Thursday, August 07, 2008

Potato, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins

Potato, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my dinner. Po-ta-to: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Po. Ta. To.


Ladies and gentleman of the jury! I've endured a brutish affection for Potato for nearly four years. Before I succumbed to her alluring spell I rarely palpated her flesh or sunk my teeth into her ethereal hollows.

Recently, though, my affection (affliction) has threatened to take over my life.

In fall and winter, sometimes far into spring, I balance my Potato affection with a healthful Sweet Potato romp. Lately, though, my preferred Sweet, Jewel, has been conspicuously absent from the grocer's bin. Let me say, the other "Sweet" the Garnet, is a sham--impossible to cook, finicky, and dry. Jewel works: she cooks to a creamy texture. Garnet, for some reason, shams: she hardly ever achieves a suitable texture.

Perhaps it's a storage problem. Sweets are typically "cured" after harvesting, then stored for months. In On Food and Cooking, Harold Magee notes: "True to their subtropical heritage, sweet potatoes store best at 55-60 F. Chilling can contribute to 'hardcore' a condition in which the root center remains hard even when cooked."

I hope you don't refrigerate your Sweet, or your Potato.

Magee also notes: "At colder temperatures their [potatoes] metabolism shifts in a complicated way that results in the breakdown of some starch to sugars."

I hope, too, you don't buy Sweets or Potatoes from a grocer that refrigerates, lest he ruin the supple quality of your perfect little jewel.

Unfortunately, Someone's been ruining my Garnet. I've tested her from Asheville, North Carolina to Philadelphia: without a doubt, she refuses to cook perfectly.


Perfection is a courageous cook's goal, even if it's an unreasonable, unattainable goal. But unreasonable behavior might just be the touchstone of the best cooks; after all, the passion generated by the unreasonable pursuit of perfection usually inspires a fabulous meal.

I'm talking about the pursuit of perfect ingredients; an extreme attentiveness to cooking; and an even more extreme attentiveness to the food itself: its finicky needs, its demands.

I honestly feel in the bottom of my heart that this is a human being's most frankly honorable pursuit: the adamant pursuit of cooking perfection. It's impossible, of course. But the trying, the very trying, is what matters: you cook for others, after all, and your effort is your honor: the honor you feel and the deep, humble honor you bestow upon others.

All you have to do is try, really hard.


The potato's needs are often underestimated by the home cook. The obvious example is the typical mashed potato: watery and lacking true potato flavor, this dish often tastes acutely of butter and salt; one mere taste is an indication of the cook's lack of effort.

Perfect mashed potatoes require pain.

First, the potatoes (Yukon Gold or Russets are best) are simmered (not boiled!) whole.

The potatoes are then peeled after simmering, while still relatively hot, and mashed.

This is a simple, but lengthy and pain-staking method, sure to burn your fingers. And yet, the burn is a symbol of love--love for the potato; love for the family and friends you are cooking for. When you serve the perfect mashed potato your guests feel that love with each ethereal bit.

The courageous cook will hurt themselves simply to offer love. The courageous cook's mashed potatoes say: I adore you. I want to please you. I am Humbert, you are Lolita!

The lazy cook's mashed potatoes say: I hardly care about you. Please eat this butter and salt-laden dish so you might die quicker. I am Humbert, you are Charlotte, Lolita's pestering Mother.

The lovable geeks at Cook's Illustrated put it this way:

"Peeling and cutting before simmering increases the surface area of the potatoes, through which they lose soluble substances such as starch, proteins, and flavor compounds, to the cooking water. The greater surface area also enables lots of water molecules to bind with the potatoes' starch molecules. Combine these two effects and you've got bland, thin, watery mashed potatoes."

Perfect mashed potatoes should taste like potatoes, ethereal, earthy, merely accented by other flavors like butter and salt, not dominated by those flavors. This is the fey grace, the elusive shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the perfect mashed potato from the boring ineptitude of the careless, fatty, salty mushed spud.

Roasted potatoes offer a different texture, a new challenge. The perfect roast potato offers a crisp, crunchy outside and a moist, creamy flesh. Lazy potatoes merely tossed with oil and roasted in the oven rarely achieve this sort of perfection. Lazy potatoes are usually moist throughout, but offer no textual variation, and are often too soft, sometimes mushy.

