 to 1 and a 1/2 cups leftover mashed potatoes
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup diced onions
1 egg
1 to 2 tablespoons milk, as needed for consistency
White pepper to taste
Butter to fry in, about 2 tablespoons
Sour cream

Mix the first four ingredients well. Add enough milk to make the mixture spreadable, but still thick. Spoon onto a buttered frying pan set to medium heat and cook until golden brown. Serve with sour cream on top and add some snipped chives if you desire.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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