Chef John Foster: It’s a good time to turn to the versatile potato — and here are some favorite recipes

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Cold and rainy, dark and gloomy, fall has hit the area in the form of chilly temperatures and heavy rain. I liken it to a good wash after a long summer. A little scrubbing, some fresh clothes, and we’re all tidied up for the holidays.

Unfortunately, most of us are still in summer mode, cooking away as though the temperatures hadn’t dropped 30 degrees and it wasn’t pitch black at 7 p.m. This change requires some drastic action, and at times like this I turn to the potato.

Yes, you heard me, the potato, that hallowed tuber that changed the world, set people to migrate, and got kids out of school every fall in the potato producing states. The French fry, the loaded potato (and its cousin, loaded potato soup), hash browns and garlic mashed.

But in the years, I’ve been cooking, I’ve found that there are other variations, whether they concern the type of potato or cooking method, that satisfy the need for warmth and fullness in our hour of need. Recipes for potato dishes number in the hundreds. Types of potatoes are said to number in the thousands. From their origin in the Andes to the green fields of Ireland, the potato may be refined, but the true essence stays the same.

Potatoes are comfort, warmth and above all satisfaction. A bowl of potato soup with a piece of bread on a cold and snowy winter’s day was my reward for shoveling snow. French fries at the amusement park or in the stands, with ketchup or malt vinegar is one of the rites of summer.

Chips, let’s look at the supermarket row dedicated solely to potato chips, crisps and sticks.

But what makes potatoes even more appealing is their versatility. The potato will literally take on any flavor you wish to put it with, from sweet to savory, spicy to sour. And unlike rice, another comfort food, potatoes can take on various shapes and textures. The aforementioned mashed potato with the tiny well for gravy or butter. The crisp chip, the French fry which ideally will combine the two textures, and the tater tot, a shredded product that defies most descriptions (hash brown or barrel shaped French fry?) through it all, the best potato presentations will have at their core the earthy flavor of the potato and it’s many ways to keep us happy.

There are the usual ways to utilize potatoes, which have many permutations. I look for other ways not so main stream, and try to stretch some of them into appetizers, salads and sides. Potato fritters, potato ribbons, even potato lasagna with the sliced thin potato acting as the pasta layers in between. Potato flakes, thin shavings of potato that are fried crisp and tossed into a salad, potato pancakes that avoid the egg and extra starch and rely only on natural starch and patience to achieve a wafer-thin disc with golden color and a satisfying bite, followed by some interior softness.

I also look at what other cuisines do, how they use and cook their potatoes, if they have any potato dishes at all. Colcannon in Ireland, Caldo Verde from Portugal, pierogis filled with potato and mushroom, all dishes where potato plays a support role, stretching the filling or protein farther than it would normally go. This “potato as filler” role is somewhat uncommon in our cuisine.

Potatoes are sides; an auxiliary to a large portion of protein. They can be a base for toppings; the baked potato bar that had a brief period of hype not too long ago. Or they are street food unto themselves and not as a filler, which would be lumped under the fries and chips category. Every once in a awhile a chef will try a potato tasting course or in Charlie trotter’s case a whole dinner dedicated to potatoes.

This is my kind of dinner as it puts the tuber in the driver’s seat and we get to see how wide ranging it can be. But for all the pomp and circumstance that can be applied to the potato, it’s very essence for me comes back to comfort. Give me a bowl of mashed potatoes, with some caramelized onions or asiago. A slice of crisp, golden roesti potato with a bit of gruyere melted on top, or chipotle potato soup with its deep creamy richness highlighted by smoky chipotle peppers. These dishes aren’t necessarily from my childhood, but they put me in a frame of mind that makes all the adult stuff fade away for a while.

Roesti potatoes

European in nature these potatoes have cousins all over the world. The most important aspect of this recipe is the patience it takes to complete it.

4 potatoes, peeled and chopped into large dice
Whole butter, up to a pound
Salt and pepper

A good melting cheese with some character, gruyere or raclette

A well-seasoned cast iron skillet that can go on a grill if needed.

This wrinkle in the standard recipe harkens back to the old country method of cooking over wood. Indirect heat for longer periods, sets the crust and gives some smokiness to the roesti.

Once the potatoes are chopped and rinsed several times in cold water, dry them off and place them in a layer into a warm pan with melted butter. Put the pan where the heat will stay constantly medium. Let the potatoes cook slowly, turning them as they brown so that the crust continues to form. A good roesti can take an hour to cook this way, and you really can’t hurry it. Add small cubes of whole butter as needed and when the majority of the potatoes are soft, season them with salt and pepper, form the potatoes into a cake and don’t break them up any more. Let both sides crust, turning as needed until they are golden brown and crisp. Remove from the heat, cover with thinly sliced cheese, and serve immediately.

Mashed potato tips

Use russets or Yukon gold, they stand up the best to the mixing process at the end.

Peel and cut into uniform quarter sized pieces, odd shapes cook inconsistently, large chunks overcook on the outside and stay raw on the inside.

Cook until tender, not mushy. They should separate but not mash or disintegrate
.
Let them drain and dry, toss them in the colander a bit to let all parts drain

Mix while warm with room temp butter and warm cream.

Mix in kitchen aid with a paddle or mash in large bowl with a potato masher and then finish with a heavy whisk.

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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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