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A tip o’ the hat to the versatile potato


Use russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, not round potatoes or fingerlings.

Lumpy mashed potatoes result from undercooking.

Soupy, sticky mashed potatoes result from overworking, as the starches start to revolt.

For a light and fluffy mash, try baking your potatoes first instead of boiling them.

Mashed potatoes freeze well.

With leftovers, make Hickey Hockey Pucks (see story).

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

I found it strange and wonderful the first time a waitress in Ireland offered me boiled potatoes.It was strange because moments earlier she had piled a stack of chips (we call them fries) onto my plate, and it was wonderful because only moments before she delivered the fries, she had plopped down a fluffy heap of mashed potatoes.

One meat, one vegetable medley and three potatoes. Thank you, lass. Thank you indeed. Had she offered me hash browns next, I would have moved things around on my plate to make room.

The Irish love their potatoes. So do the French. The Italians don’t mind them, either. In India, the potato is ubiquitous, and Peru is potato central. The ancient Incas grew them thousands of years ago, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. The Russians and Poles make booze out of potatoes.

They are probably one of the world’s most versatile vegetables, and certainly one of the most beloved. But no culture is associated more closely with the potato than the Irish, and what better time of year than St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate this humble, reliable, adored staple?

“Nothing says a party like a potato,” says Kevin Hickey, the executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago and former chef at Four Seasons Dublin. “I can’t imagine a kitchen without potatoes. It factors into so many dishes and so many applications. What’s a kitchen without potatoes?”

As Americans, our carb alarm sounds at the mention of the word potato. But Food Lover’s asserts that potatoes are “low in sodium, high in potassium and an important source of complex carbohydrates and vitamins C and B-6, as well as a storehouse of minerals.”

Here is another great stat from Food Lover’s: a 6-ounce potato contains only about 120 calories.

While there are hundreds of varieties grown all over the world, Americans are probably most familiar with a handful: the high-starch russet, also called a “baking” or “Idaho” potato; the famous Yukon Gold; round potatoes, either with white or red skin, and the demure and slender fingerling.

Generally, thinner skinned potatoes (rounds and fingerlings) have a lower sugar content, and therefore are better for boiling and roasting.

For baking, mashing and frying, the thicker skinned russet is king due to its low moisture and high starch content. Russets produce a light and airy mash, while many people swear by the Yukon Gold for a creamier version.

For potato salad, use round potatoes, which hold their shape best after being boiled and cut into chunks.

Chef Dirk Flanigan of the Gage and Henri restaurants goes through about 300 pounds of Yukon Golds and 200 pounds of russets in a week, in addition to less common varieties.

“We have potatoes coming out of our ears,” Flanigan says. “I use them in soups, and there are times when I don’t even mention it. I use it as a thickener. It’s a great additive to sausage. I do a liver sausage that I put diced potatoes in. We serve our smoked steak tartare with potato chips. We do a gnocchi for the rib-eye at Henri. And we do a potato and celery root croquette for our stone crab salad when it’s in season.”

Potatoes obviously are a great side dish, but they also can be the main ingredient in dishes such as the ones offered by Hickey and Flanigan here.

Still, there is something comforting about a good old-fashioned meal of meat and potatoes, no matter how sophisticated your palate. A baked potato with salt, pepper and butter? Boiled red potatoes with butter and parsley? Even when they are a side dish, potatoes draw attention.

A few years ago a friend of mine walked me through his simple French fry recipe, and as I turned out bowl after bowl of those crispy delicious fries, I felt like a seasoned chef. Hand-cut French fries seemed like something you could get at a hot dog stand, but not many other places. Certainly not at home. Too messy. Too much equipment needed.

My good friend, Dr. Stephen Leinenweber, steered me clear of that mindset. So here is his recipe, and you can trust him — he’s a doctor:

Heat a large pot of oil. Vegetable oil will do, but peanut oil is better because of its high smoke point.

Skin and slice Yukon Gold potatoes into ½-inch sticks and place them in a bowl of cool water. When the oil is bubbling slightly at the bottom of the pot, it is ready for the potatoes. Drain and pat them dry, then gently lower them into the oil with a large spoon or spatula and cook until they are slightly golden.

Remove them with your spoon or spatula, pat them dry with paper towels and return them to the oil until they are golden brown. Remove, dry and toss with salt in a large bowl. If you plan on making fries often, invest in a spider — a spoon-like wire basket at the end of a long handle used in Asian cooking.

French fries are not the only easy fried potato treat. When the world gives Hickey leftover mashed potatoes, he makes potato hockey pucks. At home, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when there are always leftover mashed potatoes, he mixes them with whatever meat or vegetables he can scavenge from his refrigerator.

“Cooked bacon, ham, onions, scallions, a little cheese,” he says. “We’ll make little hockey pucks and fry them in butter. We make the pucks and first put them in fridge to get them cold, and then we put them in a hot pan with clarified butter, which won’t burn, or vegetable oil. And then we put just a knob of butter in at the end. That way, they have a nice crispy coating on the outside but they stay creamy inside.”

When you’re shopping for potatoes, make sure they are firm. Avoid potatoes that are wrinkly and soft, or have dark or green spots. Avoid potatoes with sprouts, and pitch yours when they start to grow them.

In the case of thin-skinned potatoes, make sure their skin is glossy. Store potatoes up to a couple weeks in a dry, dark place, but make sure it is not too cool. Never store uncooked potatoes in the refrigerator. Cold air saps them of their flavor and firmness.

And don’t buy too many at one time. Keep your potatoes fresh, whether you’re turning them into a main course or a classic side to accompany meat — from chicken to beef.

“Potatoes go well with high oil-content fish too, such as salmon,” Flanigan says. “There’s one dish at Henri, our St. Pierre [a k a John Dory], that has two different types of potato. One is done in a galette, and underneath is a little potato puree.”

Begorrah! I would order that dish in a second. I might even order a side of fries to round it out.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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