Having gone to cooking school in Ireland, I’ve heard all the jokes about potatoes and the Irish and what that meant for my education. No, 5 beers and a potato did not constitute a 6 course meal. No, you should never borrow a potato from a leprechaun—they are always a little short.
Yes, the Irish differentiation of potatoes is akin to the Inuit use of 50 different words for snow. But that seems very reasonable considering that the make up of the potato makes it more and less suited to various applications. Here is how I learned it.
Waxy Potatoes: Varieties like Yukon Gold, German Butterball, and Austrian Crescent
Such potatoes have a lower starch content and their cells hold together when cooked. This makes them ideal for gratins and potato salads.
Floury Potatoes: Varieties like Russets, Kennebec and King Edward
These have a higher starch content and are good for a fluffy potato. Excellent for mashed spuds, baked potatoes and they blend well into soups to thicken and silk-ify the texture. Just don’t boil chunks of them and hope that they will stay together.
New Potatoes: any variety harvested very young
Traditionally, for the best yield, farmers will harvest their potatoes after the potato plant has died back, ensuring that the potatoes are as large as they are going to get because they have gotten all of the energy from the plant. New potatoes are dug after the potato plant has begun to flower. The potatoes are smaller and their skins thinner. I find the flavor to be sweet and creamy and nothing beats the sight of a magenta redskin coming out of the ground for the first time. This usually occurs just after Fourth of July but obviously varies on season and growing region.
Salad Potatoes: Varieties like Red Norlan, Pink Fir, French Thumb and Magic Molly (I kid you not)
These are varieties of waxy potatoes that grow to be small and are there fore the perfect size for boiling quickly and tossing into a salad. I think that this is what people are generally referring to when they want a “new potato.” And they are delicious when dug young, they also are tasty at full maturity and store well.
Luckily for us, because potatoes are the definition of a storage crop, a good deal of locally grown potatoes are still available in the area.
Watch out for too many eyes (sprouts on the potato) a sign that the potato has changed temperatures and is trying to grow. Greening on the skin caused by overexposure to light and the production of alkaloids, which if eaten in volume can be toxic.
Watch out too for too much fat heaved upon the poor spuds. Potatoes themselves have gotten a bad wrap for being unhealthy. In actuality, they contain as many calories as an apple of equivalent size (as well as load of vitamins and potassium) especially if eaten with the skin (where the bulk of the nutrients lie). It is usually in their cooking technique (frying) or their dressing (gobs of sour cream) that makes our waistlines a bit droopy. So either don’t take on the fat (like the baked potato recipe provided) or eat a potato dish that has delicious fat in it with several light things to offset.
But no matter what, potatoes have fed generations, when they didn’t it was a tragedy of historic proportions. So while it may be trite to talk about spuds so close to St. Patty’s Day, it is this time of year that I feel so thankful to have a cellar full of tubers to boil, mash or stick in a stew.
A friend once bemoaned the baked potato as the worst version of potato. I couldn’t disagree more—when the toppings are not just your usual sour cream and butter. This recipe is written strictly from what Erik and I had for dinner on Sunday night. But the real idea is to play around with what you have in your fridge to create a hearty, balanced and not necessarily unhealthy dinner. The potato is the vehicle and can provide a hot, fluffy, creamy contrast to a cool, crunchy acidic salad. This version was good, but I wished in the end that I had added some massaged kale or cilantro. Live and learn.
2 russet potatoes
½ head cauliflower
2 limes, juiced
½ C olive oil
1 T srirachia or hot sauce
- Heat oven to 400F
- Scrub potatoes and prick all over with a fork or knife
- Place potatoes directly on the rack of the oven (this ensures a crispy, nutritious skin)
- Bake until you can smell the potato and test for doneness by inserting a knife and feeling no resistance
- While the potato is baking assemble the salad
- Slice the cauliflower thinly
- Dice the avocado
- Add the tuna, limejuice, olive oil, hot sauce and salt and toss to combine
- Taste and adjust seasoning, remember that the potato will be under seasoned so make the salad more aggressive in salt, acid and spiciness.
- Cut the potato in half and score the inside to make easier to eat
- Top the potato with the salad and serve
Waxy Potato Gratin
With mashed potatoes you want to work against the potato’s starch to keep the mash from getting gluey. With a gratin you’re utilizing the starch to make the whole dish gel. This is one of those classic dishes that are more than the sum of its parts. While it uses a good deal of fat (falling into classic potato reputation) I usually combine it with a very acidic green salad, a raw carrot or cabbage slaw and a low fat protein to make a meal that is balanced, filling but not a gut bomb.
3 lbs waxy potatoes, Yukon Gold or German Butterball
1 C heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Raclette or cheddar for melting on top (optional)
- Heat the oven to 350F
- Slice the potatoes ¼” thick
- Layer the potatoes along the bottom of an ovenproof baking dish
- Season liberally with salt and pepper
- Continue layer after layer until all potatoes are used up, seasoning each layer liberally
- Pour the cream over the potatoes
- Top with the grated cheese if using
- Cover the whole lot with tinfoil and bake until potatoes are tender when pierced (about 40 min)
- Uncover and bake additional 10 minutes to brown the top
Perfect Mashed Potatoes
This is a restaurant way to do mashed potatoes that may seem overly finicky for a home cook. Blanching the potatoes after cooking for the specified 30 minutes, shocks the starch out of the tuber. The work achieves a silky, smooth mash that never becomes gluey no matter how hard it is worked. The high amount of butter and dairy in the recipe also keeps the potatoes from becoming gluey because it insulates the starch and keeps it from developing as it is stirred.
2 lbs waxy potato
2 C half and half
Lots of salt and pepper
- Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to 180F (use a meat probe to test)
- Peel and slice the potatoes ¼” thick
- Add the potatoes to the water and cook for 30 min trying to maintain the water temperature at around 160 the whole time (bringing the water to 180 to start allows for the temperature drop that will occur when adding cool potatoes to the hot water)
- After the 30 minutes, use a slotted spoon or sieve to transfer the potatoes to an ice bath to shock them
- Bring the boiling water to a low boil and add the potatoes back in
- Cook until the potatoes are tender
- Heat the half n half and butter until just simmering
- Drain the potatoes and pass through a food mill to mash
- Add the cream and butter mixture along with a hefty pinch of salt and black pepper
- Taste and add more salt as needed