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Home on the Range: A Latke by Any Other Name

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Latkes served on the third night of Hanukkah topped untraditionally with leftover Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. - MELISSA PASANEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Melissa Pasanen ©️ Seven Days
  • Latkes served on the third night of Hanukkah topped untraditionally with leftover Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.
Last week, Jewish food expert and prolific cookbook author Joan Nathan gave a major shout-out to chef Nathaniel Wade, formerly of Winooski's Misery Loves Co., in a New York Times column on latkes.

Wade, who is now making knives and cooking on Martha's Vineyard, wowed Nathan during brunch earlier this year at the Outermost Inn.  The experience produced an epiphany for Nathan, which she detailed in an article entitled, "A Genius Method for Making Latkes."

Fried shredded-potato pancakes called latkes are an Eastern European tradition during the winter holiday of Hanukkah. (This year, it runs December 10-17.) The festival calls for lighting candles for eight nights to commemorate the miracle of a small amount of sacred oil lasting for much longer than expected after the Temple in Jerusalem was sacked, reclaimed and rededicated. Jews also honor that oil by eating foods fried in oil, like latkes and donuts.



Wade did not serve latkes to Nathan but rösti, another delicacy in the broad family of fried shredded-potato delicacies. Fans of Misery Loves Co. will recognize — and salivate over — Nathan's description of the rösti:  "thick and square, topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche … crisp on the outside and moist on the inside."
A latke served for brunch with smoked salmon, fried egg and dilled yogurt sauce. - MELISSA PASANEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Melissa Pasanen ©️ Seven Days
  • A latke served for brunch with smoked salmon, fried egg and dilled yogurt sauce.

"This was," Nathan wrote, "the flavorful latke of my dreams."

When Nathan spoke with Wade, he traced the genius technique back to his Winooski days. It involves baking Russet potatoes not quite all the way done and then grating them by hand. The only other ingredients are salt, pepper and oil for frying.

The writer tweaked Wade's recipe slightly and pronounced the result possibly the "best version of latkes." Nathan did acknowledge that they lack onion and a few other standard ingredients.
I was happy to see Wade and Misery getting kudos and I'm sure latkes made with this method are dreamy. However, tradition is a hard thing to kick.

My tried-and-true method has been refined over decades based on a version from Cook's Illustrated magazine married with what I gleaned from my paternal grandmother.

Nanny, as we called her, was a first-generation American who modeled in New York City's garment district with Lucille Ball and never followed a recipe. She grated her potatoes by hand just like Wade does. I even have her grater, though I use my food processor.  Most years, I make around 200 latkes for our annual Hanukkah party, so I have a good excuse.

My latkes feature shredded potatoes and onion, a little potato starch, salt and egg. Over the years, I've learned that peeling the potatoes is unnecessary and I've also made them successfully without additional starch or egg. But I will never give up the onion.

Latkes
Makes about 14 3-inch potato pancakes

Ingredients
  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed well but no need to peel
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons powdered potato starch
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • Peanut oil or vegetable oil for frying
Directions
  1. In a food processor fitted with a coarse shredding blade, grate the potatoes. Remove the potato shreds to a sieve or colander set over a medium bowl. Press the potato shreds against the sieve for a few seconds and set aside.
  2. Replace the shredding blade in the food processor with the chopping blade and add the onions. Pulse a few times until the onions are roughly chopped. Add about half the potato shreds back into the food processor with the onions and pulse until everything is finely chopped, about 6 to 8 two-second pulses.
  3. Add the finely chopped onion and potatoes back to the sieve with the shreds and mix with your hands to combine, pressing the mixture against the sieve to remove as much liquid as possible. Let stand for a couple minutes.
  4. Lift the sieve off the bowl and discard the liquid from the bowl, which should leave some starch from the potatoes on the bottom. Whisk the egg, powdered potato starch and salt into the starch. Then mix the potato-onion mixture into the bowl and combine thoroughly.
  5. Heat about ¼-inch depth of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When a potato shred sizzles in the oil, squeeze ¼-cupfuls of the latke mixture over the bowl between your hands to flatten and remove excess liquid and place them carefully in the oil.
  6. Fry the latkes until golden brown on each side, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Repeat as needed. Remove the latkes to a platter lined with paper towel and serve immediately, or keep warm in a 150-degree oven.
Source: Adapted from Cook's Illustrated November/December 1997 issue.
Got cooking questions? Email pasanen@sevendaysvt.com.