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.


Spicy Beer-braised Brisket

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins this year on Sunday evening and runs through the day after Christmas. This occasion comes with its own food traditions, mainly those cooked in oil in a nod to the miraculous oil that “kept the lights on” for eight days.

Classic Crispy Latkes will be on the menu at our house at some point next week, and we enjoy serving them with a flavorful brisket and some of Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce, which is a traditional accompaniment to latkes. This year, I got a jump start on my brisket so that I could share a recipe with you. There are two primary ways to prepare a brisket. One is to smoke it over wood chips, and it is arguably my favorite preparation but it takes a considerable amount of planning and watching— neither of which I have time for during this month with its back-to-back holidays. The other method is a slow braise of the meat, which affords a lot of flexibility for flavor and much less fussing and tending because once it goes into the oven or slow cooker, it pretty much takes care of itself until dinner time. 

The second method is what I’m sharing today and despite its low effort, it produces a crazy tender bite— I’m talking, twist a fork into it and pull out a mouthwatering morsel that just about melts in your mouth. It’s that kind of tender.

This is like meat candy!

For this recipe, I’ve used what is called the “point cut” of the brisket, which is a small triangle-shaped piece that is attached to one end of the larger, flat brisket. This cut is usually about three pounds, which is plenty for two people for dinner and leftovers to boot. If you have a butcher shop, ask for a brisket point or check the supermarket meat case for a small piece of brisket that’s shaped like an irregular triangle. You’ll save some time and mess that way.

Otherwise, you’ll need to separate the point from the larger brisket— an undertaking that I did myself for the first time last week. It’s not difficult, especially with some help from all the YouTube videos out there (plus I had my smoke master cousin, Brad, on a text chat for moral support), but it does take some effort, patience and a really sharp utility knife.

It took some whittling (see all that fat in the bag?), but I’m pretty sure I got it right!

However you procure your brisket point, season it well on both sides with kosher salt and let it hang out at room temperature while you prepare the braising sauce, which is made from common ingredients that you probably already have in the pantry and refrigerator door.


From this stage, the brisket only needs your full-on attention for about 15 minutes for browning all sides and sautéing up an onion (right in the same skillet) for braising. If you prefer, you could use a small-ish slow cooker for the braising step, but it’s important for the brisket to be mostly submerged in the sauce. For this reason, you’ll see that I’m using an oven-save glass baking dish. I placed the brisket on top of half the onions, then covered it with the rest of the onions. Next, mix up the sauce ingredients— chili-garlic sauce, spicy mustard, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, black pepper and tomato paste— then gently stir about a half bottle of beer into it.


Pour that all over the brisket and onions, seal it up super tight with a double layer of aluminum foil and tuck it into the oven at 325° F. Using a slow cooker? Set it on high until the liquid reaches a low boil, then drop it to low setting for the remainder of cooking time.


Then, ignore it. Take the dog for a walk, finish up some laundry, make a grocery list, binge watch a couple episodes of “The White Lotus,” do some online shopping, whatever. My point is that the brisket doesn’t need your attention at all. In fact, fussing over it or checking on it too much may mess up the cooking time or limit the tenderness. The sauce and the steam will get the job done. You don’t need to turn it or baste it or test it for doneness until at least three hours later. I let mine go for three and a half.

It’s almost falling apart with this gentle lifting!

This brisket was insanely tender and the sauce had melded into a delicious, syrupy glaze. I removed it from the baking dish to a plate until it was cool enough to handle, then laid it on the cutting board for some cross-grain slices. A properly cooked brisket will virtually cut like butter, and when it is warm from the oven, your slices will be a bit thicker. If you want really thin slices, refrigerate the brisket overnight and slice it cold, then warm it up in the sauce.


We couldn’t wait that long at our house, and we enjoyed this on the spot with the braising sauce and some easy, oven-roasted russet potato wedges and a salad. It was so delicious, I can hardly wait for the leftovers!

And yes, I cooked the other part of the brisket— the large, flat part— also. Similar cooking method but different flavors; don’t worry, I’ll share it another day. 😉

Spicy Beer-braised Brisket

  • Servings: About 6
  • Difficulty: Average
  • Print

A few pantry and fridge door items provide the flavorful braising sauce for this oh-so-tender, point-cut brisket.


