Potatoes

Pommes de Terre

Appears in

We have nearly forgotten; good potatoes—like good rice—have an exquisite and delicate flavor, a flavor of such fragile purity that only a breath of salt, a turn of the pepper grinder, and a chunk of sweet butter can fail to mask it.
A reviewer of my last book, commenting on a recipe that called for a firm-fleshed, non-mealy type of potato, complained that it was hard enough to find an edible potato, let alone one of such specific attributes. I felt that the remark was unfair, for I remembered delicious potatoes from my childhood and, on recent visits to American markets, although the plethora of potatoes that had been dipped in a ghastly pink dye was depressing, a substantial choice of different types of potatoes was, nonetheless, in evidence.
I appealed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for all the information they could give me concerning different potato varieties, the specific qualities of each, and their general availability in different parts of the country. I described in detail those available on the French market, the qualities that each possessed, and, in particular, one hybrid variety, the “B-F-15,” whose qualities I hoped to find duplicated in an American variety (small, in the form of an elongated kidney, with a dark, dull, dusty umber-colored thick skin, a firm, moist, compact, yellow flesh that remains intact even over a prolonged cooking period, and a good, clean taste. It is not a productive variety and the price is approximately double that of most others).
I received in gracious response, some months later, an impressive collection of literature. One pamphlet was devoted to U.S. grade standards for potatoes. I learned that, in order to meet the requirements of “U.S. Extra n° 1” (formerly “U.S. Fancy”): (1) size gradation is of particular importance; (2) soil clinging to the skins is considered a defect; (3) potatoes should not show more than slight shriveling; (4) artificial coloration is only considered a defect if it entails “more than 5% waste when discolored flesh is removed,” is “unsightly,” or is designed to disguise other defects (U.S. Extra n° 1 may be “8% defective”); (5) no more than 10% of the potatoes in any lot of “U.S. Extra n° 1” may have sprouts over ¾ inch long! The message, in short, would seem to be that, but for the cardinal importance of size gradation, mediocrity of appearance is tolerated and no qualities other than appearance are deemed even worth consideration.

The remaining literature consisted mostly of articles reprinted from recent years of the Yearbook of Agriculture. One opened with this puzzling statement: “In general, potatoes can be classed as long or round and white, red or russet. It would also be desirable to classify potatoes for use, as boiling, baking, or frying. Unfortunately this is not possible because of the wide range of growing and storage conditions as well as personal preferences.” The nature of the potato, itself, is, apparently, the only thing that does not apply to its use in cooking. Most of the article is devoted to the potato’s interest and versatility in its tinned, deep-frozen, or dehydrated forms.

Another article was, promisingly, actually consecrated to a potato variety—and, but for the previous suggestion that potatoes might be long or round, white, red, or russet, that was the only indication in the whole pile of stuff that a potato may possess any other quality than anonymous potatoness. The article is entitled: “An All Purpose Potato” (anyone knows—or should know—that an all-purpose anything can serve no single purpose well). The potato’s name is “Kennebec” and the article opens with a charming verse dedicated to it:

Some like it hot

Some like it cold

Some like it as a chip,

Bright as gold.

It may be baked,

It may be fried,

It may be mashed,

Or even be dried.

“The American potato grower today (1968) grows about 50% more potatoes on only 44% of the land area used in 1930.” And, thanks to Kennebec, yield trends are still soaring . . . Its qualities are fantastic: gigantic production, disease resistance, aptitude for dehydration . . . Only its taste and its texture are ignored in the eloquent little homage to Super-Potato. The last lines look brightly to the future: “The all-purpose Kennebec of today will most certainly be replaced by a still more superior potato of tomorrow. The future holds great promise for potato growers, shippers, processors . . .”
And so—I cannot help it—I shall continue to recommend potato types, but, if real potatoes cannot be found, substitute Kennebecs.

If you are fond of potatoes boiled in their skins, try, for a change, adding sliced onion, crushed garlic cloves, a couple of cloves, and a choice of bouquet garni elements (branches of parsley, celery, lovage, thyme, oregano, savory, marjoram, bay leaves . . .) to a pot of salted boiling water and leaving it to simmer, covered, for ½ hour before cooking the potatoes in it. Drain the whole lot together and serve with unsalted butter apart (and/or, for the meridional temperament, olive oil).

In America only cheap restaurants moisten mashed potatoes with their cooking water rather than with milk and cream. In France no self-respecting peasant would think of doing otherwise. But the greatest difference between American mashed or whipped potatoes and a French potato purée lies in the fluffy, white, firm, and slightly elastic body of the one—a result of the beating it is given—and the supple, relaxed, grayish, thinner body of the other. The potatoes, halved or quartered if large, should be only just cooked—usually 20 minutes, drained (cooking water saved), and gently pushed through a sieve with a large wooden pestle (with direct pressure—no grinding or mashing), a generous quantity of butter stirred, but not beaten, in and enough cooking liquid added to bring them to a barely pourable consistency, tasted for salt, and generously peppered. Try them on the family (guests might suspect that you had make a mistake—or that you had never read a cookbook). I love them. They are often served liberally onto a plate with a grilled sausage—andouillette, blood sausage, or other—plopped into their middle.

Try sautéing tiny new potatoes (scraped and rinsed—or merely scrubbed—and wiped dry) in butter, olive oil, or a combination with a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves thrown in: Use a heavy omelet pan, cook, covered, over a low heat for about ½ hour, shaking the pan often to discourage sticking and tossing them regularly (but never stir them, be it ever so gently—if one should stick, delicately pry it loose with the tip of a blunt knife). Cook another 10 minutes or so, tossing, with the lid off. Chopped parsley may be thrown in a minute or two before removing from the heat. The potatoes should be creamy soft inside, lightly golden outside, and the garlic cloves, if the heat has not been too high, will contain a creamy purée that may be squeezed out and spread on bread.

The question of rinsing potatoes or not is not one of personal preference; it is dictated by the type of a given preparation. One of my preferred garnishes for grilled or roast meats or fowl is a potato paillasson (sometimes called pommes Dauphin: a mass of potatoes passed through the medium blade of a Mouli-juliènne, well rinsed in a couple of waters, rapidly drained, spread out on a towel, rolled tightly up, squeezed dry, and packed into a heated omelet pan containing lots of butter, cooked covered over a low flame for 20 minutes or until the bottom is golden crisp, flipped—or unmolded onto a plate and slipped back into the pan to which a bit more butter has been added—and cooked, uncovered, for another 18 or 20 minutes before being slipped onto a hot serving platter). Repeatedly, friends who have asked for the recipe have complained that it does not work for them and repeatedly, after stubborn questioning, they have admitted refusing to rinse and dry the potatoes “because all that chi-chi doesn’t really make any difference.” In fact, that chi-chi is responsible for the voluptuous smoothness contained cleanly within the still sharply defined juliènne texture (assuming the potatoes to be not of an inferior, mealy, soup variety). Left unrinsed, the inside of the cake will be unpleasantly glutinous and the outside will stick to the pan (one friend, thanks to Teflon, had no trouble with sticking but the outer casing, falling short of golden crispness, seemed to be of gray leather). Any raw potatoes, cut to whatever form, that are destined to be sautéed should be well rinsed and wiped dry if only to prevent sticking.

That which mars the perfection of one preparation may reinforce the quality of another; the cooking liquids of a gratin dauphinois or an Irish stew are lent extra body by the superficial starch clinging to sliced potatoes and that of shredded potatoes serves the same purpose in the batters for criques or fritters . . .