save our spuds!

14 July 2014

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Today we are lucky enough to have a guest post from one of my very dear friends. He really knows his onions (and potatoes, and pastry), and I hope it will be the first of many. With the recently reported spud sales slump, this seemed a very timely contribution.

Over to him…

I suppose I’d better introduce myself at least a little, since I’m the guest star for the day. And since I get to pick my own nom-de-blog, and bearing in mind my chosen subject, you’d better think of me as Kartoffel.

I’ve known Pomme for more years than I’d care to admit, having first met at a slightly alcohol-lubricated event at university. We rapidly discovered a mutual interest in all things. Both of us had different bents in what we chose to cook and how we approached it. I was (still am!), a meat-and-potatoes kinda guy, heavy on the flavours and wedded to my cocotte but less interested in the way things look, whereas Pomme (at the time following a vegetarian diet) was more keen on baking amazing cakes and dishes of elaborate presentation. A good contrast. Somehow I managed to convince her I was a patisserie genius by dint of a strawberry-custard tart, and I was always happy to nip over for impromptu gazpacho or cupcakes and every opportunity. We both explored our culinary surroundings and benefited from a different point of view. Many years later when Pomme started writing some of her dishes down, I was really happy as it was an opportunity to steal ideas. This is an attempt to pay some of this back, and also because I said I would – hopefully the first of more to come.

And so, we shall start off small. An essay on dealing with that most dull of tasks: boiling a potato.

Simple enough, right? It sure is. Except bitter experience teaches all of us that in fact potatoes never do what you want them to do and fall to bits at the least provocation. No trouble with new potatoes (or chats, as they are called, but please don’t try boiling your pet) where the skin holds everything in a tightly-wrapped delicious package that remains firm. But new potatoes are not always to be gotten, or they are not quite the thing for what you want to cook. It is, however, possible to achieve the same results with old standby potatoes which are available by the cartload.

A lot of guff always gets talked about selecting the correct potato for your job. We are to choose floury potatoes for our mash and roasties, and waxy for our salads. All well and good, and indeed this is very good advice. Except half the time you can never be sure what your particular potato is! I can distinguish my King Edwards (floury) from my Kiplers (waxy) – but what about the rest? Pink Fir, Desiree, Charlotte, Vivaldi…what are they? You just have to work with what you are given. And there is absolutely no need to fret, so long as you are careful.

One method is foolproof for the boiling of potatoes: boil them in their skins. This is of course exactly what is generally done for new potatoes, but most of us would not do this for the fist-sized tubers we usually buy. Peeling after cooking is a pain (and you really don’t want to eat old-boiled potato-skins, a completely different beast to the skin of a baked potato – save this treat for the compost), and you will never forgive yourself for the cleaning job you have to do on your saucepans when boiling unpeeled spuds.

The second possibility is slightly more subtle, and is a trick I learned from the Germans who certainly know their way around a potato. I work with evenly-sized chunks of potato, perhaps the size of an egg. Please don’t use a melon-baller on your potatoes, life is far too short for such phaffing. Rinse off surface starch from the peeling and place in cold water and salt well. Salt is as important in boiling potatoes as it is in the baking of bread, without it everything tastes washed-out. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for about three to four minutes and test carefully with a knife-point. The potatoes will most definitely not be cooked at this point and you should feel a significant resistance in the core of spuds, but should be able to insert a couple of millimetres of knife with no trouble. At this point, cover your pan tightly, remove from the heat and let the potatoes sit in this hot-but-not-boiling bath for another ten minutes, and test again. The potatoes should now be perfectly cooked and perfectly whole, with none of the distressing plumes of dissolving spud dangling from every piece indicating pappy mush is the result. If not quite done, leave for a bit longer.

It is the gentler application of heat which gives greater control in the cooking. By not keeping the spuds at a hard boil whilst they cook, the heat is transferred evenly and more slowly throughout the pieces, allowing the inside to cook and become deliciously soft without the outside turning to mush – and you have a greater window of time in which to observe this. Net result: potato heaven. The Germans call this process gar ziehen lassen, and is a trick that can work well for many other kinds of foods; I have had success with several other vegetables including cauliflowers, carrots and peas, and I have even heard tell of people accomplishing the same with pasta, but that’s a prospect at which I inwardly shriek for no real good reason. I should try it out one of these days.

And what can you do with your perfectly-boiled potatoes? Anything you like, really! I find them delicious just as they are, and how different to the usual boiled potatoes you see which are bullet-hard in the centre and yet collapsing on your plate. I find them indispensable for goulash, and a very good addition to all kinds braised meats where some saucy goodness is available. They can be dressed for salad, turned into roasties, or sliced up to be sautéed with some bacon and onions, chucked in with spinach and cumin for a fake saag aloo…it is at this point that the mind runs riot!

Enjoy your starches. And hopefully I will be back with more in the future.

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