Ingredients

  • Point cut brisket, 3 to 4 pounds (preferably grass-fed)
  • Kosher salt to season both sides of the raw meat
  • 2 tsp. chili-garlic paste (find it in the Asian foods aisle)
  • 2 tsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. prepared horseradish (mine was labeled “extra hot”)
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 15 twists freshly ground black pepper (about 1/2 tsp.)
  • 6 oz. lager beer (a dark beer would also be good here; nothing too “hoppy”)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, cut into slivers or slices

I used a skillet for searing my brisket, and an oven-safe glass baking dish for the braising step. A small, lidded Dutch oven would be great for this recipe, so use that if you have one.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F, with oven rack in center position. Season both sides of the brisket with kosher salt and let it rest it room temperature for about 30 minutes before searing.
  2. Prepare the sauce: Whisk together all ingredients, except beer, adjusting to taste. Gently stir in the half-bottle of beer, so that it doesn’t bubble over out of the bowl. Set the braising sauce aside.
  3. Heat a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, carefully place the brisket into it, fat side-down. Let it sear until a golden crust is evident on the first side, then use kitchen tongs to carefully turn it so that every side (including the end) is seared. This should take a total of 7 to 10 minutes. Set the seared brisket on a plate. Spoon out some of the excess fat, if you wish, but keep enough to saute the onion slivers.
  4. Transfer the sauteed onion slivers to a baking dish that is deep enough for liquid to cover the brisket. Place the brisket atop the onions. Pour the braising sauce over the whole thing, and then cover the dish with a double layer of aluminum foil. Take care to seal up all edges really well so that steam remains completely inside the dish during braising.
  5. Put the brisket pan into the oven and set a timer for 3 hours. No peeking, and do not remove the brisket to turn it, baste it or otherwise disturb it.
  6. At the 3 hour mark—or later if you’re in the middle of something; this recipe is forgiving—remove the brisket pan and carefully peel back the foil cover. If the meat pulls easily with the twist of a fork, it’s ready. Let it cool a few minutes, then transfer the brisket to a cutting board. Use a sharp slicing knife to cut against the grain of the meat into slices as thin as you can manage. Transfer the slices back into the braising sauce so they can soak up the delicious flavors.

This recipe may be prepared a day or two ahead of serving, if you wish. Cool the finished brisket as a whole piece and refrigerate it overnight. It’s easier to make super-thin slices when the meat is cold and firm. Reheat the slices with the braising sauce, either over low heat in a covered skillet, or in a covered baking dish in the oven at about 325° F until it reaches desired serving temperature.



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.


Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce

When Terrie asks me to share a recipe for her blog, my immediate thought about the specific post is where my recipe came from. In the case of applesauce, which I make at various times throughout the year, I have no answer.

I simply cannot recall the origin of my homemade applesauce. I suspect it came about originally because of my son’s absolute love of apples; he started eating apples before he was 2, and had one daily into his high school years.

I do know my recipe took a turn when two things happened. First, somewhere along the way, I decided to do with the applesauce what I have done with mashed potatoes, which is mix varieties to increase the flavor and texture. Rather than two varieties (russet and Yukon gold), as I do with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes, I decided three was the perfect mix for apples in applesauce. Second, back about 2013, for my annual gift to self for Thanksgiving (a story unto its own), I bought a Cuisinart multi-cooker, a juiced-up version of a slow cooker. This is the same slow cooker that saved many a day for us during our recent kitchen remodel.

For applesauce, the slow cooker suffices—and it is easier than tending a cast-iron pot, my old method. As for varieties, I’m quite consistent in using Honeycrisp for sweet and Granny Smith for tart; then, the third variety is whatever strikes my fancy. Unless, that is, I can find my all-time favorite, Jonagold, which happen to be extremely tough to locate in North Carolina. This year, the third variety was Kanzi, a style of apple that basic research reveals comes from Belgium. The name means “hidden treasure,” and the apple is considered a cross between a Gala and a Braeburn. It is a mix of tangy and sweet, a fine add to the first two. All three apples are in the crispy category, which I believe makes for better applesauce.

A couple of years ago, Terrie asked me to make this for Thanksgiving as an add to the usual cranberry sauces on our table. It had more to do with the proximity of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, where applesauce is a wonderful complement to Terrie’s homemade latkes. This year it was a complete no-brainer, as Hanukkah begins the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

This recipe requires some upfront labor in peeling and dicing the apples. But after that, the slow cooker does the rest and a few hours later—voilà!—a homemade applesauce that will have your dinner table guests thinking you’re a genius in the kitchen.

This recipe could not be simpler. Combine your ingredients in the slow cooker and wait nearby with a spoon.

Ingredients

Eight to nine large apples, three varieties

One small lemon, juiced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

Vietnamese cinnamon to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)


Instructions

Peel and core the apples, then cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the slow cooker. Juice the lemon over the apples and toss to prevent browning. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat. Turn the slow cooker to high and let it cook for four to six hours. I usually set it up at bedtime and by morning, the cooker has cooled. Mash the softened apples by hand (I use a potato masher). If you like the applesauce chunky, use a light mashing touch. Chill and enjoy.