18 December 2011

The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways

I've never really liked potatoes. It's not that I dislike them. They just aren't my carb of choice.  I've established a mental carb hierarchy.  At the top is good bread (we're not talkin' sliced bread in the plastic bag- I mean rustic Italian breads and French baguettes) and really anything in the good bread family: focaccia, breadsticks, friselles, soft gourmet pretzels, naan.  A close second is pasta--not crappy, mushy, generic Italian restaurant pasta, but perfectly prepared, al dente pasta with the appropriate amount of sauce.  After that the categories form a messy and confusing chart of carbs:  french fries are superior to garbanzo beans are superior to coconut rice and so on.  There's a lot of overlapping categories and fine print so I'll leave out the details.

I do have a confession.  At the very bottom of my carb hierarchy is  . . .here goes . . .mashed potatoes.  I know, I know this doesn't evoke a lot of sympathy.  Most people go crazy for mashed potatoes.  I make them occasionally because I know that people love them, but I really just don't get it.  They're messy and mushy and sloppy and kind of gritty.  I just find them annoying, which I know makes me kind of annoying.  But there it is, out in the open, out in cyberspace:  I do not like mashed potatoes.  I am very open to having my mind changed, but for the time being, that is my mashed potato status.

Despite the fact that they do not rank highly in my carb hierarchy, we did grow potatoes this past summer.  Many potatoes.  Blue ones and yellow ones and french fingerlings, which do boost the overall potato stock, in my opinion, with their subtle flavor and creamy texture.  Now, as if I wasn't already lukewarm about potatoes, they are really dirty.  The ones you get from the store need a quick rinse, but the ones you get from the root cellar need some serious exfoliation.  All these factors combined, I've been avoiding our potato supply.  Unfortunately, they are a little temperamental and are sprouting and threatening to go bad so we have some serious potatoes to eat.

In my attempt to find some inspiration for the task, I gave myself The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways.  It's a potato second-honeymoon of sorts--fall back in love with my tried and true recipes and discover some new favorites.  So, the first three are potato recipes that rank well on my hierarchy.  The last four are new attempts at potato love.

1.   Roasted Potatoes

This is my go-to potato recipe as many go to the dreaded mashed potatoes.  And just as a side note, I know what you're doing.  You're just using the mashed potatoes as a vehicle for the gravy that goes with the meat your mashed potatoes are accompanying, which is just despicable.  I'm new to the world of gravy, but now that I've been formally introduced, your mashed potato abuse is flagrant.  You're putting mush on mush to make your original mush mushier.  And that just cuts to the heart of why I cannot handle mashed potatoes:  I need some chew, some gosh-darned resistance for my teeth!  These mashed potatoes that people rave about belong in an I.V. drip!

Anyways, my roasted potatoes are nothing unique.  Hearty and flavorful and an easy medium for gravy or sauce, but a medium that does require teeth so if you're part of the potato-drinking camp, don't bother.  Dice 'em, toss 'em with olive oil, salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic and roast in the oven at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes.  They are also great with parsley and parmesan.  Really, they are just a satisfying side dish for any roasted meat and gravy or stew.

2.  Patatas Bravas

Or in Spanish, brave (spicy) potatoes.  I have to admit that I don't have a very authentic recipe.  Patatas bravas are a Spanish tapas staple.  Roasted or crispy potato chunks adorned with a sauce consisting of tomato, garlic, paprika, and hot pepper, more or less--there are many variations.  When I lived in Spain, I ate many versions of Patatas Bravas, not by choice.  Never in a million years would I choose potatoes over calamari, eggplant, jamon serrano, queso manchego, almejas, lomo.  I'll stop.  The list could go on for several days.  The point of tapas is sharing, so I'm sure some unadventurous eater that I had the displeasure of pretending to like while I got drunk ordered these.  However, one time we had good, really good, patatas bravas.  After enduring numerous anemic, watery red sauces, we finally went somewhere that served a spicy and creamy brave sauce.  This is the instance off of which I've adapted my recipe.  It's a crispy potato shrouded in a spicy cream sauce.  If you're up for frying the potatoes, be my guest.  I like to brown them in a bit of butter and oil and then pop them in the oven for about 30 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet.  They get crispy like a fried potato, but without standing over the hot stove, which is essential because I often made these when Nick and I lived in the city and came home late after a night of partying.  Only he would ask me to prepare a dish after midnight while inebriated that required dicing, frying, baking, and then the incorporation of a sauce.  Only I would say yes.  That's how we roll.  The sauce is just a mix of sour cream and mayo (I like a 1:1 ratio, but I've used just one or the other) with a good hot sauce mixed in, or you could mix cayenne and paprika into the cream sauce if you don't keep hot sauce regularly on hand.  We like them brave, very brave.  It's not sophisticated, but it's really good.  Go get good and snockered tonight and come home to a plate of these.  I'll look for the thank you email in my inbox tomorrow.

