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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

The amazing potato

So many ways to prepare one of our favorite foods

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
There are a wide variety of ways to cook potatoes. There are a wide variety of ways to cook potatoes.
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Behold the humble spud. All hail the noble pomme de terre.

Whether you say po-TAY-to or I say po-TAH-to — and honestly, have you ever heard anyone call it a po-TAH-to? — we aren’t ready to call off anything about America’s favorite vegetable. Fried, baked, mashed, smashed, hashed, chipped, au gratined or turned into tots, we love our taters.

And why not? Potatoes are the fourth most-grown crop in the world (behind rice, wheat, and corn) and are native to the Americas. According to the United States Potato Board, potatoes were first cultivated by the Incas in Peru around 200 BC. The Spanish Conquistadors learned about them when they invaded in 1536 and brought them back to Europe.

They became so popular in Europe that immigrants returned them back to this hemisphere. In 1719, they were first planted in New Hampshire. Idaho, which is now the largest producer of potatoes, did not begin growing them until 1836.

So now that potatoes are in season and popping up all over, what are you going to do with them? A lot of that depends on which variety you get.

To some extent, a potato is a potato is a potato. You can use the different varieties interchangeably without losing too much of the inherent qualities.

But you will lose a little. So it can help to know the distinctions between the six main potato varieties.

Potato galette Potato galette
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Russet potatoes are what you think of when you think of potatoes. They are the big ones with the brown skin that are almost always used in baked potatoes. With more starch than the other varieties, they become fluffy and light when cooked, which also makes them perfect for fries. They are also superb in mashed potatoes.

White potatoes, which are smaller than the Russets and have a thin, light-colored skin, are the catch-all potatoes —they work well no matter how you cook them. Yellow potatoes are about the same size as whites, with a tan skin and yellow, dense flesh. Their texture is creamier than the others, so they do not need as much butter. Red potatoes, which have a red skin (they’re also called red skin potatoes), have the strongest flavor. They are best used when an assertive taste is called for, such as in potato salads, and the smaller versions — or “new” potatoes — are excellent when roasted together with meats.

The remaining two main varieties are more exotic, if only because they are much newer to the markets. Fingerling potatoes are narrow and only a few inches long, resembling fingers. They come in a variety of colors and are like baby vegetables in that they cook quickly, are soft and tender when they are cooked, and have a greater concentration of flavors than the larger varieties. And blue potatoes have a blue flesh (the skin can be blue or brown) and a bit of a nutty flavor. They are often selected as a way to bring additional color to a dish.

No matter which variety you choose, a potato’s best friends are butter, onions, and members of the onion family such as leeks and chives. Salt, of course, is a necessity. Oil is a help too, but if you are watching calories you can cut a potato into a small dice and sauté it in a covered nonstick skillet with little or no oil, stirring frequently.

And if you are indeed watching calories, don’t worry: An average potato (5.3 ounces) has just 110 calories. It’s what you do to them that makes them so fattening — dousing them with sour cream, adding bacon, or deep-frying them in oil.

The French, naturally, cook them in a large amount of butter. In a galette, potatoes are sliced very thin and layered to form what is almost a cake. Butter is brushed between each layer, and if you don’t use a garlic butter (which adds an extra dimension of flavor) you can pour off the excess butter after it is all cooked and reuse it. I like to make mine in a cast-iron skillet, which makes for a pleasingly rustic presentation. I also use somewhat less butter than the traditional method, so there is none to reuse.

French fries with ketchup. French fries with ketchup.
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Of course, the French also get the credit for french fries, which has to be the most popular way to cook potatoes. French fries are one of those dishes that restaurants usually make exponentially better than home cooks, but that is only because they know a simple trick: They fry the fries twice, once at a lower temperature and once at a higher one. That is how they get that incredible, mouth-watering texture — soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Roasted potatoes are always satisfying, and the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia has a wonderful way of cooking them with garlic, olive oil, and rosemary. It’s the rosemary that makes this dish stand out; its woodsy fragrance permeating the potatoes to make the dish comforting yet sophisticated enough to serve at a dinner party. It’s best to use red potatoes for this dish, for a flavor that stands up to the rosemary and garlic.

For a throw-it-together type of meal that could become a family favorite, try burger hash, an inexpensive variation on a diner favorite. The idea is simple, using ground beef in place of a leftover but fancier cut of meat to make hash. This makes a hearty dish, the sort of meal that you can imagine cowboys eating around a fire (though it’s unlikely cowboys ever ground their meat). Top it with a couple of poached or fried eggs for a substantial, rib-sticking brunch.