Harold Magee offers the simple solution:

"If preheated to 130-140 degrees...[potatoes] develop a persistent firmness that survives prolonged final cooking. This can be valuable for...potatoes whose outer-regions are inevitably over-softened and may begin to disintegrate while the centers cook through."

Magee is talking specifically here of boiled potatoes for potato salad, but the same principle holds for roasted potatoes: pre-cooking, or par-boiling, potatoes ensures a crispy exterior.

The geeks at Cook's Illustrated agree:

"Parboiling...produced a potato closer to our idea..."

Unfortunately, the geeks go on to say: "...but preparation required considerable attention owing to the additional step."

This, from the same cookbook authors who urge you to brine your birds, who boast of having made 38 different versions of crème caramel to find "the absolute best version."


The perfect roast potato begins in a pot of cold water. You bring it to a slow simmer and you let it be for five minutes. The whole process takes less then ten minutes. You can clip your nails, read a bit, eat a snack, have a smoke--is this "considerable attention"? And oh, by the way, that extra pot: rinse it out; no big deal!


Can you spare ten minutes for perfection?

If not, please consider this: After having eaten your half-assed potatoes, when you're on the couch, watching TV, think about those ten minutes, think about all the ten minutes you might have wasted in your life, all the simple little moments you might have missed.

I like how George Saunders describes it in his essay "Buddha Boy":

"You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?"

I read this and think solely of my wife, the insane love I feel for her, and the incredible gap between my substantial feelings and my daily expression of those feelings.

Why the gap?

I get tired. I feel unwell. She annoys me. She shows up late. I show up late. It's hot. It's cold.

There's always something.

Lucky, for me, I cook, we cook.

Dinner saves me, each night, from regret.

I put my effort, my heart into each meal. With love, I try to close the gap. I simmer my potatoes; I peel them while they're hot. This is heroism, to me. The goal, the simple goal, is my wife's pleasure.

I am thinking of steam and angels, the secret of persistent firmness, prophetic mashers, the refuge of cooking. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Potato.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

This recipe is adapted from Cook's Illustrated's recipe, in The New Best Recipe. My recipe, I think, highlights the potato's flavor more than the Cook's Illustrated recipe; it's more healthful too, and ultimately more satisfying: it leaves one feeling light, not heavy, ready for a little post-dinner dalliance. I call for peeling the potatoes by hand, but a food mill or ricer works wonderfully well in this recipe, producing the most light, airy potatoes imaginable. Finally, make sure you add the oil BEFORE the coconut milk...I won't explain why.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coconut milk (full-fat is best)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 25-35 minutes. Drain. Reserve pot for mashing.

Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt, and black pepper to taste.

While still warm, cut each potato in half, then peel the skin with fingers or a small paring knife. (Alternately, and much better, place the potatoes, skin-on, into a ricer or food mill.) Drop the peeled potatoes back into the pot you used for boiling.

Gently mash the potatoes with a potato masher. Add olive oil. Add the warmed coconut milk, and gently season with additional salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings to taste.


Roasted Red Potatoes with Olive Oil & Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs and lemon zest brighten the potatoes, as they intensify the flavor of the olive oil.

1 ½ lb small red new potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons fresh herbs—basil, thyme, and/or marjoram
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Sea Salt, fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch in a 6-quart pot, then simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Slice potatoes in half. Toss potatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a few pinches salt in a bowl. Spread potatoes in 1 layer in a large roasting pan, skin side down, and roast in middle of oven, turning once, until golden, about 20-25 minutes.

Toss with remaining tablespoon olive oil, herbs, sea salt, lemon zest, and fresh pepper to taste.

Serve immediately.


Mark Lee said...

The sexpot spud. I had no idea. From lips and tongue to fingertips-on-fire, our Starchy Little Girl has you whipped, for sure. And you're a very good salesman, Seth.