3.  Tortilla Espanola

Techncally, this is probably more of an egg dish. Tortilla Espanola is the Spanish version of the Italian frittata or French omelette.  The most basic tortilla is filled with potatoes, but many versions include onions too.  When I lived in Sevilla, my host mother often made it with tuna.  It's another tapas staple, served hot or room temperature in small squares (at least that's how I remember it, but take into account that was during six months of a Rioja fog).    Really, it's just sliced potatoes fried in a skillet with beaten eggs thrown on top and cooked until set.  In Spain, many poeple have special skillets that allow one to flip the tortilla without making a mess.  I don't have one and after many tortilla disasters,  I found it works really well to cook it in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and then once it's almost completely set, to put it under the broiler to finish the top.  It's one of my favorites in a comfort food kind of way.

4.   Braised Potatoes

In effort to gain some scope for The Potato Project, I went to one of my favorite cookbooks, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens.  I felt I had already exhausted the roasted/fried potato category.  The first recipe in her braised vegetable section of the book is braised potatoes with garlic and bay leaves.  It sounded simple, and frankly, plain.  I wasn't expecting much.  I put my scrubbed french fingerlings in a non-stick shallow stock pot with several crushed cloves of garlic, two broken dried bay leaves, three tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper, and enough homemade chicken stock (I'm sure you could use any kind of stock, or even water) reaching halfway up the potatoes.  I covered the pot and let them simmer for about twenty minutes.  After checking that the potatoes were cooked through, I turned up the heat to evaporate the stock and glaze them in the reduction sauce.  The final dish was so shiny it looked shellacked.  I was very impressed with the punch of flavor just a few simple ingredients infused into the potatoes with this cooking method.  I will certainly come back to this recipe not only because it was quick and easy to prepare, but particularly because the result was so savory.

5.  Tortiera di Patate e Carciofi, or Potatoes Layered with Artichokes and Breadcrumbs

I found this recipe for what is essentially a potato and artichoke casserole in my Italian cooking bible--My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino.  This is absolutely my favorite cookbook.  When I first bought it, I practically slept with it under my pillow for two weeks.  Since we moved to the country, I have used it for numerous meal preparations.  It is the source of one of the best meals I've ever prepared: ciambotta.  Typically any recipe with breadcrumbs, pecorino, and olive oil is good.  In fact, it's how I transitioned Nick into eating vegetables.  Dip them in egg, roll them in breadcrumbs and cheese, pan fry in olive oil.  It's my culinary panacea.

Maybe it was venturing out with Vivienne in the rain to get the artichokes I didn't have on hand.  Maybe it was the soaking and slicing of the potatoes.  Maybe it's the fact that the potatoes wouldn't seem to cook through even though I ended up doubling the cooking time.  It wasn't good.  Many of her recipes are simple Calabrian recipes.  They have few ingredients as Calabria doesn't have an opulent tradition. Would I have eaten it if I was living in impoverished Calabria in the first half of the twentieth century as Rosetta's parents did? Yes.  Did I want to take my casserole dish and throw it in the backyard after taking the time to prepare it? Also yes.  She's certainly more talented than I am in the kitchen so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and say I must have done it wrong.  Regardless, next time I want the delicious crunch of Italian breadcrumbs along with artichokes, I'll go pick up my brother for a good stuffed artichoke appetizer.  It's his favorite.  Actually we'll have two so we don't have to fight over the heart.  He always wins.

Pay no attention to the casserole.  The real winner that night was the Sauvignon Blanc.

6.  Pasta e Patate 'Santo Janni' or Spaghetti with Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce

Why would I take carbs and put more carbs on top? Because the recipe sounded interesting and because I obviously hate being able to button my jeans.  This is another recipe featured in My Calabria and comes from an agriturismo in southern Italy.  The authentic version of this recipe calls for guanciale, cured pork jowl, which is hard to find.  Unfortunately, it wasn't at my favorite small, specialty Italian deli back home.  I would have loved to search for it at Caputo's, but we were on a timeline and I get sucked into a deli vortex when I enter that grocery heaven. Forget going to heaven and having the seventy-two virgins waiting for you.  Mine has a deli counter complete with prosciuttos, olives, and cheeses . . . and a serious gelato cooler.

As a quick side note, you may be wondering why I'll eat pork jowl, but not mashed potatoes (probably not, actually, but I'll explore it for you anyways).  That's covered in a separate section of my more complete food hierarchy of which the carb hierarchy is just a small module.  If my food hierarchy were a transparency overlay on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cured meats would perfectly overlap the self-actualization section at the very top of the pyramid.  In fact, the meaning of life itself may lie in a jamon iberico.

Concisely, this recipe is spaghetti in a pancetta mashed potato sauce with lots of pepper and grated ricotta salata.  It is good--much better than I expected.  Pancetta is quite persuasive.  There were a lot of satisfied grunts from across the table.  The potatoes create a creamy sauce that really adheres to the pasta.  I probably wouldn't use it in place of a basic cream sauce, but if you don't do dairy (you'd drop the grated cheese too) it's a great way to get something creamy and satisfying.  I bet there's even a way to do a nice vegan version of this, not that I'll be exploring that option, but it doesn't seem like a leap from the original recipe.  Overall, a pleasant surprise.