And for an elegant side dish that tastes as good as it — and it looks great — you can make accordion potatoes. These are baked potatoes with a twist. They are cut into crosswise slices, but the cuts stop three quarters of the way down. Herbs and bay leaves are placed between every few slices, and when the potato is cooked the slices spread open a bit, resembling a delicious, irresistible accordion.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

 

RECIPES

Potato Galette

3 tablespoons butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 pounds potatoes, such as Yukon Gold

Salt

Pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Coat an 8-inch skillet with nonstick spray, or use a pie pan, casserole dish or anything similar. If you don’t have nonstick spray, grease it well with butter.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the 3 tablespoons butter. Add the minced garlic and cook until the garlic is very fragrant but not burned, about 1 minute.

Peel the potatoes and slice them as thinly and evenly as possible; it is easiest to use a mandolin or food processor for this — otherwise, make sure your knife is very sharp.

Make one layer of potatoes in the bottom of the pan, overlapping slightly as you go around. Brush the layer with garlic butter and repeat, building one layer on top of another. Every couple of layers, sprinkle salt and pepper on top of the brushed garlic butter.

When you have made the final layer, press down on it to compact the layers, and then brush with garlic butter.

Bake in the oven until the potato is soft, about 1 hour. Keep a close eye on the galette — the top should be golden brown, but not burned. Once it becomes appealingly browned, cover it with foil and continue baking until done.

Yield: 6 servings

French Fries

2 large russet potatoes

2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying

Salt

Cook’s note: This recipe requires a frying thermometer (also called a candy thermometer) or an electric fryer.

Wash and scrub the potatoes well, leaving the skins on if you desire, but cutting out any eyes or dark spots. Cut the potatoes lengthwise into uniform slices, 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick (it helps to slice a little off the bottom to keep them from rolling). Stack the slices and cut them into sticks the same thickness as the slices, 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick.

Soak the fries in room-temperature water for at least 10 minutes. While they are soaking, heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, making certain the oil is 2 1/2 inches deep and that the pot is less than halfway full. Line a baking sheet or cooling rack with paper towels.

Drain the potatoes and thoroughly dry them. Once the oil temperature reaches 325 degrees, fry the potatoes in batches, making sure the temperature remains at 325 degrees (it will drop when you put in the potatoes, so raise the heat and regulate it so the temperature stays at 325 degrees). Fry the potatoes in each batch until they are cooked through but not colored, 4-6 minutes; thicker slices will take longer than thinner ones.

Lift the potatoes out of the oil with a slotted spoon or Chinese skimmer and drain them in a single layer on the paper towel-lined rack or pan. Allow them to cool, reserving the oil for a second frying. The potatoes can remain at room temperature for up to two hours, or refrigerated and brought to room temperature again before frying a second time.

Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the potatoes again in batches, making sure the temperature remains at 375 degrees. Fry until they are golden brown, 1-2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or Chinese skimmer and drain in a single layer on paper towels. Sprinkle generously with salt and serve immediately.

Yield: 2-3 servings

Source: Adapted from Bistro Cooking at Home by Gordon Hamersley.

Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes

1 pound red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Pinch of crushed red pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the potatoes, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt, and crushed pepper in a mixing bowl. Toss to combine well.

Spread the potatoes in a single even layer on a baking sheet. Roast, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and lightly golden, 20-35 minutes. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Source: White Dog Cafe Cookbook, by Judy Wicks and Kevin Von Klause

Burger Hash

1 large Russet potato OR 2 smaller potatoes

1 tablespoon oil

Salt and pepper

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 green pepper, chopped

1 pound ground beef

Hot sauce to taste, optional

4-8 poached or fried eggs, optional

Cut the potato into a 1/2-inch dice OR roughly chop it. In a large skillet with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat and add the potato pieces; add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the lid and cook, stirring frequently, until the potato pieces are soft and nearly done, 10-15 minutes. Add onion and green pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft, 3-5 minutes. Add the ground beef, chopping it up into small clumps with spoon or spatula. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until the meat is brown. If you like, add hot sauce while it cooks. For extra oomph, top with poached or fried eggs.

Yield: 4 servings

Accordion Potatoes

2 pounds medium-small potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or red potatoes

Bay leaves and thyme sprigs

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons melted butter

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the potatoes crosswise, as for hard-cooked eggs, into slices no thicker than your finger, but only cut about three-quarters of the way through. Lay the herbs between a few of the folds. Arrange the potatoes on a baking sheet, and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil and melted butter, and bake until golden and crisp on the outside and soft inside, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: French Taste, by Laura Calder



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