The All-Mighty Holiday Potato: Latkes, Hashbrowns and More.

Something about the holidays seems to encourage an annual ritual of overeating. Maybe it’s because up here in Minnesota we’re wearing so many layers that nobody will notice the extra 10 pounds we carry over the winter while our bicycles gather dust in the garage. I’d sure hate to spend the winter solstice in the south where you get the mountains of holiday food and can't hide yourself in coats and scarves.


Actually, as a former chef in New Orleans you probably don’t want to know what their “guilty pleasure foods” are, seeing that their daily diet already consists of French cuisine at American proportions. There’s a reason why half of Americans are predicted to be obese by 2050, and I think much of the south may already be there. The last Christmas work party I spent down there we served four Bacon Explosions. If you are unfamiliar with this particular southern gem it is a bacon wrapped football sized loaf of pork sausage and (you guessed it) bacon, which is smoked on a grill to porky perfection. It is actually quite delicious and boasts 500 grams of fat per roll.  


I would imagine that the tradition of having food, lavish in type and quantity around the holidays, began when you did not have the time or means to eat that way the rest of the year. I just finished reading “Little House in the Big Woods”, prequel to Wilder’s famous “Little House on the Prairie” and their harvest feast had my stomach grumbling in its decadence. Of course that was an annual meal and, oh yeah, they actually labored up an appetite during their long days in the field and forest.


The Jewish tradition celebrates food cooked in oil during Hannuka as a remembrance to the miracle of the great temple’s oil after its destruction in Jerusalem. Fried potato latkes and fried jelly donuts lead the pack. The Muslims?…not to guilt you, but they spend their winter holiday fasting during the day to nourish their souls in an empathetic gesture to those who can not afford to eat at all. I suppose their masses never needed goose fat to keep them through those eastern European winters.


Growing up with a Jewish family on my mother’s side and Lutheran on my father’s, I got to revel in the feasts of both cultures. It was no surprise then, as I grew up to spend the majority of my teens and twenties working in restaurants, that I wanted to learn how to make all of the delicious foods that seemed magical to me as a child.


Having spend almost a decade working in a breakfast restaurant I became obsessed with making perfect hashbrowns patties, much to the approval of my extended family who I used as test subjects at family weekends at the cabin. This segued into me becoming the designated latke machine at the family Hannuka parties. I love my role. I’d much rather spend a party in the kitchen where all of the real excitement lives; besides the cooking action, there is plenty of gossip, enticing aromas from the oven, and, its where the booze is.


When my uncle made latkes that were a combination of potato, sweet potato, and Jerusalem artichoke, he opened me up to the idea that latkes don’t have to be the simple potato pancake that you would find at the typical Jewish deli or restaurant. I’ve been playing around with different recipes ever since. Essentially, like any breakfast hash, you can introduce any leftover ingredients from the previous night’s dinner. Peppers, onions, leeks, sausage, steak, broccoli, corn all make great additions to the simple hashbrown or latke, just make sure you small dice those additions first. Hopefully you can benefit from my own years of trial and error in making delicious, satisfying hashbrowns or latkes.


How to make perfect hashbrowns and latkes:

Here’s the first trick, boil the potatoes the night before and let them cool in the produce drawer in your refrigerator. If you’re talking about medium sized potatoes I cover them with water, bring to a boil, and boil on medium heat for twenty minutes. Let them cool on the counter for about an hour before putting them into the cooler, and resist the temptation to cool them in cold water after the boil. With this technique the skin will come out perfect, and they’ll be easier to grate. I recommend organic red potatoes. Organic because the skin stores much of the nutritional value of the potato as it also stores any pesticides and soil additives used in conventional farming. You can use any kind of potato, but reds seem to really hold up well and taste the best. Some, such as Yukon Golds, seem to crumble while grating. In the morning, grate your potatoes (skin-on) with any other ingredient that you wish.  Half potato, half sweet potato is a simple, good, and tasty first batch. You don’t have to pre-boil sweet potatoes as they cook a lot faster than regular potatoes. If you are making latkes you will likely add a couple tablespoons of flour, an egg, and a dash of cinnamon and cumin at this point.

I find the best results when using a well-seasoned cast iron skillet as a cooking surface. A starchy food such as this tends to stick to even the best stainless steel cookware, and definitely avoid any cheaper cookware surfaces such as aluminum. A non-stick skillet will make a decent second-choice, but these pans will eventually scratch and breakdown with use, especially in the high-heat technique used here. 

At this point, get your cast iron skillet good and hot by heating over a medium flame for 5 minutes.  Never heat a dry non-stick skillet, the fumes are toxic, so if using non-stick add 2T of oil to the pan as you heat it. For a single serving I generally use 1 cup of potato mixture and a 8” skillet.  When I make four patties for the whole family I will use our biggest cast iron skillet which is probably 14” wide.  Don’t go too easy on the oil here. I use 2-3T oil per serving. Generally I use Spectrum canola oil, but soybean oil is another respectable alternative with good Omega 3’s. The bottom of the pan should be coated in oil, maybe 1/8” deep. Heat the oil on high heat until it is rippling.

At this point you will add your 1c. patties to the oil. Now resist the temptation to bother the hash/latkes for 4 minutes. Keep the heat on high for 2 minutes, then medium-high for 2 minutes. Stirring or bothering the potatos before 4 minutes will create a starchy, gooey mess, absorbing more oil than needed and most likely sticking to the pan. These four crucial minutes will be essential in forming that golden top hashbrown or latke surface, and also will keep the patties from sticking to the cookware. 

After 4 minutes flip the patties over. I usually squirt about 1T of additional oil on the patty before I flip it so that both sides are perfectly crisp fried, but if you’re going for a low(er)-cal version you can skip this step. Sprinkle a little kosher salt and fresh pepper on the top, then leave for another 4 undisturbed minutes.  Keep the heat on medium-high for 2 minutes, then medium for the last 2 minutes.

Viola, turn the patties out onto a plate and enjoy. If making a large batch of latkes you can keep the platter in a 200-degree oven as you make them. If you are making breakfast there should be just the perfect amount of oil left in the pan to fry some eggs.


Once you see how easy and delicious this recipe is you will probably do as our family does and order
50-pound bags of potatoes from the farmers market towards the end of fall. It is incredibly cost-effective, just leave them in the basement in a cool, dark spot. Every week I boil about 8 potatoes and leave them in the produce drawer for a quick breakfast or lunch throughout the week. Par-boiled potatoes are also handy for additions to quick, last minute side dishes like potatoes and garbanzo beans in a tomato sauce. Ours go fast, but my uncle says his 50# bag lasts until Easter, just in time for the next feast. Add that leftover Easter ham, cubed small, to your potato hash and experience a heaven that even a reform Jew would enjoy. Happy holiday eating!





Benjamin Krikava lives in north Minneapolis with his family. After over a decade of restaurant work he has moved on to be employed in the medical field, now helping to prevent heart attacks rather than cause them. When he's not at work or on his bicycle you will find him in the kitchen drinking the rest of the bottle of wine that the recipe didn't call for.