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Today: Tom gives us the tools to never make (or eat) anything less than spectacular potatoes, ever. (Don't miss his 9 tips below!)
This time of year potatoes are a shot glass full of sunshine, they are the break-up song I can't stop listening to, they are my noodle, my rice, and my comfort. They are soothing in the way a pacifier is to a child and they get me through the edgy emotions of late winter.
They are one of those rare ingredients that selflessly put other ingredients on a pedestal. They make butter better and cheese cheesier and we all know potatoes are versatile by the vast number of ingredients you can pair with them.
You can bet come Sunday when I want something comforting for dinner, they will make an appearance at the table. Most of the time they aren’t fancy. Something simple will do. But on occasion they get dressed up and this is one of the many things I like about potatoes: they adapt to any occasion. They can even go solo and be the meal themselves.
While I am not particular so much about potato dishes I am particular about my potatoes, really particular. But I didn’t become so until I grew them in my garden. Not until then did I understand what fresh, good potatoes were about. I grow fingerlings, purple, Irish cobblers, Kenebec, and Yukon golds. All are unique, and all have peculiarities the cook needs to understand.
Like which potatoes to use for which dishes: the Russet Burbank, for example, is perfect for mashed potatoes because, when cooked, the grains in the potato swell and separate, making for a light and fluffy mash. On the other hand, when you want to make a nice vinegary French herb potato salad, it is nice to have French fingerlings or Russian Bananas because the waxy make-up of the potato keeps them from falling to mush.
I have a film changing bag in which I store my potatoes. It is a relic from, yeah, the days of film but it is light-proof, which makes it great for storing potatoes. And this is where I get picky. I will use potatoes if they are just beginning to sprout but I won’t use them if I see any signs of green. Storing potatoes in complete darkness keeps them from getting green. I know you can cut off the green but I also know different people have different reactions to the glycoalkaloids. This is the chemical in potatoes that causes stomach issues for some and, while the green isn’t the glycoalkaloids, it is a sign they are abundant. So I simply won’t use green potatoes.
I also like to keep the skin on. I think they add so much flavor and extra nutrients, but obviously this recipe-dependent. Because of this, once my potato stash from the garden runs dry I only buy organic potatoes. They have a higher turnover rate because they sprout and turn green while the conventional are sprayed with a sprout suppression spray. I know the organic potatoes are fresh, good potatoes because they just can’t hang out like the conventional.
1. If the pile of 10-pound potato bags at the store looks messy, it's because I was digging to the bottom to find the bag of potatoes that has absorbed the least amount of sunlight.
2. Smell the potatoes. They should smell like good soil, not mold.
3. Squeeze the potatoes. They should be firm, with no give.
4. When making mashed potatoes, let the potatoes sit in the colander after having been drained and let them steam off any extra moisture. Then add the butter first and mash it in before any of the other ingredients. Let the starch absorb the fat.
5. If you are making potato salad, dress the potatoes while hot. If making a vinaigrette, add the vinegar and herbs first, then the oil.
6. Waxy potatoes like fingerlings or German butterballs make the best roasted potatoes.
7. Duck fat or lard might be the best choice of roasting fat, and will brown the potatoes deeply and create a crispy exterior with a creamy interior.
8. If you want to roast potatoes in butter start off by roasting the potatoes in canola oil, then during the last 15 minutes of roasting time, stir the butter into the hot potatoes and finish roasting them. This will keep the butter from burning.
9. If your potatoes have begun to sprout but aren’t green, bake them till tender. Then let them cool and store them in the fridge to make hash browns or rösti. About five potatoes makes a nice dinner-sized rösti for two. The baked potatoes will last about 5 days in the fridge.
Chez Panisse's Potatoes and Onions Roasted with Vinegar and Thyme
6-8 cippolini or pearl onions, peeled and trimmed, root left intact to hold it together
12-16 fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and rinsed
3-6 garlic cloves, peeled, (the number depends on their size -- if they're large cut them in half)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 bay leaves
10 or so sprigs of thyme
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
Looking for even more potato recipes? Here's ten of them.
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld
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