Smashing Potatoes Super spuds: Versatility makes nutritious vegetable light up any menu, from traditional to trendy.

January 10, 1996|By Kathy Casey | Kathy Casey,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Potatoes are one of the most versatile of foods. They can be used in many ways. In addition to classic vichyssoise, the usual scalloped potatoes, picnic salads, potato chips and fries, there's potato gnocchi, even potato risotto. Many chefs cook up herb-laminated potato chips -- potatoes are sliced very thin lengthwise, leaves of fresh herbs are sandwiched in between, then brushed with butter and baked until crispy with the herbs showing through. In a trendy fashion, potatoes are shredded and crusted around fish, which is then seared, giving it a delicious crunchy coat.

Crispy oven-roasted potatoes are delicious, especially when cooked alongside a roast. Freshly harvested potatoes from a farmer's market are really sweet. They need no embellishments -- just slice and steam. Potato salads don't have to be the usual standby but can made into a Nicoise potato salad with pancetta, fennel, green beans and kalamata olives dressed in a warm balsamic or sherry vinaigrette. Or you can make a very patriotic red, white and blue potato salad. The different color varieties of potatoes are also fun for red, white and blue potato chips.

Crisp potato pancakes topped with new-crop apple chutney and served with grilled sausages or smoky grilled pork chops make a great meal. Or try potato pancakes with a twist -- such as potato-leek-shrimp cakes.

Mashed potatoes are really the rage these days. No matter what chefs pair them with on a menu they sell very well. And the variations can be riotous -- from what they're flavored with to what's stirred or mashed into them. Combinations such as basil pesto, Parmesan cheese and olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs, to fold-ins such as primavera (seasonal vegetables) or cooked mashed carrots, parsnips or celery root. And, of course, mashed potatoes with sauteed cabbage and onions is the traditional Irish dish, colcannon.

The type of potatoes being mashed can vary as well. Traditional russets can be used but also buttery looking yellow Finns and red potatoes with their skins on to add a dab of color; I've even seen mashed purple potatoes.

Potatoes are great almost any way they're cooked: baked, steamed, grilled, pan-fried, roasted and fried. People are very opinionated about their fries. Some like thick, meaty, steak-cut ones; others like skin-on wedges. Some like their fries very crisp; others like me prefer them with a slight wiggle.

Then there's the matter of seasonings. Preferences range from coarse kosher salt to garlic salt or lemon pepper. But the dip used is very regional. In the Northwest, they are tartar sauce crazy. And the sauce needs to be not just the traditional

variety, but one a little on the sweet side with a bit of sweet pickle relish added.

In Idaho, the potato capital, diners dip their fries in fry sauce, a concoction of mayonnaise, ketchup and sometimes mustard. The English style is to sprinkle malt vinegar over the "chips." Then there's something called Wet Fries -- a big platter of fries smothered in gravy, preferably turkey, or ladled with Cheddar cheese sauce.

My friend, Chef Michael Reynolds, loves to travel and gets food inspirations from other countries. He has some great spud stories. While in Morocco, dining with families in their homes, he ate tagine, a delicious stew topped with a clumped-together network of French fries cooked in olive oil. The stew was served on a huge platter and set in the middle of the table where people ate from it, communal-style with their hands. The fries were the vehicle used to pick up the sauce.

In Morocco and Greece, they arrange succulent pieces of lamb, French fries and a lemony sauce on bread to eat as a sandwich. In Spain, they prepare "patatas bravas" -- potatoes are cut in three-dimensional triangles and served in a very spicy red sauce. Beer accompanies the dish. Spain also has killer potato chips -- thickly sliced, fried fresh daily in olive oil and sold by weight in paper bags.

Leftover potatoes can be made into great things, too, such as savory mashed potato cakes. Leftover baked russets, shredded or diced, make great hash browns all by themselves or with bits of onion and peppers added. They are also the perfect binding vehicle for hash, whether made of corned beef, roast chicken or salmon.

In the Midwest, creamy baked potato soup is very popular, adorned with shredded Cheddar, chives and bacon, with a little sour cream swirled in. Potato skins, that old standard bar food, takes care of leftover baked potatoes. The scooped-out skins are fried, then topped with cheese, bacon and sour cream; in Canada, they use sour cream and applesauce.

The belief that potatoes are fattening is false. Potatoes are fat-free, and a medium baked or boiled potato has about 100 calories. But -- it all depends on what you put on the potatoes and how they are cooked. Needless to say, fries are calorie- and fat-laden, but a small serving occasionally makes a nice treat.

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