Chef Foster: Sometimes taken for granted, the common potato has a prominent spot at the table

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Last week’s column talked about the forgotten vegetables at the market, and in the midst of all the discussion about the weird and wonderful choices I left out one very obvious one: potatoes.

While certainly not forgotten, (we eat as a nation, a LOT of potatoes) the potato represents the base of a wide range of cuisines, not only in this country but around the world. A starch, a filler, a carrier of flavors and textures, the potato has traveled a long way from the mountains of South America and despite some rough times along the way has emerged as the steady rock of the kitchen and a bit of a quick change artist as well.

For our purposes the potato in Kentucky can appear from summer through to spring. Ample rainfall and good soil make the potential for prolific crops varied only by the amount of land that is designated for production. Central Kentucky sits at the edge of the Corn Belt, the culinary separation in this country where potato gives way to corn.

I would hazard a guess that each year more acreage is planted in corn than in potatoes and most regional cookbooks boast corn recipes that far outnumber the potato. The deeper south you go, the more the corn fields and then rice, spread out before you. Potatoes are an afterthought in some areas, and quite possibly a hedge against the failure of a corn crop or two.

That’s ironic, because it was just such a massive failure on the part of the potato. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845, that toppled the tuber from its preeminent place as the food of the masses, and deposited it for a time in the trash heap of history. It took a concerted effort by a small but dedicated group to remove the potato from the cuisines of Eastern Europe, and the specter of starvation and deposit it once again among the foods of choice.

Of course we can trace the french fry back to the French and Belgians, and let them fight over the origin of the fried delight. But the fry really took on global connotations when the McDonald’s corporation spread worldwide in the late 60’s. While not the height of the potatoes culinary excellence, the fry is probably the most sought after and relished potato dish in history, and any variation of it sells as well.

Which brings us back to the task at hand, finding, buying and cooking potatoes from the market. My past experience has been less than memorable, as the quality and consistency of the Kentucky grown potato varied wildly with the grower. With little consumer demand, most growers would turn out a small, hard product that resembled the potato in form but was often inconsistent in shape.

With the commercial potato setting the standard for size, color and flavor, the small batch potatoes were often left in the bins. Aside from the occasional purple or gold color the only draw for market goers was the occasional russet, loaded with flavor and with less starch than the waxy or red potato. The russet was the fry potato of choice, well suited for the double cook technique required to get a crisp outside and tender, meaty inside.

Less desirable for something like home fries, the russet nevertheless is the most cooked potato by far. Then there is the red bliss, new potato, waxy potato, the one with more moisture and starchy insides, which holds form, cooks uniformly and tastes a bit sweeter. Most growers skew towards these because of the variety that can be grown, the colors they can exhibit and the growing popularity of the smaller varieties.

Boiled or steamed new potatoes dot spring menus. Potato salad which lends itself well to the waxy potato can range from curry to warm German potato salad. Carving and roasting the potatoes with a fall chicken can be Sunday dinner with very little work involved.

Which leads us back to the market, and what to look for. Uniform size and shape, clean, unblemished and smooth skins. Good vibrant colors. Being a root type vegetable/starch the potato can be stored in cool dry places for long periods without rotting. They will lose moisture so look for the wrinkled skin as a sign that these might be a season removed from harvest.

You also won’t want freshly dug as they tend to be hard and somewhat bland. A little time in the cellar without dehydration is just right. Understand that the vibrant purple potato you buy will fade when cooked with wet heat, less so if just roasted from raw. Waxy potatoes in general will start to shrink after cooking so try and serve quickly after cooking as they tend to shrivel.

Warm potato salad – I like to use new potatoes for this salad, and I stick with red skin or “b” potatoes. Start the whole potatoes in cold water (as all root vegetables should be started), and bring them to a boil. Once they are boiling salt the water. Some cooks will salt heavily, almost like seawater. It is an effective way to thoroughly season the potato in the early stages of cooking.

Cook the potatoes until they are tender but not falling apart. Drain and cool on a sheet pan not in an ice water bath.

The dressing consists of then following:

For two pounds of potatoes
1 medium shallot diced
1 Tbl. chopped fresh tarragon
1 Tbl. chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
3 slices of thick cut bacon (optional) cooked to crisp to render fat, diced
½ cup apple cider vinegar
Bacon fat plus enough salad oil to equal 1 ½ cups
Salt and pepper
Dijon mustard

Render the fat and remove the bacon. Add in the shallots and sauté until color appears. Remove from the pan and add to the blender or bowl. Whisk in the herbs, the Dijon and the vinegar.

Season with salt and pepper and start whisking in the oil until you get an emulsion. Dress the warm cooked potatoes and refrigerate for several hours. If served warm, make the dressing ahead of cooking the potatoes and leave it at room temperature. When the hot potatoes are drained toss them in a bowl, dress them and then serve.

Roesti potatoes: Theses are of Swiss origin and closely resemble what we would call a hash brown. Normally you would use a russet for these but I do them a bit differently. I’ll boil the new potatoes a bit longer than for the salad and then when drained I crush them to open up the inside meat.

You can then set them in a pan or on a hot griddle with clarified butter and start the browning process, letting them crust on one side before turning to the other. Try to keep the potatoes in a “sheet”, much like a hash brown so the finished product is crispy on the outside and soft and rich on the inside.

As the potatoes cook you can add herbs, garlic, spices even cheeses as long as you keep the potatoes cooking. The end result is a hash browned new potato, skin and all.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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