Butternut Squash Latkes

One of the emails I received last week from The New York Times Cooking carried the heading, “The Veggie: Will It Latke?” This tickled my funny bone because it seems to be a play on a question I asked many years ago when I bought my first waffle iron. Will it Waffle was the title and subject of a creative little cookbook that challenged other foods, such as falafel, s’mores, spaghetti and pizza to become “waffled.” Personally, I love this idea because I like playing with my food, especially when it involves something unexpected. Here are a few things we have waffled at our house:


When it comes to latkes, however, there are a few limits to what can be turned into a latke, and this is largely based on the starch content of the ingredients you wish to “latke.” When you start leaning toward less starchy vegetables, you may run into trouble getting the well-composed patties and delicate, crispy edges that make latkes so irresistible— not only during Hanukkah (which started last evening), but anytime you get a hankering for tasty fried nuggets.

This post is the result of my experiment making latkes with butternut squash— botanically, it’s classified as a starchy vegetable, but clearly less so than a potato— and I’ll confess now that I did not follow a recipe from the email that raised this “will it latke” question. Rather, I decided to wing it, trusting my instincts and knowledge of starch and frying, plus my past experience with making my “regular” Classic Crispy Latkes.

I held firmly to the handful of immutable rules for making latkes, including making the “batter” as dry as possible so that the latkes hold together and fry up crispy, heating the oil to a fairly high temperature so the latkes don’t soak up too much of the oil, and seasoning the latkes the moment they emerge from the frying pan to make them even more delicious.

The rest of my effort was learn-as-you-go, and I’ll walk you through the lessons this experiment taught me, with a printable recipe at the end, laying out the roadmap to the best outcome. Ready to make these?

We served our butternut squash latkes with braised brisket and Les’s overnight applesauce!

First, I chose my flavor profile, and I kept it simple with onion— to keep them more savory than sweet, as squash tends to be— and smoked paprika for a little bit of spice without heat.

I bought my smoked paprika from a site called Bourbon Barrel Foods.

I fitted my food processor with the small hole shredder plate to shred up the onions, then pressed them through a fine mesh strainer to squeeze out every bit of juice. 


I knew that additional starch would be needed to make up for what the butternut squash lacked, and I went with a peeled russet potato (the starchiest variety), which I also shredded with the fine hole plate. Shredding it fine helped me to coax out as much starch as possible to aid in binding the squash shreds. I covered the russet shreds with ice water and let them soak for about 45 minutes. After soaking, I scooped the potato shreds out of the bowl and squeezed them dry in a clean towel. Then I carefully poured off the water, preserving the valuable starch that had settled to the bottom of the bowl. A quick, light blotting with a paper towel removed the remaining moisture without losing the starch.


If there was any doubt about whether the squash has enough of its own starch to make latkes, this next part of my experiment settled it. I switched to the large hole plate for shredding the squash and applied the same ice water trick I used on the russet. Unfortunately, this was futile— almost no starch was visible in the bowl, so I’m pretty sure this could have been skipped altogether. Next time, I’ll simply shred the squash and blot it dry on a clean towel. This will also save me from having to wash so many dishes; to this point, I had every large glass bowl in my kitchen involved in this latke project.


With everything shredded and prepped, I was finally ready to make the latkes! As with my regular recipe, I heated grapeseed oil (about 1-inch deep) in my large electric skillet. Figuring that the winter squash might take longer to cook than potatoes, I set the temperature at 350 rather than my usual 375. This turned out to be the wrong thing, as you’ll see in a moment. I mixed that beautiful, sticky russet potato starch with a beaten egg and blended it into the big bowl of squash, potato and onion shreds. The whole thing got a seasoning of salt and pepper, and with a quick test of the hot oil, I was in business.


My first batch didn’t sizzle much when the batter hit the oil (the first sign that it wasn’t hot enough), they were tricky to turn (a sign of poor binding), and sure enough, these first few latkes turned out really greasy (strike three)! The patties had soaked up so much oil they were unpleasant to eat.


I had a couple of problems to be solved, so I adjusted both my ingredients and my technique. For better binding, I sprinkled in a generous spoonful of potato flour to stiffen up the batter. I also turned up the temperature to 375 F, and they were better but still a bit fragile and difficult to turn.


With only a third of my batter remaining, I had time to make one more adjustment and it was a simple one. For easier turning, I made the latkes a little bit smaller. This turned out to be a game changer, and the final two batches of smaller latkes came out crispy outside, tender inside and flavorful through and through! 

From the left: Batch 1 (too greasy), Batch 2 (better but fragile), Batch 3 (smaller, crispy and just right!)

