This great picture of a restaurant sign in Rennes, France was taken by my friend Ciprian. It naturally inspired me to contemplate that amour de pomme de terre —love of the potato.
I do indeed love the potato. I am a starch addict anyway, but a potato is just so satisfying, and so versatile. There are so many varieties of potatoes too, with subtly different flavors and textures. The big baking Idaho potato is dry, floury and rather bland. Yukon Gold and Bintje are a lovely yellow color with a moist texture. Red skinned potatoes tend to be firm and even slightly metallic in flavor. There are the novelty varieties too, such as purple potatoes and oddly shaped fingerlings and such. New potatoes of course have an entirely different flavor. Perhaps the best tasting potato I’ve ever had was from Prince Edward Island in Canada. The soil there is so iron-rich that it’s red, and the potatoes are full of that iron flavor too which makes then irresistible.
When I was about 8, my aunt took a bunch of us, her nieces and nephews, to the childhood home of another aunt, a farm in the Chichibu mountains in Saitama Prefecture in Japan. After hours of happily tramping around the hills and woods, we returned to the old farm house starving. My aunt’s mother, faced with several hungry kids, apologetically brought out baskets of freshly steamed potatoes that had just been dug out of the field and freshly laid boiled eggs, saying “I’m sorry, not having kids anymore in the house we don’t keep sweet snacks.” Those hot, steamed potatoes with just a sprinkling of salt were one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
I tried hard to decide which way of preparing potatoes is my favorite, but I really couldn’t pick just one. So, here are three. The first one is my favorite if I absolutely had to pick just one potato dish—mashed potatoes. The second is a Swiss classic, rösti. The third is a way of enjoying fries without deep frying - oven fried potatoes. They are all basics, but this is just the way I like to do them.
I’m sure I will be posting many more potato dishes in the future.
The kind of potato you choose really influences the outcome. If you choose baking potatoes, you’ll get a rather light, fluffy, rather floury mashed potato. My favorite for mashed potatoes is Bintje or Yukon Gold, which makes lovely pale yellow mashed potatoes with a creamy texture.
You can also try using purple potatoes if you want to gross out your friends or family. Pale purple mashed potatoes don’t look too appealing, though they do taste fine.
The basic procedure is: peel and cut up the potato into relatively small pieces, then start to boil the pieces from cold water. This is so that the potato can cook evenly from the inside, rather than plunging the pieces into hot water where the outside will start cooking before the inside. I do lightly salt the water. There is a theory that potatoes should be steamed or boiled whole in their skins, but I find I get smoother results when cutting the potato into pieces.
Once the potato pieces are tender (sample to test), drain completely then return the pieces to a dry pan, and shake over heat until the potatoes are dry and looking rather floury on the outside. Take off the heat and mash with a masher right in the pan. Return the pan to the heat, and make a well in the center of the potatoes. Pour some milk into the well, and as large a knob of butter as you can stand. Wait until the butter is melted, then beat the milk/butter into the potato, with a wooden spoon or a whisk. The amount of milk is about 1/3 the volume of the potato.
Salt and pepper to taste. (I just use black pepper but if you want pristine mashed potatoes use white.) If you dare to, add even more butter to the mash at the table.
Rösti, Swiss crispy potatoes
If there was a national Swiss dish other than something cheesy, it may be rösti. It’s basically a round of crispy potatoes cooked in a frying pan. It’s very addictive.
There are two schools of Rösti Thought, as it were: one holds that you start with preboiled potatoes, and the other that you use raw potatoes. I am of the raw potato school.
For each portion, use one medium to large potato - a boiling potato rather than a baking potato works best but you can really use any kind. Peel and shred the potato fine with a grater; here is where a food processor can really speed up things. As soon as it’s grated, wrap it up in several layers of paper towels and squeeze as much moisture as you can out of them. They will quickly turn a reddish color so work fast.
Heat up a heavy frying pan (a cast-iron one is ideal) with a knob of butter. Spread the grated potato into the pan and press down firmly with the back of a spatula. Salt and pepper at this point. Cook over medium heat until the bottom is crispy, then flip over and cook the other side until crispy. You can show off at the flipping stage if you like but I just flip it safely with the spatula. You can serve rösti with anything - traditional is with Zürigschnätzlets ; I’ve also seen it with grilled sausages, fried eggs, even with a curry sauce. It’s also delicious just on its own.
Oven fried potatoes
I think I had these first at Docks (aka Docks Oyster Bar) in New York (I’ve been most often to the one on East 40th Street; there is also one on the Upper West Side. It’s a place for decent seafood and so a safe choice for business lunches and taking your out-of-town folks to and such.) These aren’t too traditional, but they are definitely better, in most cases, than deep fried potatoes. I am pretty sure you use a tad less fat. This is the way we have potatoes most frequently.
Preheat the oven to 210°C / 400° F.
Wash potatoes very carefully with a scrub brush, and cut them into wedges. Boil them for 5 minutes. Drain completely. Toss them with some melted butter, olive oil, or a mixture of both. Salt and pepper, and spread them out on a baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes until brown and crispy.