Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Noble Potato

In the community kitchen potatoes are ubiquitous. We serve potatoes (mashed) at least once a week, and very often they get thrown into other dishes as well. Making mashed potatoes, though not the most challenging aspect of kitchen work, is one of the most fun. After the potatoes are boiled, we set the huge pot down on the floor and shovel out most of the water with a bowl. Then, one of us, usually whoever has the most upper-body strength, takes a long handled potato-masher and starts to mash. Every one has their own potato-mashing method, but I find that the best way for me to do it is to hold the masher as if it were a jackhammer and then lean. There's something that's just so much fun about the whole process. It might be the hugeness of it all-the big pot, the ton of potatoes, and the masher that, when set on the floor, reaches my waist. Or, it could be the way the masher squelches through the potatoes. Whatever it is, mashing potatoes is one of my favorite kitchen activities.

Potatoes, in general, elicit in me a kind of childlike glee. I may have inherited this from my father who has been known, on more than one occasion, to hold a roast potato up in front of him in wonderment, and exclaim, "just think of all the things you can do with a potato!" And indeed, in my family we eat a lot of potatoes, in many forms. What can I say, they're cheap, versatile and damn good.

I got the following recipe from my grandmother. My grandmother, who is turning 80 this coming month, is altogether amazing. She is a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother; she is an artist, a teacher and a master of indoor gardening. She swims 30 lengths a day. Until two years ago, she still worked as a kindergarten teacher. And if you ask her, she will insist that she is unemployed, not retired. She is also the source of my culinary heritage- not only in the sense that I have an affinity for Jewish-Hungarian food, but also in the sense that she imparted, by example, what food is meant to do. Food is meant to be nurturing. It is meant to be a part of what home is. The absolutely first thing my grandmother will do when you walk into her house (and I mean this in a literal sense) is to sit you down and "just have a little sandwich." (Of course, said sandwich usually comes with a salad, and some orange juice and coffee, and here, have some honey cake, I'm not sure it came out so good this time, I tried something a little bit different...) Food should also be associative. It should evoke specific times and memories.  My grandmother was slightly flummoxed when I called her to ask for her recipe for chremslach in the middle of July, because chremslach are traditionally eaten on Passover. They are a Passover food. It would not occur to her to make them any other time. To do so would be to remove the experience of the food from its context, and to cook food without association, without memory, is to somehow lessen it.
I have learned from my grandmother how to follow a culinary tradition- she travels with her recipes for cocosh and challah, you know, just in case--and how to be an inventive cook- she never makes bread the same way twice. What follows is her recipe for chremslach- a sort of latke made with cooked potatoes and served sprinkled with sugar. They are a Passover food, but I'm going to be slightly sacrilegious and say that they're pretty good the rest of the year as well. Happy birthday, Babbe.


This is not so much a recipe as a set of instructions. This is the way my grandmother cooks:

"You take the cooked potatoes and grate them, or mash them well. Add a couple of eggs and some salt and pepper. And maybe some sugar. No, just salt and pepper. Then you fry them [form them into patties first, like latkes] and when they're done, you sprinkle them with sugar. If you want them to be light and fluffy, you can separate the eggs and make a snow. But I don't do that. Maybe add an egg yolk. I just do them with whole eggs. Enjoy."

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