So this settles it— butternut squash does indeed make a delicious latke, and next time I want to make them, I’ll keep these simple takeaways in mind and I’ll follow the recipe below to make them right from the start!

Latke Lessons

  1. Incorporate extra potato starch to make up for what your alternate ingredients might be missing.
  2. Keep the oil temperature hot to ensure crispy edges and prevent greasy latkes.
  3. Make the latkes a bit smaller for easier turning and faster cooking.

Butternut Squash Latkes

  • Servings: 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Print

I learned a few things along the way to making butternut squash latkes, and this recipe will help you get to success without all the lessons!


Ingredients

  • 1 large russet potato, peeled
  • 1 medium sweet onion, trimmed and peeled
  • 1 medium butternut squash, peeled and seeded (enough to measure 3 packed cups of shreds)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning after frying
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 tsp. smoked paprika (I used “bourbon smoked” from Bourbon Barrel Foods)
  • 1 Tbsp. potato flour (or potato starch or dried potato flakes)
  • Grapeseed oil for frying (enough to fill frying pan to 1-inch deep)

Salt draws moisture out of ingredients. For best results, have everything lined up in advance, and wait to add salt until just before you fry the latkes, so the batter doesn’t get liquidy.

Directions

  1. Grate onion with fine shred plate. Press shreds through a fine mesh strainer placed over a measuring cup. Discard onion juice or save it for another use (I usually add it to a meat marinade).
  2. Grate potato with fine shred plate. Transfer potato shreds to a medium sized bowl and cover with ice water. Set aside for 45 minutes, and then scoop out shreds and squeeze dry in a clean towel. Carefully pour off water, preserving the starch that settles to the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Grate butternut squash with large shred plate. Transfer squash to a clean towel and squeeze dry. Add squash shreds to a large bowl. Add potato and onion shreds. Sprinkle in smoked paprika and black pepper. Use a fork, tongs or your hands to mix everything evenly. Sprinkle on potato flour and mix again.
  4. Heat grapeseed oil to 375 F, with oil about 1-inch deep in a cast iron or electric skillet.
  5. Whisk the reserved potato starch and potato flour into the egg in a small bowl. Stir in salt.
  6. When the oil reaches temperature, blend the egg mixture into the squash and potato shreds. Shape the latke “batter” into small clumps approximately the size of walnuts. Shape one at a time and place them immediately into the hot oil. After about 1 minute, use the back of a flat metal spatula to lightly press the latkes flat.
  7. Turn the latkes to cook the other side after 3 to 4 minutes, when they are crispy and golden brown on the first side. Cook the second side until done to match, for a total of about 7 minutes for each batch.
  8. Transfer finished latkes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet or rack. Sprinkle them immediately with a pinch of salt.
  9. Repeat with remaining latke batter. Serve immediately.

Latkes don’t reheat particularly well, so it’s best to make only as many as you intend to eat right away.

A helpful word to the wise: the towels you use to squeeze the potato and squash dry will be starchy and/or stained. It’s best to rinse them right away before adding them to your laundry.


Finally, Falafel!

If at first you don’t succeed, wait a year and try again. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly how the adage goes, but it seems to be my M.O. when I get discouraged over failed recipes. Falafel has confounded me as much as it has enchanted me, from my first-ever taste of it at a now-closed corner diner near the campus of UNC-Greensboro to my most recent experience of it at Miznon in New York’s Chelsea Market. It was that most recent taste that inspired me to give falafel another go.


I love the texture of these crispy little gems and especially the vibrant flavor that is jam-packed into every delicious bite. Falafel is a Middle Eastern specialty, made from ground-up chickpeas and a ton of fresh herbs and spices. It is usually shaped into balls or disc shapes and fried until crispy, though I have also seen oven-baked falafel, which has a somewhat pale and less visually enticing appearance. Undoubtedly, it can be made in an air fryer—and perhaps someone reading this will chime in to share their results of that method. I have tried both fried and oven-baked falafel a few times but got increasingly frustrated with each fail, and then put off trying again for longer and longer stretches of time. How could this be so difficult, I wondered? The dish eventually moved to the top of my culinary “bucket list,” and I’m pleased to say that I finally won the falafel challenge.

As it turns out, falafel was only difficult to make because I was resisting the instructions that were right in front of me the whole time. I tried to make them from canned chickpeas (which doesn’t work) and then I tried making them with canned chickpeas that were subsequently roasted and dried out in the oven (which also doesn’t work). When I finally gave in and tried them the correct way, they turned out terrific! What is the correct way, you ask? Using chickpeas that have been soaked but not cooked.

