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The Earth's Surprise: Potatoes
By Linda Brandt Tanner

From our Winter 1996 issue

Can you imagine an antique blue-and-white china bowl holding a mound of snowy white mashed potatoes, rivulets of butter flowing down their soft slopes? Now, taste the first salty bite of your favorite French fries. Picture snips of green chives scattered atop a platterful of golden roasted new potatoes, or ladle up a comforting bowl of potato leek soup. And, if I haven't captured have your interest yet, taste a soothingly spiced sweet potato pie.

Often targeted as the first item to be discarded on the now passe Monday morning diet, I find the potato to be the most flexible and endearing member of the vegetable family. What other vegetable can boast the ability to be roasted, whipped, fried, baked, boiled, steamed, riced, shredded, scalloped, or gratineed? What other proves such a faithful standby during these cold months, when our tummies crave the solid feeling potatoes give? What better staves off the frost at the door than the aroma of bubbling potatoes in the oven?

In any season, nothing rounds out a meal as well as the potato. During the winter months, the potato is often the cook's anchor to a nourishing meal. At our house, potatoes are often the center of a speedy supper, baked and stuffed, or surrounded by a Technicolor palette of vegetables.

In my kitchen, the potato basket is always full. I keep a colorful assortment of shiny white new potatoes, tiny red-skinned ones, and large, rough russets. Yukon gold and yellow Finn potatoes, with their yellow-tinged flesh, cook up looking as if they've already been buttered. Both are delicious mashed or roasted. The moist orange flesh of yams whipped yams makes a change of pace from mashed white potatoes. And don't forget the drier, golden sweet potato: starchy enough to stand up to sugar and eggs in a spicy pie for winter desserts.

The key to enjoying good potatoes is to buy them as fresh as possible. They should be solid and evenly shaped, without blemishes or cuts. When buying white new potatoes, be cautious of a green tinge under the skin. This is caused by a chemical change due to improper storage and can be poisonous. Pass these up and look for a nice waxy allover beige color. Sproutings from the eyes of the potato signify an older potato. Although still edible at this stage (we've all been in the position of feeling grateful just to discover three or four geriatric potatoes in "Old Mother Hubbard's" cupboard), older potatoes are a bit soft and unappealing. For best results, buy only what you can use in a reasonable time and store them in a cool, dark, dry place.

In the garden, the potato plants' leafy foliage with its tiny white flowers covers the surprises developing underground. Several years ago, I knelt shoulder to shoulder in the garden with my son and son-in-law as we sifted the soil through our hands to uncover the marble-sized new potatoes. We washed them, steamed them briefly, and topped them with generous knobs of butter. Ohhhh, what sublime delight. Nothing is more memorable than the first "fruits" of the season, be it tomatoes, corn, beans, berries, or potatoes. One could make a whole meal out of just that one food.

In the late 1940s, my mother and her friends formed what they referred to loosely as a sewing club. They gathered monthly, in the evening, for conversation, any creative handwork they happened to be doing, and, of course, refreshments. I recall the evenings the sewing club met at our house: the neighborhood gossip, one serious knitter busy with needles clicking away, and the dessert dishes of Mama's famous potato cake. A dark chocolate loaf cake, its dense moistness came from the cold mashed potatoes mixed into the batter. The finished cake, dusted with a veil of powdered sugar and resting on a white doily, was rich and brownielike. Unfortunately, my mother's recipe died with her, and I never learned it. If any of you - my dear readers - come across a chocolate cake recipe that uses mashed potatoes, please send it in!

Sunday roast beef at our house was often accompanied by Mama's twice-baked potatoes: baked russets with the flesh scooped out, mashed with butter and milk, and spooned back into the shell. These potatoes were then topped with a criss-cross of sharp cheddar cheese and popped into a 375- degree oven again until the cheese melted. I loved them for their crispy, bubbly tops. Mama appreciated the fact that they could be prepared early in the day so that all the cooking clutter could be cleaned up before guests arrived. (If you are making these in advance, bake, stuff, and top the potatoes with cheese, and then cover and refrigerate them. About forty minutes before serving time, uncover the potatoes and pop them into a 350- degree oven until they are warmed through and the cheese is melted, approximately thirty minutes.) This is the ultimate in do-ahead preparation, and I often use them for a buffet. Lined up on a beautiful platter and garnished with long sprigs of rosemary, twice-baked potatoes are a fine accompaniment to a roast, chicken, or ribs, or a filling addition to the vegetarian table.

The potato's natural ability to pair with other foods has helped me create a repertoire of favorites. I can't imagine a helping of savory meat loaf without a giant baked potato alongside. Or Thanksgiving turkey without whipped potatoes. What would a picnic be without potato salad? Baked ham without scalloped potatoes? Eggs without hash browns? Jewish holidays without potato latkes? Pork roast without sweetened yams? Vegetarian dishes without the potato's sturdy nourishment? And who of us with children hasn't scooped a tiny spoonful of milky mashed potatoes into a weaning baby's mouth?

