Monday, May 14, 2012

Potato Thing

It is no mean feat to feed and fill 12 children and two parents. Back when I still had all of them at home, there were days when I told my husband that lunch would be creatio ex nihilo. Sometimes the meals I served were less than stellar from a nutritional point of view, but my kids never went hungry in our home.

A neighborhood child, the friend of my eldest daughter, developed a sort of crush on me. To my mind, she was at the age where the blinders were coming off and she was seeing her parents’ faults for the first time, and contrasting these to my qualities. She was coming up wanting.

Shoshanna’s* mother was a good cook, but disorganized and dirty. The mother of a large family like my own, she simply had a set of priorities that differed from my own. I think she attended a lot of classes and was probably more learned than I. She went to a lot of concerts. She was from a wealthy background and had grown up with a nanny and other help that cooked and cleaned. Her husband had grown up in South Africa with slaves.

Not Coping

In Israel, where every man does for himself, this family was all but dysfunctional. In fact, stories came out later that proved they WERE dysfunctional. It was more than just the externals of how the house looked (and smelled). This was a family that was not coping.

On the other hand, my need to be completely organized was standing me in good stead as the babies came. Shoshanna was jealous but in a good way. She would come over and offer to help me clean or cook. She wanted to learn from me.

I liked having her around and I felt it was a kindness to steer her through this much of her adolescence, if I could. But sometimes, our grinding poverty was so mean that I found it hard to feed her alongside my own brood.

Large Potato Pancake

Something I made quite often in those days (and still do today) was a kind of very large potato pancake that was quick to make, tasty, and satisfying: Rösti. In our house we called it, “Potato Thing.” 

One or the other of the kids, or Shoshanna, to whom my house was a second home, would beg me to make the potato thing and I’d drag out the skillet. But sometimes even potatoes were hard to come by and I’d send Shoshanna to go get some potatoes from her home and bring them to me to cook for her. She was always very happy to do so.

I could only make one potato thing at a time, or two, if I had two skillets going. It was a lot of grating, also, since in those days I had no food processor. But Shoshanna and the other kids would take turns grating and it was a very satisfying way to pass a wintry afternoon. It always felt warm and cozy in our crowded but neat little home. I think that even the sound of something frying was somehow comforting to us in those lean times. 

Hit The Spot!

The potato thing was hot and huge and filling: the tastiest thing going. With or without ketchup, the potato thing hit the spot and made us feel that all was right with the world (and still does).

Potato Thing (Rösti)

One very large serving

3 large, unpeeled potatoes, scrubbed clean

3 Tablespoons oil, butter, or a combination of the two (my current favorite combination is 2 Tablespoons olive oil and 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter)


1. Grate potatoes in the food processor or on the large holes of a box grater.

2. Place the oil or butter in a large, nonstick skillet and heat over medium-high heat.

3. Add the grated potatoes to the hot fat, pat down a bit, sprinkle generously with salt, and cover with a lid. Cook for around 12 minutes.   

4. A nice golden brown bottom crust should have formed. Give the pan a little side-to-side shake to loosen and slide the potato thing onto a dinner plate.

5. Turn the potato thing into the pan so that the bottom crust is now facing up. Salt generously, cover again, and cook for 10 minutes.

6. Slide the potato thing onto the plate and turn it over into the skillet for a further two minutes to crisp the now slightly soggy top.

7. Slide it onto the plate and dig in. Ketchup is good with this, but it’s also good plain.


*Not her real name.


  1. That sounds delicious! I'm such a sucker for any kind of latkes :)

    1. It's one of the first things my kids learn to cook and this is something we cook for each other. Sometimes I'm too tired to grate or yank out the food processor. Then the negotiation begins...who will grate, who will cook? We all pitch in.