A few months ago, I had brunch on the lawn at the Outermost Inn on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. So happy to be at a restaurant after months of quarantine, I ordered the potato rösti, which arrived thick and square, topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche. When I dipped my fork into the potato, I found that it was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. And when I put a morsel in my mouth, I realized that this was the flavorful latke of my dreams.
I talked with chef Nathaniel Wade, who explained the technique he’d used for the Swiss rösti. He had learned it at Misery Loves Co., a restaurant in Winooski, Vermont, that he ran with his sister and brother-in-law before he left for Martha’s Vineyard.
“You want to dry the potato, but you don’t want to cook it through,” he said. “So you have starch, but not too much.”
I did what he suggested, baking the potatoes until some of the moisture had cooked out, but they remained raw in the middle. The technique worked perfectly.
I also followed his suggestion of grating the baked and cooled potatoes by hand. My food processor is always on the counter, but I was testing the recipe at my son’s house, where it’s stored in a closet. For four potatoes, I thought, why bother taking it out? Using a box grater carried me back to memories of my mother and my grandmother, who made potato pancakes in a world before the food processor. And holding the baked potato skins protected my fingers against cuts from the grater.
But I made some changes. Instead of pressing the grated potatoes on a sheet pan into a large rectangle, thicker than hash browns, I formed them into individual round patties like proper latkes, left them on a plate, and refrigerated them for a few hours. Because the potatoes were almost cooked through, I did not have to worry about oxidation: The latkes remained perfectly white. And because they went straight from the fridge to the frying pan, they crisped easily without needing to deep-fry them.
I might even dare say they are the best version of latkes, though that would be presumptuous since taste is so personal and purists might fret that there is no binder like matzo meal, onion or egg in them. (If you are vegan or gluten-free, this is the latke for you.)
The result is just pure potato with a little salt and pepper and, if you want, saffron or rosemary. Serve it for Hanukkah with brisket or top it with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and chives, or treat it as a blank slate and let your imagination take you where it will.
“The cool thing about it is you can put anything on it,” Wade said. “You can put peanut butter or chocolate on it, and it will still taste good.”
Recipe: Pure Potato Latkes
Yield: 8 latkes
Total time: 1 1/4 hours, plus cooling and chilling
- 4 large Idaho or russet potatoes, washed and dried
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Canola oil, for frying
- 8 ounces sliced smoked salmon (optional)
- Crème fraîche or sour cream, for serving (optional)
- Chopped fresh chives, for serving (optional)
1. Adjust the rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Bake the potatoes directly on the rack for 30 minutes, then flip and bake for another 15 minutes until they are hot throughout but still raw in the middle. Remove and let cool for about 30 minutes.
2. Slice the potatoes in half widthwise. Holding the curved peel side with one hand, grate the flat, flesh side of each piece using the large holes of a box grater. The grating process should open them up like a jacket, leaving you with potato skins perfect for frying later, if you’d like. (You could also use a food processor with a grating blade instead; just peel your potatoes beforehand.) Sprinkle the grated potatoes with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
3. Take about 1/2 cup grated potato in your hands and gently squeeze between your palms to form a patty. Press the patty until about 1/2-inch thick and carefully set the latke on a plate. Repeat with the remaining grated potatoes to make about 8 latkes. Cover and refrigerate a few hours or overnight.
4. Just before serving, heat a large, heavy skillet with about 1/4 inch of canola oil over medium-high. When it is hot, a shred of potato dropped into the oil should sizzle. Working in two batches, gently fry four latkes until crisp and deep golden, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towels or a paper bag to drain, and repeat with remaining latkes.
5. Serve hot, topped with a slice of smoked salmon, a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream and a few sprinkles of chives, if you like.
— Adapted from Nathaniel Wade
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