It has been around for centuries, oftentimes held high as a somewhat mystical crop, a tuber that fed the poor, protected against the scourge of scurvy, became a type of currency, and amazed everyone for its variety. The potato is an incredible marvel of Mother Nature that remains the centerpiece of many cuisines, a centerpiece that gives the chef plenty of poetic license for nurturing its qualities and celebrating its ability to morph into so many unique dishes that are influenced by tradition and context.
To the cook and the chef, the potato is a clean slate. A product so essential, so versatile, packed with nutrition, and cost effective that sometimes it is taken for granted. The potato has become a commodity, an ingredient that is too often purchased with more concern over size and shape than by the uniqueness of its countless varieties and flavor profiles.
“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very
good thing to be.”
– Chef Massimo Bottura
Chef Bottura makes an important comparison but falls into the habit of inferring that the potato is common and simple. It is prevalent and sometimes dismissed in comparison to other ingredients just as far too many excellent and talented people are pushed aside if they fail to stand out as unique. The potato is so much more robust as an ingredient and so much more significant in the kitchen than those ingredients that have a limited appeal or function even though they may be revered. Think about the possibilities:
THE FRENCH FRY: Potatoes are the number one vegetable consumed in the United States and French fries are top of the list when it comes to potato choices. When done well they are crisp and golden on the outside and creamy and satisfying on the inside. Served piping hot with just the right amount of salt – they are hard to beat and not only a classic, but an essential item on nearly every restaurant menu regardless of the pricing structure. Sometimes served with cheese curd and pan gravy as poutine or enhanced with truffle oil and Himalayan salt; or rosemary, lemon and cracked pepper; thin and crunchy as pommes frites, or thick planks with prime steak – there are limitless choices for any palate.
THE MIGHTY BAKED POTATO: Few menu items are easier to prepare, yet more rewarding than a properly baked potato. Russets are best for the perfect baker since their coarser skin can withstand the 400-degree heat necessary to build a crust and protect the soft texture of the interior. Slice through the crunchy skin at service, pinch both ends to reveal the steamy hot interior and insert ample amounts of butter and/or sour cream, a pinch of salt and pepper and you will find a centerpiece for the plate that is impossible to resist. Watch guest approach their plate and note that in most cases it is the baked potato that welcomes the first bite and not the steak. My favorite is the crunchy skin lathered with butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
WHIPPED OR MASHED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER: So, inviting are mashed potatoes (pommes puree) that Chef Joel Robuchon, at one point the most revered chef in the world, created his signature version that was so sinful that it became the most important dish on his menu. A time-tested method of preparation and equal parts of potato and butter led to an item that drew customers from across the globe.
HASH BROWNS TO START THE DAY: If you are a restaurant chef, chances are one of your first jobs in the kitchen was working breakfast. Waking up at 4 a.m. to be fresh enough to walk through those kitchen doors at 5:00 took quite an effort. But quickly your energy level would rise as you smelled fresh brewed coffee, bacon being pulled from the oven, finished pastries from the bakeshop filling the air with their sweetness, and the caramelization of potatoes on the griddle. Hash browns and home fries with their sweet crunchiness as the butter and potato starchiness combined to form that delicious crust would always make you salivate. What better way to start the day than a plate of hash browns, bacon and two eggs over easy?
DON’T FORGET THE CHEESE AND CREAM: A somewhat lost menu item in restaurants that deserves to reemerge is the scalloped or au gratin potato. Potatoes are cooked till they nearly fall apart and then tossed with salted cream, maybe a few egg yolks, and if au gratin ample amounts of cheddar, baked till a crust forms as a package to protect what is inside – what a treat.
POTATOES ANNA – A STEP ABOVE: When simplicity meets elegance – magic occurs. Thinly sliced potatoes, overlapping and assembled in a cast iron pan with copious amounts of butter and salt, baked until they are golden brown and crunchy on the outside while still creamy once the seal is broken. The lowly potato can be elevated to the most revered fine dining establishment with this potato pie.