My favorite thing about cooking—besides the obvious enjoyment of delicious food that’s made cheaper at home than you would buy somewhere out—is the science behind it, and it turns out there is a perfectly good reason that soaked, uncooked chickpeas are the best bet for perfect falafel. Thank goodness for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the culinary genius who runs “The Food Lab,” and a frequent contributor on the Serious Eats website. He is sort of an Alton Brown for the new generation, and his scientific explanation on falafel is the best I’ve read to date. Here’s the upshot: soaking rehydrates the chickpeas so you can work with them, and it keeps the sticky starches trapped inside. Those starches get released when the chickpeas are cooked during frying (or baking), and that starch release is what helps the falafel rounds hold together. If the chickpeas are already cooked (as in canned), the starch is spent, and you end up with a mess. My ridiculous attempts to return canned chickpeas to a firmer, drier texture by roasting them in the oven didn’t work because they were still already cooked. This time around, I followed the science offered by J. Kenji, and guess what I ended up with? Near-perfect falafel.

Crispy on the outside, moist and soft on the inside, and sooo much flavor!

In a weird twist of fate, the best way also happened to be the easiest of the methods I had previously tried. Soaking the chickpeas took almost no effort, then I drained and rinsed them in a colander, rolled them around on paper towels to wick away excess moisture, and then pulsed them in my food processor with a fat handful of fresh herbs and generous amounts of Mediterranean spices. Further following J. Kenji’s advice, I kept my falafel small, using my large cookie dough scoop to compact them into rounds, which I fried up nicely in a shallow skillet. For the love of flavor, why did I wait so long to follow the rules?

As much as I love falafel in a wrap sandwich, I also love just dipping and snacking on them.

Falafel is great as a pick-up snack, dipped in tahini-lemon sauce. We enjoyed it as a sandwich filler, nestled with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles into a warm, whole grain soft pita. My husband and I agreed that the flavors in this revelatory batch of falafel could stand to be a little bolder, and maybe even a bit more garlicky. I will play with the seasonings a bit on my next go, and you can bet that I won’t be waiting a year.


Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed

4 cups cold or room temperature water

Several scallions (white and green parts)

About 2 cups loosely packed fresh Mediterranean herbs* (see notes)

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and rough-chopped

1 tsp. each cumin and coriander seeds*

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)

1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Several grinds black pepper

A few teaspoons flour (if needed), as a binder for overly wet falafel mixture*


*Notes

Falafel is of Middle East origin, so the Mediterranean herbs work best here. Parsley (curly or flat), mint, dill and cilantro (also called “fresh coriander”) all work great in this recipe, but I would not recommend basil, thyme or rosemary. It is essential that you use fresh herbs for this recipe, as they contribute texture in addition to flavor. After rinsing the fresh herbs, take time to also dry them on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towel, so that you don’t add unwanted moisture to the falafel mixture.

I prefer the intensity of freshly ground seed spices, but if you only have pre-ground cumin and coriander, it’s no problem. Use slightly less, perhaps 3/4 tsp. of each.

Ideally, the chickpea mixture will hold together without the flour binder. But I found that a few sprinkles of flour were necessary to pick up lingering moisture. I used a tablespoon of garbanzo bean flour, but all-purpose or rice flour would probably work also.


Instructions




Classic Crispy Latkes

Crispy outside, soft and chewy inside. A hint of onion and just enough salt. That’s what you want in a classic latke, the delightfully simple, traditional food of Hanukkah. Getting them just right takes practice, and what I lack in personal heritage, I hope to make up for in effort. When I started dating my husband in 2015, I found myself intrigued by the foods that are central to the Jewish holidays, and latkes have been on the menu every year since then. Let’s review:


My recipe has evolved, as has my technique. I’m not sure what I was thinking in my first couple of efforts, except that I wasn’t giving enough attention to the oil. And that means I was missing the point, because Hanukkah is all about the oil.

Hanukkah, nicknamed the “festival of lights,” is an eight-day observance of an ancient miracle. The story is multi-layered and, frankly, hard for me to fully understand, let alone explain. But the gist of the story is that God came through for the faithful, and a small jar of oil that was only enough for one night’s lighting of the eternal lamps at the Temple, somehow (miraculously) lasted for eight nights.

In observant Jewish homes, families still mark the occasion by lighting candles on a menorah for eight nights during Hanukkah, and foods are fried in oil in remembrance of the miracle. Traditional fried foods served during this eight-night celebration include jelly-filled doughnuts and, of course, latkes!

Those crispy, golden latkes make me wish Hanukkah lasted for more than eight nights!

