Apples of the Earth (+ Tom's 9 Potato-Wrangling Tips)

March 12, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Tom gives us the tools to never make (or eat) anything less than spectacular potatoes, ever. (Don't miss his 9 tips below!)


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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.


Tom's Potato-Wrangling Tips:

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

Serves 4

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

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Looking for even more potato recipes? Here's ten of them.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • dinatserve
  • mainecook61
  • Kathy Allen
    Kathy Allen
  • Earth Apple Jane
    Earth Apple Jane
  • sel et poivre
    sel et poivre
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


dinatserve May 4, 2013
I love this article... the recipes are just a bonus to all the knowledge who have shared.
mainecook61 March 19, 2013
Try some Bintjes and Augustas. Fedco sells them via its website. And I've found that although most of my remaining potatoes are sprouty now, the Elbas are still good.
Kathy A. March 17, 2013
How very beautiful. The photos are gorgeous and accompany a really informative article. Thanks for the ideas.
Earth A. March 13, 2013
Fabulous article, so comprehensive! I have a soft spot for spuds. I make jewellery from them by the name Earth Apple Jewellery! So we have something in common:) Going to check out the recipes now.
sel E. March 12, 2013
I love that you translated pommes de terre to English. It seems so fitting doesn't it? As for the recipe of the lovely stacked potatoes (1st picture), would that be the same as the potato dominoes featured in Genius Recipe recently?
thirschfeld March 12, 2013
step 9 - click on the rosti in blue
ATG117 March 12, 2013
ATG117 March 12, 2013
Is there a recipe for the photo of the potato pancake with smoked salmon?
Marian B. March 12, 2013
Have you ever roasted potatoes in ghee?
Panfusine March 12, 2013
never roasted them in the oven, just in a wok, South Indian style (boiled potatoes, cubed , tempering of mustard & split urad dal , sprinkle turmeric, cayenne, salt & asafetida powder with generous dollops of ghee..allow to get golden brown. I sprinkle a teaspoon of rice flour to give a crisp coat.)
witloof March 12, 2013
Never mind that roast potato thing. We want the instructions for making the potatoes in the photo!!!!!
pigisyummy March 12, 2013
regarding tip #9, are you supposed to bake them all the way through, as if you're going to eat them right away? i guess i'm just confused about the rosti option, since aren't you supposed to grate the raw potato for a rosti?
thirschfeld March 12, 2013
Bake them through, cool then grate. For rosti you can use either cooked or raw potatoes. I usually go with whatever I have on hand. Raw will stick together better because of the starch but the cooked are easier to cook because you need only brown them without fear of the interior being raw.
Panfusine March 12, 2013
*GASP*.. Tom is it even legal to portray Potatoes in such a glamorous avatar.. that first pic simply took my breath away.. Is the recipe for that shared anywhere?
thirschfeld March 12, 2013
I simply smear soft butter into a pan, layer thinly sliced potatoes decoratively into the pan seasoning with a little salt and pepper along the way. Brown over medium heat, then bake them in the oven at 350 til tender. Then I invert the potato cake onto a pizza tray.
Panfusine March 12, 2013
Thanks much Tom!