Sometimes Mother really does know best.
Buffalo native James Cohen, an executive chef of the luxury Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., has always been able to make fond brun and beurre blanc with the best of them. But he had to ask his mother, Beverly Fingold, for help with good old ordinary latkes.
He must have learned his lesson well.
Mrs. Fingold and her son traveled to New York City on Friday to tape a session on latkes for a forthcoming PBS-TV series called "Jewish Cooking in America."
The series, based on the prize-winning book by Joan Nathan, is expected to be shown in the fall.
Why latkes? Simple. Latkes (potato pancakes) are the very culinary essence of Hanukkah, the Jewish winter festival that began Tuesday evening and lasts for eight days.
So important are potato pancakes to the holiday, in fact, that the mother/son pair enlarged the concept still further. They helped judge a latke contest at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan. There, six well-known cooks took part in a competition described as "hotter than a pan of sizzling schmaltz" -- and then went into the kitchen to make a Hanukkah meal centered around such wonders as Aunt Ellen's Chicken Liver Crostini and Bev's Egg and Onion with Gribenes (chicken cracklings).
The main course for the sold-out meal consisted of Sephardic Brisket (with orange juice and freshly grated ginger) and Pumpkin and Apple Couscous. Desserts included Apple Crumb Cake, Rugelach pastries and Mandelbrot (almond bread).
A few chocolate dreidels added to the holiday ambience.
"Did we say healthy cooking?" Cohen asked rhetorically at a practice session last week in Mrs. Fingold's Amherst kitchen.
Well, not exactly.
But Cohen, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, did divulge a few chef-and-mom latke tricks as he worked.
"First, the pan must be perfectly warped so that the fat slopes down to make a puddle," he said, just slightly tongue-in-cheek. (Cohen and his mother used a skillet inherited from his late maternal grandmother, Sadie Bregger.)
"Second, the fat used must be schmaltz." (Schmaltz is chicken fat that may be rendered at home with onions, or purchased frozen in supermarkets.)
"Third, you must use russet (Idaho) potatoes and they must be ground by hand through the large holes of a box grater."
And, "fourth, while forming patties from the mixture, you squeeze them in the palm of your hand to remove excess moisture."
The fifth suggestion had to do with Cohen's strictly non-traditional use of parsley: "flat-leafed Italian parsley," he said. "The yuppie kind."
"Jim got the cooking genes in the family," said Mrs. Fingold, who raised her eyebrows at the parsley but didn't seriously question its use.
Cohen likes to tell the story of how, as chef at the Lodge in Vail, Colo., he was called on to make a Jewish holiday dinner.
It was not a success. Immediately, he phoned his mother.
"What am I doing wrong?" he asked her. "The soup doesn't taste like yours."
"Use kosher chicken," his mother advised.
He did, but there was another call: "It's still not the same."
"Use twice as many carrots," she advised.
Still no improvement.
"Use parsley," she told him.
Something was still amiss.
Finally, in exasperation, his mother asked, "How many parsnips are you using?"
It was the parsnip (you need only one) that did the trick.
Though he majored in photography at the University at Buffalo, Cohen always liked to cook and showed an early talent for it.
"Our kitchen was a social place," he recalls. He worked at the late Mulligan's on Hertel Avenue before attending the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park.
"We made the best chicken wings in the world there," he recalls. He still will use only Louisiana Hot Sauce.
After moving to Denver, Cohen became chef at the well-known Tante Louise restaurant. He was featured in Julia Child's PBS series "Dinner at Julia's" before moving to Vail. His mother visited there to show the staff how to make Gefilte Fish.
Now the mother and son laugh that they have traded roles in life.
"My mother used to do the cooking and I cleaned up," said Cohen, as he fried pancakes in her kitchen and as his mother soaked utensils in the sink.
"Now our roles are reversed."
2 russet potatoes
3/4 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon potato starch
1 medium egg
Flat leaf parsley, chopped, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Chicken fat (schmaltz)
Grate the potatoes through the large holes of a box grater. Grate the onion through the fine holes. Add potato starch (can be purchase at most supermarkets,) egg, parsley, salt and pepper.
Melt about an inch of fat in a skillet and get it hot. Form pancakes using about 1/2 cup of the potato mixture and squeezing in the palm of your hand before placing pancakes in the hot fat.
Fry until crisp and brown on one side. Turn and fry the other. Serve immediately with applesauce and/or sour cream. Makes about 8 pancakes.