Just about to fry a batch of latkes atop a professional gas range, Sasha Felikson used a tried and true method to make sure the oil was hot, but not too hot: he touched the inside of the pan.
“We’re not going to be at a temperature where anything’s going to burn,” he said.
Felikson, the 30-year old executive chef at the Asian restaurant Doi Moi in Washington, said the secret to cooking is doing what feels right and tastes good. Sure, he’ll follow recipes when he’s cooking what’s on the menu. But during a free hour last Friday, he made latkes out of the vegetables he had on hand: two zucchini, a sweet potato and a Yukon Gold potato with the peel still on.
“I love the peel,” he said. “I believe that the peel adds another level of flavor.”
Felikson mixed egg into the grated sweet potato, folding it gently so as not to “beat up the vegetables too much.” When it came time to add flour, Felikson did not use a measuring cup, but simply took a fistful and gradually added it to the mixing bowl.
“I’m doing this by eye, but the goal is to have this not totally come apart,” he said. You don’t want to use too much flour to overwork it.”
He used a similar approach to sautéing the latkes, squirting enough oil to cover the pan without submerging the latkes. The goal, he said, is to make sure the latkes are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.
Felikson has no trouble opining on any food-related topic, including the versatility of potatoes and the reason turkey is the most inferior food on the Thanksgiving menu.
“At the end of the day, there’s a million ways to do everything and they’re all right. The way my brain works is that I never make the same thing twice,” he said. “Cooking is very innate. Once you have a certain understanding for it you do whatever you want.”
Felikson earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2009 at Salisbury University, but then decided to follow his passion for cooking. He trained with chefs in Boulder, Colo., and then moved back to the Washington area two years later. Last year, he became the executive chef at Doi Moi.
He said since he started working at Doi Moi, the management staff has been flexible about allowing him to explore new foods, and last year he served latkes in the restaurant for a week.
Felikson and his family emigrated from Ukraine, at that time a republic in the Soviet Union, when he was 3. He grew up in Rockville, where having a large group of people over for a meal was a regular event.
“In Russian culture and a lot of Eastern European cultures, family and friends are synonymous,” he said. “We have great genetics, so we live forever and we have a huge family. When we have people over, it’s our family. It’s about this communal idea that someone needs to make food to sustain a family.”
Felikson said because his mother was almost always in the kitchen, he picked up on her improvisational approach to cooking.
“It’s not about making things perfect,” he said. “It’s about using a technique to create something really awesome and beautiful and fun for your guests. She would rather put less butter in the mashed potatoes than go out to the store for a whole new thing of butter.”
Felikson said his mother often made zucchini pancakes, but her specialty latkes were the Russian delicacy syrniki, which are vanilla-flavored pancakes typically made from cottage or farmer’s cheese. Still, Felikson’s favorite places to eat as a child were McDonald’s and Chipotle. In his undergraduate years, he ate junk food seven days a week.
“I played tennis and I was working out. I was eating 5,000 calories a day and all that crap. And I was losing weight. All my trainers were like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, eat more.’ But the issue was that I was eating the commons’ [dining hall] food that’s derived from commodity chicken and tomatoes that are stuffed with gross antibiotics and all these hormones and fibers that do really bad things to your tract.”
Felikson said that experience made him grateful for the family meals he ate growing up. From then on, when his friends went to their regular hangout of Ruby Tuesday, he’d say, ‘No thanks. I’ll stay at home and eat borscht.’
As he finished browning his first latke batch of 2017, Felikson smiled. He served them with a half a dozen toppings in addition to the traditional sour cream. Among them were spicy XO fish sauce, a sweet cranberry topping and peanut sauce. After one bite from each of his own latkes — the zucchini, sweet potato and regular potato ones — Felikson had a verdict.
“Zuchini is the winner,” he declared.
Sasha Felikson’s zucchini latkes
2 zucchini or squashes (green, yellow, orange, anything works)
1 Yukon Gold potato
1 cup panko bread crumbs (or matzo meal)
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon potato starch
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Oil to fry
Grate all vegetables into mixing bowl. Mix in eggs.
In a separate bowl, mix the starches, flour and baking powder together. Gently fold starch mixture into grated veggie mixture until barely incorporated (almost like biscuit batter texture). Season to taste.
Fry in a shallow pan with enough oil to come halfway up the sides of the latkes for 2-3 minutes per side until crisp and golden. Serve hot.