“Pommes Anna is a famous French preparation of white potatoes, borne in the mid 19th century. The story goes that the dish was named for Anna Deslions, a well-known Parisian courtesan who frequented Café Anglais where Chef Adolophe Duglere invented the dish to honor her and the wealthy clientele that she brought into the popular restaurant.”
-The Domestic Man
VICHYSOISSE – REFINED AND ELEGANT: The soup of kings that intrigues and dismays. Chilled puree potato and leeks with cream, and salt and chives mystify many by its simplicity and elegance. There seems to be no end to the stories of its creation, the most common is that Louis the XV was so paranoid about being poisoned that a series of tasters were employed to test everything that he would eat. This potato soup had to be tasted so many times that by the time it got to the king it was cold. He enjoyed it that way, so it became a staple in his diet. The more likely origin is through the hands of Chef Louis Diat who, as chef at the Ritz Carlton New York, invented the soup in 1917 for the hotel’s roof top garden restaurant. The chef built the dish to help cool diners during the hot summer months. In any case – it is a classic.
OVEN ROASTED – A HOME FOR ROSEMARY: All chefs know that there are foods that seem to naturally pair well. We know that Stilton Cheese is easily married to a good port, foie gras to sauternes, mint with lamb, and rosemary with roasted potatoes. The aroma of rosemary and butter as they caramelize on the surface of potatoes is intoxicating.
YAMS AND SWEETS: Oftentimes associated with holidays, sweet potatoes can be a differentiated item on any menu. Sweet and soft in texture, the sweet potato can find its way into a blend with traditional mashed, a uniquely different pommes frites, or pan caramelized in butter as a complement to chicken or pork dishes. Yams are a completely different root vegetable that are somewhat tasteless on their own. They have a dark brown outer skin and are NOT what most of us buy in the store. Louisiana sweet potatoes have long been marketed as yams to differentiate them from the other choices on the market- but they are not real yams.
ANGLAISE – SIMPLY BOILED: Sometimes the simplest version is still the best. Peeled and boiled white skin potatoes tossed in butter, salt, and parsley is hard to top.
POTATO SALAD – THE SUMMER TREAT: When we think of summer foods it is impossible to talk about barbeque without mentioning the importance of potatoes (with or without skins) boiled, diced, and chilled, tossed in mayonnaise and sour cream, salt and pepper, fresh chives, maybe a few slices of robust radishes, scallions and celery, a touch of paprika and a cold beer or iced tea on the side. This is a dish of July and August, one that is universally American.
FINGERLINGS WITH SOUR CREAM AND CAVIAR: Chefs looking for that interesting finger food passed at hors d’oeuvre receptions – a food that will excite the palate and demonstrate the chef’s ability to create flavor explosions that can become a point of conversation among guests, will find this simple dish a perfect fit. Boiled, chilled and split fingerling potatoes topped with a dollop of sour cream and a generous amount of quality caviar are such a surprise that guest will spend the evening in search of just one more.
THE MIGHTY POTATO CHIP: Invented in Saratoga, New York as the Saratoga Chip by a cook: George Crum, who out of frustration over a customer who kept sending back his fried potatoes as too soggy. As a reaction, Crum finally sliced the potatoes very thin and cooked them until they were hard, salted them generously and sent them out to the guest as a reaction to his complaints. As it turned out – the guest loved them – the rest is history. Today, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips (originally Saratoga Chips) are consumed in the US each year.
Potatoes are an integral part of world culture. They appear, in many forms, in nearly every cuisine and serve as a source of nutrition and enjoyment. To some like the Irish, they were salvation during famine, and others like the Incas and Aztecs – a tuber that had mystical properties. For chefs – they are an all-year essential ingredient, but one to celebrate even more during harvest when they are tilled from the soil, washed, sorted, and prepared for chefs to work their magic. Like any other ingredient from nature that has its season – this is the best time to hail this root vegetable and put yourself in SERVICE OF THE POTATO.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Enjoy the potato harvest
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
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