Flash in the Pan 

Pancakes del Pole

When he agreed to assist Chef Boy Ari, Poleski was still traumatized from Thanksgiving.

You see, to make the placki, you must grate the potatoes very, very fine—to a point at which applesauce, by comparison, is as coarse as trail mix. Before you grate the potatoes to the point beyond mush, you must peel them. That is how Poleski spent his Thanksgiving day, spud after spud, bloody knuckles at the finest setting on his grater.

But the product of his perseverance nearly stole the show at Chef Boy Ari’s Thanksgiving feast: heaping plates of pan-fried golden brown silver dollars, Poleski’s Polish Potato Pancakes, known as placki.

Poleski arrived early with his placki, necessitating the postponement of dinner as we proceeded to kill our appetites by experimenting with the oh-so-many ways to eat them. Traditionally eaten with sour cream and applesauce, we found these versatile disks to be quite tasty with ricotta cheese and huckleberry jam, as well as ricotta cheese and applesauce, as well as ricotta cheese with melted chocolate, as well as garlic and caviar mayonnaise, not to mention dipped in goose grease from the roasting bird, or just plain. The consistency of these pancakes was out of a culinary fantasy, supple and firm and slightly resistant to the teeth, not unlike a perfectly cooked piece of pasta, and with a simple yet show-stopping flavor, grease and salt and potato. Nor was smoked fish upon the placki a problem. vAs viewed upon a map, Poland stands out as the near-epitome of Eastern Europe, surrounded by places like Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and whatnot.

Barely above sea level, with Baltic coastline and a Continental climate, Poland is a land of many potatoes. As a fourth-generation Russian Jew from Ukraine, Chef Boy Ari is no stranger to the potato pancake, known as ladkas to his Ashkenazi ancestors. But the ladkas I have tasted have been made with a much coarser grating of the potato, with the individual pieces retaining a measure of their structural integrity. Never had Chef Boy Ari experienced the pancake of the atomized potato.

You grate and you grate and you grate. As the potato mush fills up the bowl it starts to oxidize, like apple flesh will do, turning brown. Don’t worry about this. And the mush will separate into liquid and solid. Don’t worry about this either. Just keep grating, and keep those knuckles away from the sharp metal. There are two reasons why you want to avoid scraping knuckle particles into the placki, both of which I hold to be self-evident.

In front of the bowl of about 12 pounds of grated potatoes, Poleski was very solemn as he described the next stage of the process.

“Always” he said, “we use three eggs. Depending.”

Chef Boy Ari thought he smelled something important, as yet unspoken, between the cautious words of Poleski. “Depending” he asked “on what?” “Depending” he said, “on how many potatoes you use. But always we start with three eggs. Then we see if more are necessary.” He cracked three eggs into the bowl and stirred them in. Then he started adding heaping tablespoons of flour. When I say heaping, I mean as much flour as it is physically possible for one tablespoon to hold. It seems that the egg and the flour mix with the potato starch to form a kind of starchy glue. The starchy glue is then fried in oil.

As Poleski added flour and mixed, he was constantly assessing the consistency of the mix, watching how it thickened with flour, and thinned with eggs, steering towards a goal whose coordinates were unknown to Chef Boy Ari. For those who want more exact quantities, most recipes for placki that I found on the Web suggest something along the lines of one egg per three regular-sized potatoes. (Many recipes include minced onion as well.) But Poleski was cooking by feel, searching for the feeling that was handed down to him from his father’s grandparents. Eleven tablespoons and two more eggs later, when it reached the consistency of perfectly prepared oatmeal that has cooled to the point where it is just cool enough to eat, Poleski nodded his head.

Choosing your fry oil is a little tricky. I like the flavor of olive oil, but olive oil alone will burn when you fry it hot. So I like to cut it with equal parts grapeseed oil, which confers its heat resistance. That’s my ideal fry oil. You can also use canola and olive oil, or straight canola, or straight grapeseed.

We heated about a quarter inch of oil in the cast iron skillet at medium/high heat, so that the batter sizzled as we dropped two-tablespoon dollops into the pan. Lightly sprinkle some salt on the sizzling dollops. As soon as the edges start to turn solid, flip them, confirming that the recently flipped side is indeed the proper golden-brown hue. When they start to float, they are done. It doesn’t take long. Then you eat the placki. But first you say smacznego, which means “enjoy.”

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: Flash@missoulanews.com

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