The winter holiday season means buffets and potluck parties. I usually bring along my version of roasted potatoes, and I always bring home an empty dish. These roasted potatoes are my most requested item. "How did you make them come out like that?" partygoers ask. The secret is the pan you use. Avail yourself of a large, heavy, black baking pan that is shallow with a flat bottom. I use the bottom part of a heavy old broiler pan, approximately 2 inches x 13 inches x 15 inches. Pass up the Teflon-or Silverstone-coated pans: for this, they won't do. Purchase tiny white potatoes, red ones, or the yellow-fleshed ones, about the size of a ping-pong ball. Cut them in half. (If all you can find are the larger potatoes, cut these into halves or quarters.) In a plastic bag, toss the potatoes with a little olive oil or light salad oil. Arrange them, cut side down, in a single layer on the pan. Your oven should be preheated to 500 degrees: good and hot. Put the potatoes in and turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Let them roast undisturbed for forty minutes, or until they are crispy-brown and sizzling. Sprinkle on some kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and garnish with fragrant herbs from your garden or market. Serve. Watch them disappear!

Talk to a few food lovers, and you'll soon find out that mashed potatoes are a very personal thing. Some of us strive for the perfectly smooth mashed potato; others of us enjoy them with a few lumps of texture. Some swear by using heated milk. Others whip in sour cream or a bit of goat cheese for a tart, creamy taste. I prefer mashed potatoes made with heated milk, butter, and some salt and pepper. I don't mind if my tongue trips over a few lumps, and I want my mashed potatoes hot. To me, the smoothest potatoes are actually riced potatoes! A potato ricer looks a bit like a giant garlic press. It's a nice gadget. You put the cooked potato in the basket and press out fine strands of potato. Carefully combine these with warmed milk and butter. The one no-no for mashed potatoes is this: Do not whip them in a food processor. It will give the potatoes the texture of wallpaper glue! After draining the cooked potatoes, toss them over heat for a few minutes to dry any water residue from the pot, and mash as you wish. Mashed potatoes can sit on top of a warm stove for thirty minutes to an hour without compromising their flavor if you leave the lid slightly askew and stir periodically.

We're having a large family gathering this weekend, and I am fixing garlic mashed potatoes to accompany the lemon-and-garlic-roasted chickens I'm serving. I add a large handful of peeled, raw garlic cloves to the cooking water. When the potatoes are cooked and drained, I mash them together with the cooked garlic for an intriguing mellow flavor.

Deeply orange and moist, jewel or garnet yams, with their mahogany skins, are delicious when cooked and mashed with butter, milk, and a touch of brown sugar and nutmeg. We love these served with roast pork, apples, and onions. The golden-skinned sweet potato, with its starchier texture, is perfect for pie fillings. Leah Chase's Sweet Potato Pie with Pecans is delectable. Find it in the book In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs by Julia Child (Knopf, 1995).

When counting the potato's versatility, remember potato gnocchi (pronounced 'nyahk-ee), a favorite on Italian tables. Gnocchi, little dumplings made with potato and flour, are available at any Italian specialty market. Covered with a tomato ragu sauce or a creamy bechamel sauce and Parmesan cheese, they are cooked and then baked in an ovenproof dish until bubbly. Properly made, gnocchi are as close to heaven as one can get on Earth.

A delightful use of mashed potatoes for sweets shows up again in the form of potato doughnuts. These are moist and buttermilky, with a hint of nutmeg. Marcia Adams has a dandy recipe in her book Cooking from Quilt Country. (Clarkson N. Potter, 1981).

I am a firm believer in the saying, Necessity is the mother of invention. My former mother-in-law, who fed six hungry mouths besides her own, was a master at inventing dishes that were filling, nurturing, economical, and easy. I met this resourceful cook for the first time when I was invited to join the family for Thanksgiving in 1956. I was amazed by the crowd of ebullient children and adults present. There were probably twenty-five of us sitting at the crowded, food-filled table, as bowl after bowl was passed around. I loved Edith's mashed potato�carrot dish: buttery mashed potatoes sparked by tiny flecks of orange carrots. Not only was it delicious, it looked festive. Edith would cut up as many potatoes and peeled carrots as she needed to fill those hungry tummies, using more potatoes than carrots, and cook them together in boiling, salted water until tender. She'd drain them, mash them coarsely, and add milk, butter, salt, and pepper. I still fix them the same way.

In these cold winter months, I urge you to embrace the homeyness of potatoes at your table and enjoy the diversity they offer. Now I'm off to make a pot of Julia Child's potato leek soup!

LINDA BRANDT TANNER is a member of a committee of passionate people currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that will become part of the California schools curriculum.

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