Well, the election is over and my guy lost. But, enough about politics. Let’s talk about food! It would be a shame if I wrote too many food articles on my blog without devoting one entirely to my favorite vegetable: the potato. What, were you expecting a detailed analysis of the election? I think not. In the grand scheme of things, the potato is infinitely more important.
Now, admittedly, the potato is not one of the most exciting vegetables, if a vegetable can even be characterized as “exciting.” I mean, it’s round and brown and you dig it out of the ground. There’s just not that much to say about a potato, at least on first glance. It’s not a very pretty vegetable. I’ve never heard someone say, “now, that’s a fine looking potato you got there.” No, all in all, the potato is very humble, unlike the flashy and arrogant artichoke, for example. I’m sure they hate one another.
Although the potato is quite unassuming, it has found itself in the middle of some significant world events over the years. For example, in 1992 the potato single-handedly ruined the career of Vice President Dan Quayle, though I’m sure it was unintentional. If not, then it had to have been a Yukon Gold, because no Idaho could have pulled that one off. In the mid-1800s, Irish potatoes caught a disease which resulted in over one-million deaths and a 25% reduction in population. The famine was so catastrophic that it is often regarded as the most significant dividing line in Irish history. And then, of course, it’s important to mention that the first toy advertised on television in the United States was a potato: Mr. Potato Head. Like many children, I spent an inordinate amount of time as a small child rearranging his face.
For my purposes, though, I am interested in the potato because it has incredible culinary value. It’s versatile, tasty, and healthy. I think of it as “the egg of vegetables.” It may be an ugly, chunky looking thing, but it is wonderful when handled properly. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, because we all love potatoes in some form or fashion, but hopefully my tips will help you enjoy potatoes in the best way possible.
1. How to bake a potato. Don’t laugh. There is a right and wrong way to bake a potato, and I’m about to tell you the rules. First, always bake a “baking” potato. This is no-brainer, I realize, but different potatoes serve different functions. Those giant brown potatoes in the big pile at the supermarket are the ones you should be baking. I wouldn’t bake a red or a Yukon Gold. Second, never, never, never wrap a potato in tinfoil. This is the fundamental rule that 95% of potato-bakers break. You gain nothing from wrapping in tinfoil other than a partially-steamed potato, which is not what you want. The goal here is to achieve a perfectly roasted potato. With the two rules down, the process is super-simple. Poke the potato a couple of times with a fork, coat it with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt. Throw the tater in a pre-heated 400° oven directly on the rack, and bake for about one hour. This process will result in the wonderfully light, fluffy and mealy texture you are looking for, as well as a salty, flavorful roasted potato skin, which is really the most delicious part.
2. How to fry a potato. In the South, fried potatoes are a side dish staple. Bear in mind, these are not French fries or potato chips – although I have nothing against either. This is how to achieve a perfectly fried potato, and the only way I know how to do it is the same way my great-grandmother did it, which of course means it is the only way. The rules here are simple. First, I strongly prefer a waxy potato, like a red or a Yukon Gold – in other words, the opposite kind of potato from a baking potato, which is a mealy potato. Second, once peeled and chopped, the potatoes need a coating, which in my house is a light sprinkling of corn meal. Third, I prefer the potatoes chopped into approximately ¼ inch thick circles, though I am pretty flexible on the shape if you prefer something different. So, once the potatoes are peeled, chopped and coated, the process is easy. Heat your vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a cast-iron skillet, preferably, and fry until golden brown on both sides. Please note: this is not a deep fry, so the oil should not completely cover the potato. Once fried, drain on a paper towel and immediately season with salt and pepper. It is important not to pre-season, because the salt will draw out water during the cooking process and produce a soggy fried potato. Serve with Heinz (not Hunts) ketchup.
3. Sweet potato mash. This is one of my favorite ways to eat a sweet potato. Peel and chop a couple up into cubes, boil them until tender, and mash them in a bowl with 1-2 TBSP real butter, a little whole milk, a squirt or two of honey, a healthy sprinkling of cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg. It’s like Thanksgiving in less than 10 minutes, minus the turkey.[i]
The potato is a wonderful vegetable, and should not be taken for granted. I hope that my tips will help you enjoy potatoes that much more. At this moment in time, let’s take the opportunity to thank Gary Johnston, the creator of the Yukon Gold potato. Thank you, Gary. The world thanks you as well.
[i] Note: The same process applies to regular mashed potatoes (use a mealy variety), except I would use buttermilk, omit the honey, cinnamon and nutmeg, and season liberally with salt and pepper.