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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Potato (Plus) Pancakes...aka Latkes



Our family enjoyed potato pancakes for many years before I discovered that they were also called latkes. This time of the year, when many families will be making latkes as part of their holiday festivities, seemed like a good time to bring out my favorite method for making potato pancakes.

Maybe I should put "potato" in quotes, since I long ago started adding in carrots or zucchini or squash to the mix, sometimes even some chopped spinach for color as well. It goes without saying, of course, that there has always been plenty of onion in my version, and bell peppers whenever available. These additions add both nutrition and flavor. Along with the dry milk powder and eggs in my basic recipe, this is a main dish that provides just about every food group. Finally, I use as little oil as possible. This is another advantage of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, but you could use a non-stick pan too--you just won't get quite the golden crispness of cast iron since you won't be able to heat the pan quite as high.

This week, The New York Times has had a series of recipes for variations similar to mine, with  vegetables as varied as carrots, purple cabbage, sweet potatoes, and broccoli stems. The main article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/health/spicy-carrot-and-spinach-latkes.html?ref=health. Makes me feel validated when a latke "expert" is making these kinds of substitutions!


Though we often enjoyed potato pancakes as a special weekend breakfast, they are also good for a quick, light supper. If made with seasonal vegetables (and potatoes, onions, and carrots are pretty much year round staples), you'll have a budget friendly main dish that supplies both vegetables and protein to the meal. The variation using leftover mashed potatoes will result in quite a different consistency but the flavor is good, and these can stretch the budget even further.


A hand grater is the only tool you need to make potato pancakes, but I have always liked the ease of grating and chopping the vegetables in a processor. I have recently been blessed with a new processor* and haven't yet adjusted to the larger feeding chute size.  As a result, as you can see in this picture, some of the vegetables are not quite what I would normally call "shredded." They could have been hand cut further, but I decided to leave them as is. The result may not have been quite picture-perfect, but the flavor was fine.


As with just about any vegetable recipe, the amounts can vary a great deal. What, after all, is a medium potato? And if I say about 1 1/4 cups of shredded potato and you end up with 1 1/2 cups, should you discard the extra amount? Or do I need to prep another potato if I end up with just under a cup of shreds? (NO is the correct answer to both situations!) I also have a predilection for lots of onion flavor, so my medium onion may well be quite a bit larger than the size you would favor, and that's okay too. And if you don't have squash, use some carrot instead, or sweet potato (which, be aware, will darken quickly after shredding, so cut these up just before stirring everything together).

Here is my "basic" recipe, as prepared today with potatoes and butternut squash, with some suggestions for variations following. Also included are a few "helpful hints" to make your first tries more successful. This amount should serve two to four, depending on whether for breakfast or dinner, whether as the main dish or as a side...and you can easily double--or even triple--the recipe.


*I still love my decades-old processor, but the bowl handle is almost completely broken off. Once that goes, all the safety features will keep me from using it again, and there is no place where I can find a replacement. So even as I baby it along, I have been shopping for a replacement. Thanks to a five hour pre-holiday special, I found a great deal on a replacement and thus, for at least for awhile, have the pleasure of having two processors to work with. I am blessed!


Potato (Plus...) Pancakes

1 medium potato, scrubbed but not  peeled (after shredding, about 1 1/2 cups)
about the same amount of butternut squash--peeled
1 medium onion (3/4 to 1 c onion)
3 eggs
1 c fine bread crumbs
1/2 t seasoning salt
1/2 t garlic powder
1/4 t cayenne pepper (optional)
1/3 c nonfat dry milk powder
canola oil 

1.  If using a processor, cut the vegetables into chunks and feed through the shredder disk. If using a hand grater, use the part that will produce a relatively coarse shred. (It may be easier to just chop the onions if you are not using a processor._
2.  Turn the vegetables into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well. If the mixture is very dry, add one more egg. Allow to sit for a few minutes for the bread crumbs to absorb some of the vegetable juices.
3.  Put enough oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron!) to make a thin film. Heat over medium-high to high heat until the oil just begins to shimmer.
4.  Put tablespoons of the batter into the hot oil, smoothing to about a half inch with the back of a spoon. Cook until the bottom is well-browned. Turn, press lightly with the turner, and continue cooking until the second side is golden. Allow to drain briefly on a paper towel lined plate before serving.  Since you will need to cook these in batches, you can cover the first ones with another paper towel and keep warm in a very low heat oven, or rewarm for a few seconds in the microwave.
5.  Continue making the rest of the pancakes, adding a bit of oil as necessary for later batches.

While the traditional latke toppings are applesauce and/or sour cream, our family often tops these with ketchup. Don't scoff--haven't you ever eaten ketchup on French fries?!?

Variations:

Substitute 2 T flour and 1/3 c yellow corn meal for the bread crumbs

Vegetable changes:
  • Use more or less onion, based on your own preferences
  • Use a clove or two of fresh garlic, minced, instead of the garlic powder
  • Add up to two cups of well-drained, chopped spinach or kale
  • Substitute sweet potatoes or carrots for the squash
  • Substitute grated zucchini or yellow summer squash for the butternut squash
  • Include up to a cup of finely grated cabbage or broccoli stems with the other vegetables
  • Add a few tablespoons of chopped parsley or cilantro
  • Add chopped bell pepper (or even jalapeno, if you'd like to warm this recipe up)
  • Add your own favorite herbs--basil, oregano, and Italian seasoning are all good
Leftover uses:
These variations will result in a less crisp product, but these can be very flavorful too. Substitute 1 1/2 to 2 c mashed potatoes for the grated potatoes OR substitute roasted squash, sweet potatoes or carrots for the squash in this recipe. (I would not recommend having both the potatoes and yellow vegetables pre-cooked.) You may need one more egg and possibly a few more bread crumbs if the mixture is too soft.  If the leftovers were already seasoned, don't add any seasoning salt.

Helpful Hints:

Don't turn the pancakes too quickly. If you do, they are much more likely to fall apart and/or stick to the pan. Use your turner to lift a corner of one to check on done-ness if you are not sure.

Don't make the pancakes too large. They will be hard to turn and may also be hard to get cooked through before the outside edges have gotten too brown. In the same way, be sure you flatten the pancakes so that the centers are not too thick.

As you continue to cook more batches, you may need to add a bit more oil to the pan. Add only a small amount each time and allow a short time for the oil to heat back to full level. If the oil is not hot enough, the pancakes will absorb a lot more of it, leaving them far more oily than desirable.

If in doubt, add too little salt. You can always add more at the table but once in the mix, it can't be taken out! (Actually, this should be pretty standard practice in the kitchen!)

Don't peel the potatoes--not necessary at all! In addition, this method does not involve draining and/or squeezing the potatoes to get out any moisture. Just don't soak the potatoes at all before grating them.  If you do find that, after a few minutes of standing, the batter begins to have a bit of liquid separating at the bottom of the bowl, add another tablespoon or so of bread crumbs (or corn meal) and then stir well. As you are putting the spoons of batter into the pan, continue to stir the liquid in. You should still end up with crisp pancakes, and a whole lot less work.




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