Simple and versatile, potato pancakes appeal to everyone from kids to sophisticated diners. There are many recipes for them, and I find myself changing them according to the meal and to my mood. During the holidays, entertaining often means serving special meals such as rack of lamb, expensive cuts of beef and favorite recipes for fish and poultry. A crispy potato pancake helps elevate any of these, and with the addition of appropriate herbs it will complement any main course. Timing the cooking is easy because the pan can be pulled off the heat if finishing too soon and returned to heat up as the main course finishes. Cooking it ahead and reheating it at serving time works as well.
Adding finely chopped onions, scallions, or shallots works with any meal, but specific herbs can be added to match what is being served. I find chopped rosemary works with any lamb dish as well as with grilled swordfish. Sage goes well with pork or poultry, as would thyme, and a few tablespoons of grated Parmesan adds depth to the flavor. Omit adding the onions, herbs and cheese if you wish. It is hard to go wrong, so experiment and find your own preferences.
Choose baking potatoes, russet or any starchy variety, locally grown of course. Some recipes call for mixing an egg which helps hold the pancake together, but we usually omit it, finding the potato starch is sufficient if excess water is removed. If the pancake comes apart when it is turned, it is easily reformed in the pan by pressing with a spatula. Although I've made them in a stainless steel frying pan, using a non- stick pan makes it easier to turn or remove the pancake.
Four servings as a side dish:
Grate potatoes on the coarse side of a four-sided grater onto a clean kitchen towel. Pull the corners together and twist the towel tightly to remove as much water as possible from the potatoes (sometimes a surprising volume). In a bowl, add salt and pepper to taste and mix. Add egg and your choice of other ingredients, if using, and mix well.
Heat a medium frying pan, preferably with sloping sides, over low to moderate heat. Film the heated pan with olive oil and add potatoes, pressing them to form an even pancake which should be approximately 3/4 inch thick. Adjust heat so that browning occurs slowly, permitting the inside to cook. When the bottom is nicely browned (lift an edge to see), shake the pan to loosen the pancake, remove from the heat and place an inverted plate over the pan. Turn the pancake out onto the plate, add a small amount of oil to the pan and slide the pancake back to continue cooking. Continue cooking until the second side is well browned and the inside is done (use a knife to make a small slit to check). If it is done before the rest of the meal, pull it off the heat and reheat just before serving.
This easily prepared and versatile side can be served under, atop or beside the meat or fish, adding flavor and visual appeal to your presentation. It is also a great way to get the kids to eat potatoes!
An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice president of the New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association (www.nhfma.org). His column and recipes appear weekly in The Heart of New England's newsletter... get a free subscription by sending a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.TheHeartofNewEngland.com
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