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Cooking for Comfort: Plenty of ways to enjoy great potatoes
Cooking for Comfort

Cooking for Comfort: Plenty of ways to enjoy great potatoes

From the Recipe roundup: Entrees, side dishes and desserts to try this week series
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One of the great existential questions is: waxy or floury?

Most cooks know that the potato was first cultivated in Peru at least 2,000 years ago. That the Spanish conquistadors brought it to Spain in the 16th century. And that Sir Walter Raleigh did not really introduce the potato to Ireland but the Irish had to introduce the potato to the American colonies in 1719, since it never spread from South America to Northern America on its own.

But, which type of potato do you cook with: waxy or floury? Well, as any philosopher would say, that depends.

Floury potatoes are best known as bakers, Russet Burbank (from Sonoma’s famed agricultural scientist Luther Burbank) or Idaho potatoes: They are large, with dark brown skin and few eyes. The flesh is white, dry, and mealy with a high level of starch. They are best for baking, mashing and French fries.

Waxy potatoes are often labeled as New potatoes, Red Bliss (if they are red, of course), and fingerlings. These potatoes, which are smaller than bakers, have thin, smooth skin and creamy flesh. They’re relatively low in starch and high in moisture, so their cells stay intact when they’re cooked. This means slices or cubes do not fall apart when boiled or baked, so they are great for potato salad, gratin, or smashed crispy potatoes.

You’ve probably baked a potato before, but there are plenty of other ways to enjoy great potato-ness.

Crispy Potatoes with Lemon and Lots of Oregano

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish or 8 to 10 as an hors d’oeuvre

Several years ago, my wife and I did a house exchange with a couple in Cambridge, Mass. They lived in a former synagogue not far from Harvard and the guide map (this was before Google maps was a given on our phones) showed it was within walking distance of lots of things and a short bus ride to historic Boston.

Our first night there we started walking towards Harvard Square and turned down Hampshire Street, past an attractive restaurant already filling with customers that I had never heard of: Oleana, with a menu based in the Mediterranean.

We couldn’t get in that night but made reservations for the next night and enjoyed one of the best meals we had on the whole trip. I later bought the chef Ana Sortun’s cookbook, “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean,” which I also enjoyed. This recipe is not from her book but an article that Chef Ana wrote for Fine Cooking magazine.

Ingredients

1-1/2 lb. baby (about 2-inch) Yukon Gold potatoes or other waxy potato (about 16), well washed

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil; more for cooking

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Greek

In a 6- to 8-quart pot, combine the potatoes and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Add 1 tablespoon salt, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until tender enough to be easily pierced with a metal skewer, 12 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, lemon juice and zest, mustard, honey, and a pinch of salt. Slowly whisk in the 1/2 cup olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Without draining it, transfer the pot to the sink. Slowly cool the potatoes by running cold water into the pot; it will take about 7 minutes. (Cooling them this way creates a dense texture so you can flatten the potatoes without breaking them.) Drain and transfer the potatoes to a cutting board or baking sheet and let them air-dry or pat them dry.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Place an oven-safe platter on the rack.

Using the bottom of a ramekin or bowl, flatten the potatoes to about 1/2 inch thick. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch heavy-duty skillet over medium heat (I use a large, non-stick pan). Cook the potatoes in batches of 6 to 8, flipping once about halfway through and adding more oil as needed, until golden and crispy on both sides, about 10 minutes total.

Transfer them to the warm platter in the oven and repeat. Coat the potatoes well with dressing and pass the rest at the table. Crush the oregano between your fingers and sprinkle it over the potatoes just before you serve this dish hot.

Potatoes Gratin with Pistou

The French seem to have a great affinity with potatoes. One of the tastiest techniques they have is baking potatoes in a wide, shallow baking pan and forming a crust (au gratin) by sprinkling bread crumbs or cheese over the potatoes and running it under a broiler. “Le gratin” is also the French term for the upper crust of society.

This recipe combines a lot of what’s appearing in gardens and local markets right now. Pistou is a French Provençal sauce made from garlic, fresh basil and olive oil. It is much like the Ligurian pesto, although no pine nuts. Make the pistou, and then move on to forming the gratin.

Pistou

1 pound of ripe red tomatoes

2 cups basil leaves

8 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup grated Gruyère

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Drawn an X on the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife and drop them into boiling water for 30 seconds, then scoop them into ice water to stop the cooking. Once cooled, peel the skin off, then quarter and squeeze out the seeds and juice.

