In the cold, dark days of winter, nothing says comfort food better than the humble potato. People see solace in spuds, which evoke memories of home-cooked meals and simpler times.
"It is the people's food," says Roy Finamore, author of One Potato, Two Potato (Houghton Mifflin Company, $35), which has 300 different recipes. "One of the things I kept hearing when I was working on this book was, 'I love potatoes.' "
Finamore, who devoted two years to the book, tried to make sure every recipe worked with potatoes the consumer could find at the local grocer or organic market. "You can do pretty much everything in the book with russets," he says, bringing to mind the ubiquitous 5- to 8-pound bags found at most supermarkets.
Potatoes weren't always so easy to find. They are native to the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes, but were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Ireland claimed them as the foundation of its meals, so much so that the blight of the mid-1800s wiped out 1 million people and sent about that many to America, where once again, they made potatoes a highly sought-after commodity.
The average American eats more than 140 pounds of potatoes a year, 50 pounds more than tomatoes, its closest rival. Potatoes are loaded with energy-rich carbohydrates. They have no fat, lots of vitamin C, potassium and fiber.
Finamore and his writing partner, Fine Cooking magazine's Molly Stevens, give readers options galore in preparing this multifunctional food. In their nearly 600-page volume, they create exotic recipes such as South Indian potato hash (with dry-roasted mung beans), but they don't forget favorites like shepherd's pie, potato pancakes and croquettes.
Their advice for the perfect potato: Stay away from red potatoes and other similarly waxy-skinned spuds when making mashed potatoes. Keep them in cool and dark places. If exposed to light, they'll turn green. Cut away the green and you can still use the potato.
The sheer variety of forms potatoes can morph into is staggering: baked, mashed, hash browns, french fries, tater tots, chips, even alcohol. A brand of vodka called Spudka emerged briefly in the 1950s before becoming a boutique choice in more recent years. Even when simply done, potatoes can be topped, dipped or engulfed in condiments as varied as sour cream, butter, ketchup, Tabasco, mayo or pineapple chutney.
"I never got tired of eating them," says Finamore, who went through 1,500 pounds and 20 different varieties of potatoes in his research. "A new favorite emerged every day."
Recipe No. 2
Nancy Barr's Potato Cake
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small dice
4 ounces smoked mozzarella, cut into small dice
3 tablespoons olive oil
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup homemade dried bread crumbs
4 ounces pecorino, grated (about 1 cup)
1/4 pound slice prosciutto (ask for it cut into thick slices), cut into small dice
2 large eggs
1/4 cup chopped flatleaf parsley
Combine both mozzarellas in a bowl with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Leave this on the counter while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Put the potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover partway, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are tender.
While the potatoes are cooking, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to grease an 8-inch springform pan; coat with bread crumbs (you won't use all of them; save what's left for the top).
When the potatoes are tender, drain, then return them to the pan over high heat to dry them out, stirring and tossing, for about a minute. Rice the potatoes into a bowl and beat in 5 tablespoons of the butter. Add the pecorino, prosciutto, eggs, parsley and pepper to taste and mix very well.
Put a bit more than half of the potato mixture into the pan and work it up the sides to make a well. Fill the well with the cheeses and top with the remaining potatoes. Pat down gently, sprinkle with the remaining bread crumbs and dot with the last two tablespoons of butter.
Bake until golden-brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for about 15 minutes before removing the sides of the pan and serve warm, sliced into wedges.
Chateau Potatoes (Pommes de Terre Chateau)
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, clarified
2 pounds yellow-fleshed or white potatoes, turned into ovals
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pour the clarified butter into a skillet just large enough to accommodate the potatoes in a single layer. (If your skillet is too small, you'll need to cook the potatoes in batches. If it is too large, you'll need more clarified butter.) Heat the butter over high heat until quite hot but not smoking. Add the potatoes and cook until you see the first hints of a light crust, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook until the potatoes are golden and very tender, 9 to 12 minutes more. Roll the potatoes in the butter as they cook to brown them all over. Pull the potatoes out of the butter with a slotted spoon and blot them dry on paper towels.
Immediately toss them in a bowl with salt and pepper. Serve, or keep warm in a low oven for up to 15 minutes.
-- Both recipes from One Potato, Two Potato by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens. Copyright M-) 2001 by Roy Finamore. Photographs copyright M-) 2001 by Kelly Bugden. Reprinted with the permission of the Houghton Mifflin Company.
Some potato varieties
Russets - Also called russet Burbank, Idaho or baking potatoes. High in starch, they're the perfect choice for fries and baking, gratins and casseroles and are fluffy and light when mashed.
Red Bliss - Also called Red Pontiac, or red potatoes. Good for salads, roasting, braising and simmering, hash browns.
True Blue or All Blue - Also come in deep shades of purple. Visually startling addition to salads, but also ideal for roasting, boiling, mashing. Because the skins are so thick, peel them after boiling.
Heirloom - Specialty spuds with names like French Fingerling (waxy red skin with pale flesh), German Butterball (large and buttery), Ozette (ivory flesh, pale skin). Tend to run the rainbow in color and are best cooked simply, simmered in water and served with butter, salt and pepper. But you might find them tasty steamed, mashed or roasted. Skins tend to be thin, so don't bother peeling.
Yukon Gold - yellow-fleshed, rich flavor. Creamy enough for making mashed potatoes without going overboard on the butter and milk. Being medium-starch, they can hold their shape well enough for sauteing and some salads.
All-purpose potatoes - Also called white or Maine potatoes. True to their name, you can rely on them for turning out everything from gratins to pancakes.