Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fifteen Ways to Eat Potatoes

They're staring at me. It's been like this for weeks. I've tried to ignore them, but it's become impossible.

The eyes of a potato come out to get you. They send out tendrils, prehensile shoots. If you wait too long, who knows what they might do.

It's not just thrift, in other words, that has directed my attention toward the unused potatoes beneath the counter. It's self-protection.

The two-for-one bagged potato sale at the supermarket those weeks ago seemed innocent enough at the time. Surely it would be possible to consume two five-pound bags just as promptly as one. But the real course of events have responded with a resounding and definitive no.

The weeks have passed, and the potatoes have grown restless. This is entirely my fault: I've long considered them as little more than the raw materials for an occasional side-dish. The frites to accompany a bistro steak. The accoutrement of a pot roast, or a pot-au-feu, or a New England boiled dinner. I've dismissed the potato as a mere filler, a sideshow performance. But my prejudice has come to light now that there's nothing at center stage: we don't eat pots-au-feu every day. In fact, we haven't eaten this way for weeks.

So I've resolved to broaden my approach to potato cookery. Over the past few days, we've reprised some of our favorite potato dishes, and we've now worked through the first five-pound bag. But another remains. The problem is that most cookbooks share my former prejudice in relegating potatoes to the margins of dinner: fried, mashed, roasted, sautéed, or boiled, they remain at once naked and supplemental.

As a first step, here are fifteen simple dishes-- indeed, they're far from fancy-- that feature potatoes centrally rather than peripherally.

1. Latkes
One of the simplest and most satisfying recipes comes from H.'s mother. Grate up a couple of potatoes along with an onion. Beat in an egg, and add enough flour to absorb any excess liquid. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Fry spoonfuls of the batter in hot vegetable oil until crisp on the outside and fully cooked on the inside. Serve with applesauce.

2. Home fries with eggs
Though H. and I both prefer corned beef hash, this is goodly fare, if profoundly lazy. I've yet to develop a satisfactory home fry recipe, although mashing, rather than simply chopping, the boiled potatoes is a useful start.

3. Potato-tomato galette
This one comes from Louise Pickford's Book of Vegetarian Cooking. Though preferable in late summer when tomatoes are in season, this is still pleasant with many of the better cultivated tomatoes-- whether grape tomatoes or the fancier "Campari" variety. This recipe involves slicing the potatoes with a mandoline, which is always amusing. In a greased (and ideally non-stick) cake pan, arrange a layer of potato slices in concentric rings to cover the bottom of the pan. Brush with melted butter, add a second layer of potato slices, and brush again. Cover with foil and bake in a 450° oven for 30 minutes, until golden.
Arrange a layer of thinly sliced tomatoes over the potatoes, season with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and heat under the broiler until the tomatoes are bubbling. Garnish with basil or, alternatively, add fresh rosemary during any part of the cooking process.

4. Curried potatoes with chick peas
I cheat on this one. I've been using a store-bought jar of hot curry paste, which I supplement with various other spices: cumin seeds, black onion seeds, coriander. This is the dish we had tonight. Melt some ghee in a large saucepan, and sautée some chopped onion along with the spices (cumin seeds, onion seeds, coriander). When the onion is translucent and the spices are fragrant, add several diced potatoes and sautée for about five minutes. Then add the spice paste, along with a large can of diced tomatoes and about a cup of water. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Rinse and drain a can of chick peas, and add them to the pot. Cover and cook until the potatoes are tender and flavorful, about 10-15 minutes longer. Serve with basamati rice.

5. Baked potatoes with lime-chipotle butter
Nothing much to explain here-- though tasty, it's a bit limited. It's a little less depressing, however, if you serve it with refried beans on the side, along with a fresh salsa. But this is really more of a side dish; it would go nicely with a summer barbecue.

6. Pommes Dauphine
Fried mashed potato balls. Yes, this is really another side dish. But they're so delicious that you could really just serve them with a little bit of salad, and be perfectly content.

7. Potato soup
There are two versions of a basic potato soup: one is to make clam chowder without the clams-- a creamier soup with a fish, clam, chicken, or vegetable stock. The second is more of a purée, with the same principle as virtually any other basic vegetable soup: sautée some onions (along with celery, if preferred), add some diced potatoes and six cups of stock, and simmer until you get bored.

8. Gratin Dauphinois (in theory)
This one's really just here for the sake of fantasy, since H. doesn't eat cheese. But ah. I could eat a whole tray.

9. Warm potato salad with bacon
This is the recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook. I won't bother to repeat it. It's magnificent.

10. Salade paysanne
Café salads are always a lot of fun, since it's like having a picnic on a bed of lettuce. Fried diced potatoes pair nicely with lardons or bacon, beets, and poached eggs on a bed of frisée, or even on crisp romaine. Add some sautéed gizzards and you've got yourself a mighty feast.

11. Gnocci
By far the simplest ingredient list: a boiled potato and some flour in equal parts. A dumpling made to absorb your favorite sauce. Is there any leftover tomato sauce in the freezer? Any of that summer pesto stashed away somewhere? Now's the time.

(Addendum, March 1). A.N. wrote me an email with the following comment, with which I agree : Delightful post, but your glossing over gnocci is misleading. While the ingredients list couldn't be simpler, I believe it's extraordinarily difficult to make. I've had gnocci in dozens of restaurants and homes and am far more often disappointed than dazzled. I've never been able to discover the secret, though I was once told after a transcendant experience that the key is to used potato flakes (as opposed to whole potatoes) to ensure consistency. That being said, when the appear as fluffy pillows of starchy love, no pasta can share their bed.

A.N. is right-- I haven't made gnocci in years, and wasn't impressed with my efforts then, either. So this will be a fun challenge in the days or weeks to come: making good gnocci. Thanks, A.N.!

12. Pierogies and 13. Samosas
I'm still in the R&D phase here, so more anon.

14. Potato and Onion Tart
Quick notes: in a pre-baked (weighted, 400°) pastry crust, make a bed of sliced onions that have been sautéed in butter with caraway seeds and chopped rosemary. Cover with a layer of sliced boiled potatoes. Then add a basic savory custard (two eggs, cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg) and bake in a 450° oven until the custard sets, about 15 minutes.

15. Frittata
An old standby. I like making frittate because they're even better at room temperature (with a salad, or as an hors-d'oeuvre) than they are hot.
The key for a potato frittata is to cube the potatoes quite small so that they fry quickly. Peas pair well with potatoes, as do fried onion slices and thawed artichoke hearts.

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I love to prepare some recipe with potatoes although i know that a person can gain weight if eat potatoes frequently, but i can´t deny that i really like the flavor, most of all when is combine it with some ingredients. Simply delicous. And when i cook, my husband usually is very happy.
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