No Small Potatoes

The vegetable's immense versatility has made it a famous - and hearty - comfort food.

Focus On Food

February 17, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

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

Serves 6-8

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)

Serves 4

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

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