The secret is in the starch

The key to crispy latkes is removing the excess liquid from the shredded potatoes, while simultaneously preserving the starches that aid in holding those shreds together. After you shred the potatoes, which you can do either by hand on a box grater or (the easy way) in a food processor, simply soak them in ice water long enough to draw the starch out of the shreds. Next, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes, then reunite them with the sticky starch that has settled at the bottom of the soaking bowl. Add in some shredded onions (also squeezed dry), a beaten egg and a few sprinkles of flour, and you’re good to go!


The miracle of the oil

Frying latkes is the traditional way, and I don’t recommend trying to fry them in a thin film of oil as I did those first couple of years. You may get a nice crispness on the outside, but the inside won’t be done. You need about a half-inch of oil in a hot skillet to make a crispy latke, and the type of oil can make a difference as well. As much as I love and rely on unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil for most of my cooking, its smoke point is about the same temperature as you need for frying the latkes, so it is not the best choice. For this kind of frying, I’ve chosen grapeseed oil, which has a higher smoke point and produces a nice crispy exterior with a neutral flavor.

Grapeseed oil is a good bet for frying at high temperature. I’m pretty sure this bottle will last well beyond the eight nights of Hanukkah!

Enjoy latkes your own way

Not all latkes are the crisp-textured, straw-colored wafers that I am sharing today. Some cooks make their latkes with a soft, almost mashed potato-like texture, and those are delicious also. Onions are usually included in the mix for flavor, but I have seen latke recipes that lean toward the sweet side and there are plenty of other vegetables that can be substituted for potatoes, if you don’t mind a less-than-traditional treat.


Not all spuds are created equal

Although it is true that you can use different ingredients to make latkes, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of certain potatoes. For best results and crispy latkes, choose a starchy potato, such as russet or Yukon gold. Potatoes that are described as “waxy,” such as red potatoes, are higher in moisture and lower in starch. That isn’t to say you can’t use them, but you would need to give extra attention to the step of moisture reduction and supplement the starch a bit to hold them together. Also, be prepared for a slightly less crispy latke when using waxy potatoes, or any other substitute that doesn’t measure up in the starch department.

Use starchy potatoes for best results, such as russet and Yukon gold. It isn’t necessary to peel them, but I usually do for presentation sake.

What to serve with latkes

Traditionally, latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream, and therefore I asked Les to cook up a batch of his mouthwatering overnight applesauce for Thanksgiving. With Hanukkah falling so close behind this year, I hoped to carry over some of that delicious, chunky applesauce as a side for what has turned out to be one of my best batches of latkes to date.


Ingredients

2 pounds potatoes (I used a combination of russet and Yukon gold)

1 smallish sweet onion

1 egg

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

Kosher salt and black pepper

A few shakes ground cumin (if you are not keeping strict kosher)

Grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil with high smoke point, such as canola)

Sour cream, and Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce, for serving


Instructions

  1. Peel and rinse the potatoes. Shred them by whatever means is easiest for you and transfer the shreds immediately to a bowl filled with ice water. Allow them to soak for about 45 minutes.
  2. Trim, peel and shred the onion. Use paper towels to wick away the excess moisture from the onions.
  3. Beat the egg lightly in a measuring cup. Add the shredded onion and mix to combine evenly. I have found this easier for even mixing of the onion into the potato mixture.
  4. Pour enough grapeseed oil into a large skillet or electric frying pan to measure about 1/2″ deep. Heat oil to 375° F.
  5. Use your hands to carefully scoop the soaked potatoes from the bowl and onto a clean kitchen towel. Try to avoid stirring up the starch from the bottom of the bowl. Spread the potato shreds out over the towel. Roll up the towel and twist to extract as much moisture as possible from the potatoes. Empty the shreds into a large, new bowl.
  6. Sprinkle the cumin and flour over the shreds and toss with your hands to evenly distribute.
  7. Pour out the water from the soaking bowl, and take it slow enough to keep the powdery white starch in the bottom of the bowl. Scoop the starch into the bowl with the dried potato shreds and toss again with your hands to combine. Finally, add the egg-onion mixture and toss until evenly combined.
  8. Form a clump of potato mixture in the palm of your hand, pressing to shape it as best you can into a flattened ball. Do not try to shape it as a disc at this point. Carefully lay the ball of potato mixture into the hot oil and repeat until you have three or four clumps in the oil. When the edges begin to turn golden, use the back of a small spatula to gently flatten the balls of mixture into more of a disc shape. Turn the latkes after all edges (and the bottom) are golden brown. Fry the second side until golden. Transfer to a rack over layers of paper towel and repeat until all latkes are fried. Season the latkes with kosher salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.