Drop the skinless tomatoes into the bowl of a food processor and pulse the blade as you drop in the basil and garlic. Once it’s combined, continue to pulse as you add the cheeses and stream in a ¼ cup of olive oil. Pulse for a minute or until everything is mixed, stopping a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl. If still thick, stream in the rest of the olive oil. Finish with a good pinch of salt.

Gratin

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 pounds Yukon Gold, or other waxy potato; peeled and sliced to 1/8 inch on your mandolin or as thin as you can by hand

Kosher salt

One recipe of the Pistou that you made

2 medium yellow onions, peeled, sliced in half and then thinly sliced

Heat oven to 325 degrees

Oil a 2-quart rectangular or oval baking dish, roughly 14 inches by 9 1/2 inches by 2 inches deep. Layer half of the potatoes on the bottom. Season with salt and spread half of the pistou on the potatoes and layer the onions slices on top. Layer the remaining potatoes, salt them and spread the remaining pistou and top with a dribble of olive oil.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until the potatoes are tender. (To check, gently slide a sharp knife straight down through the potatoes to the bottom of the pan. When they’re done you shouldn’t feel any resistance.)

If the top starts to brown too much before the potatoes are done, cover with aluminum foil.

Goes great with just about any meat roasted in the oven.

Herb-Stuffed Chicken and New Potatoes

Serves 4

Yes, there is a chicken here and not just potatoes, but you need the chicken to gently give up its fat and flavor to the awaiting potatoes to make this dish whole.

Stuffing a chicken under the skin is a great way to infuse flavor to the meat while keeping the breast meat from drying out. However, and I want to break this to you gently, I may be the first recipe writer to tell you the skin will not remain crispy. Even as it rests, the skin seems to reabsorb moisture and when you slice it, the skin will slide off unless you hold it in place. Don’t blame me: I’m telling you so you won’t keep trying to achieve the mythical crispy skin on a roasted bird that better-paid writers in the famous food magazines keep promising you.

1 4 pound chicken, backbone removed

1 lemon, sliced thin

Handful of fresh rosemary, finely chopped

4-5 branches of fresh oregano, strip leaves from branches and finely chopped

Kosher salt

Extra virgin olive oil

6-8 Yukon Gold or other waxy potatoes, sliced in half at the equator

A few hours before you plan on roasting your chicken, combine the chopped herbs with a hefty pinch of salt and chop the mass once more. Place one side of the sliced lemons on the herb blend and loosen the skin of the chicken by gently sliding your fingers between the skin and flesh.

Once you’re past the edge it should be fairly easy to expand the pocket but be careful not to break the skin. Slide in the lemons, herbed side down, between the skin and the flesh, generally covering both breasts. Take remaining herb mixture and rub over the top of the skin, especially where the lemons can’t reach. Apply a little olive oil and rub it in like you’re at a spa, and salt the skin. With the boney inside of the chicken pressed down and the legs pointing out, let the chicken absorb the flavors in the refrigerator, uncovered on a plate, for four to eight hours.

When you’re ready to cook, place the chicken on the counter to warm up a bit while you heat the oven to 350°F. If you have the option of convection baking, this is a great time to use it. I use the same oval baking dish, 14 inches by 9 1/2 inches by 2 inches deep, that we used in this article’s Potatoes Gratin with Pistou.

Dribble olive oil on the bottom of the baking dish and a generous pinch of salt. Roll each potato half in in the oil/salt mixture, ending up with the flat side down. Place the chicken on top of the potatoes, spreading it out as much as possible to increase skin exposed to the heat and load it (I put the oval on a baking sheet to make it easy to move in and out when it’s hot) into the heated oven. No need to add moisture; the chicken will provide it for us.

Set the timer for 30 minutes and then rotate the pan 180 degrees when the alarm goes off. Reset the timer for another 30 minutes. Once you’ve cooked it a total of 60 minutes, you should be close to done, depending on your oven. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the thigh and the breast. We’re looking for 160 degrees in the breast.

Remove the pan once it hits that temperature and set it on top of the stove to cool for five minutes. Juice will continue to drip from the chicken for a few moments and the carryover heat will allow the breast to hit at least 165 degrees and usually 170 degrees. After five minutes, remove the chicken to a carving board. It will still be very hot, so I try to wait a total of 10 minutes, but the chicken and potatoes soaking up the juices smell so good, I usually can’t wait.

Use a thin metal spatula to slide under the potatoes to release them from the pan and serve alongside the chicken.

Watch now: 6 food to avoid eating on a road trip

Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email him at macmor@sbcglobal.net.

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