7.  Traditional Gnocchi

I'm not fluent in Italian, but I'm pretty sure gnocchi's literal translation is pain in my ass.  There's scrubbing and boiling and peeling and mashing and mixing.  Then there's the rolling and cutting and shaping of the dough to form perfect little dumplings with ridges to hold the sauce.  Then there's more boiling and straining and plating and dressing with sauce.  I had to take a nap during the prep. Twice.  I even had to stop for a Powerbar just to have the energy to make it through.  And I did it the fast way!  I didn't have any patience left to assemble the food mill, use it per the instructions, and then wash it.  Someone would have gotten seriously hurt.

The ingredient list for the gnocchi is simple: potatoes, flour, egg, salt.  The process is laborious and time consuming.  I probably wouldn't have cared if it were something that excited me.  Once when I returned from New Orleans, I bought pounds of uncleaned, whole shrimp and did the whole deveining, cleaning process myself.  It too was laborious and time consuming.  And gross.  But it was fun because I love etouffee.  I don't think a potato is ever going to hold that same inspiration for me.

I do have to admit that once my little army of gnocchi were formed and ready for boiling, I was a little excited. Something about rows of food gets me giddy.  And for gnocchi, they were good.  These were light and tender, too tender.  If I ever decide again to devote an afternoon to a heartless meal, I will add more flour to create a tougher dumpling.

What did I learn from The Potato Project?  My cuticles look terrible after a week of scrubbing potatoes.  I certainly do not like them enough to deviate far from my old standards.  And, I'll keep to stealing a few gnocchi off of my sister's plate when we go out to eat as a reminder of my indifference.  I'm always up for a tray of patatas bravas after an ungodly amount of sangria, but I'll keep future projects up a little higher on the carb hierarchy.

Patatas Bravas
as prepared by The Redneck Paisana
Dice potatoes into 1/2-1-inch cubes.  Sautee in extra virgin olive oil and butter (about 2 Tbsp of each for a pound of potatoes).  Add more oil if it seems dry.  Once potatoes are coated in fat, spread them on a foil-lined cookie sheet in a single layer, generously salt and pepper them, and bake at 400 degrees until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30-45 minutes.  After about 20 minutes, carefully turn them with a large spoon or pancake turner.  While cooking, prepare the sauce.  Mix equal parts of mayonnaise and sour cream (about 1/3 cup of each for a pound) with hot sauce to taste.  Remove potatoes from the oven and let cool for about ten minutes.  Then toss them in a large bowl with the sauce.  Serve immediately.

Pasta e Patate "Santo Janni"
Spaghetti with a Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce
from My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, minced
3/4 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt
1/2 pound spaghetti, broken in half lengthwise
1/3 cup finely grated ricotta salata, plus more for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and pancetta over medium heat, stirring until the pancetta renders its fat.  Do not let it become brown or crisp.  Add the potatoes and stir for about one minute to coat them with the fat, then add 2 cups water.  Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are soft enough to mash with a fork or potato masher, about 10 minutes.  Mash them to a near-puree and set the skillet aside.
In a 4-quart pot, bring 3 quarts water and 2 tablespoons salt to a rolling boil over high heat.  Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

Just before the pasta is done, return the skillet to medium heat.  With tongs, lift the pasta out of the pot and transfer it, dripping wet, to the skillet.  Reserve a cup of cooking water.  Toss the pasta with tongs, coating the pasta evenly with the creamy sauce.  Add the ricotta salata and a generous amount of black pepper and toss again, thinning the sauce as needed with enough of the pasta water to make a creamy but not soupy dish.  The sauce must cling to the pasta, but it should not seem starchy.  Taste for seasoning; if the pancetta is salty, the dish may not need more salt.  Serve at once, topping each portion with a little additional cheese.

Braised Potatoes with Garlic & Bay Leaves
from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

1 1/2 pounds small red or white potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup water or chicken stock
2 bay leaves, fresh if you can find them
2 to 3 garlic cloves , peeled and bruised
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Evaluate the potatoes: if the potatoes are larger than a golf ball, cut them in half.  If you are leaving them whole, check to see if they have thick skins by scraping your thumb-nail across the skin.  If the skin doesn't tear, remove a strip of skin around the circumference of each potato with a vegetable peeler--this will allow the flavors of the braising liquid to penetrate the potato better.  If the skins are relatively thin, leave  them intact.

2.  The braise:  Place the potatoes in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a snug single layer without crowding.  Add the olive oil and pour in enough water or stock to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes.  Tear the bay leaves in half and add them along with the garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  When the water is simmering, lower the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers gently.  Braise, lifting the lid and turning the potatoes with a spoon once halfway through, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer, about 20 minutes.

3.  The finish:  Remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sizzle, about 5 minutes.  The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan.  Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6
Braising time: about 25 minutes

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you. Potatoes aren't often on my shopping list. Except if you are a sweet potato. My wee daughter on the other hand is 95% her father and only 5% mommy. She won't eat any form of sweet potato but there has never been a french fry she didn't like. A good parent like myself, however, loves their child unconditionally.