I only relatively recently started a relationship with the Yukon Gold, pretty much right before I gave up spuds for a spell. I still, however, prepare them for my boys and sneak an oh-so-tiny nibble, just to make sure they're done. As you noted, the potato is an excellent soloist, barely dressed. I usually prepared the affable tuber in the company of slow-cook chicken or with other veggies.


You've made me miss the potato. You make an excellent spokesman for the vegetable. I can see it now: Seth on a billboard, a closeup, a wistful smile and one slightly raised eyebrow, a hint of mashed potato on the upper lip.

"Got Spud?"

Anonymous said...

Both the "Perfect Mashed Potatoes" and the "Roasted Red Potatoes with Olive Oil and Fresh Herbs" sound delightful.

Nabokov himself could not have made finer potatoes.

Stephanie said...

Seth! This was an absolute joy to read. But I must admit, I am guilty of the lazy method of tossing my potatoes in olive oil and rosemary and roasting them. I've always thought they've come out perfect. Do I need to raise my standards? Are my little roasted fingerlings (shudder) half-assed? Whaaaa... I want my cooking to be perfect too. I really, really do!!

Seth Pollins said...

Hi Stephanie:

Let's face it: roasted potatoes are a simple and usually delicious dish. They should be this way.

I am an extreme fanatic. I might even argue against the sentiment I express in my blogs, if it weren't so decidedly my honest sentiment. That said, I'm sure your potatoes are glorious, especially if you're using fingerlings, which are, in my opinion, the best potatoes. If you want a crispy exterior, though, then the above recipe is for you, and I think it works better with red potatoes.

Fingerlings are a different matter. I personally think fingerlings are best served simply, simmered in water, and tossed warm with extra virgin olive oil and herbs and salt.

Fingerlings are so light and nuanced--roasting often seems to harsh for them. Just look how they shrivel when roasted, as if they've been attacked. I like my potatoes to look coddled and plump.

Stephanie said...

I trust you, Seth, and am going to heed your advice and try simmering the fingerlings and stick to roasting the new yukon golds instead (simmered first, of course). They all look so lovely at the market these days too.

I first discovered "new potatoes" when I lived in Germany. It was like the whole town I lived in celebrated over the new crop of spring potatoes! They were sweet and buttery and were cooked just as you said - simmered. They were served with boiled beef and this sauce (oh, this sauce!!) that was made out of like 12 different dairy products (mostly cultured cream), chopped egg, and every fresh herb you could find in your garden. The potatoes were distributed on special little plates with special little skin peeling utensils. After you skinned your potato, you would transfer it to your large plate with the beef, slice it, and dress it all with the "green sauce." The flavor was so bright and never overpowered the earthiness of the new potato. It was always a happy spring.

I totally understand your passion for potatoes!

Anonymous said...

You're making me hungry for potatoes. We have none. I'm not much of a cook. Seth, do you cook for hire?

Anonymous said...

I promise never to make watery, listless, mashed potatoes again.

Seth Pollins said...

Hi Jennifer: Yes, certainly, I cook for hire.

Hi V: Yes, you'd better promise.

Suzanne said...

Summer has brought out the potato in me. There is nothing like a potato salad in July and I worked diligently all month to perfect my grandmother's recipe.

I read the different names for different types of potatoes in the blog and I miss home. The thing I dislike most about living in Spain is that they have only one kind of potato - the potato potato. And these little things that they call microwavable potaotes.

What's a microwave?

Unknown said...

Seth, your entry made me laugh out loud... several times!

I knew there was a reason I loved this blog... you love everything I love... Cook's Illustrated, Harold Magee, cooking for an appreciative audience. (So you're saying it's OK to want to honor? I've always felt it was a little egotistical.)

As for your recipes, I'll be sure to try them. Usually when I serve mashed potatoes it's alongside meat. But since I keep kosher and most mashed potato recipes have dairy... I usually turn to Cook's Illustrated's Garlic and Olive Oil Mashed Potato recipe. I'd like to know how that one compares to yours.

As for your criticism of Cook's Illustrated, in their defense, they try to streamline their recipes as much as possible. If readers want intricate, 37-step recipes, they could turn to Gourmet (don't get me wrong; I subscribe to that one too!) But you're right -- one small additional step for "the best recipe" is worth it. They could at least include it as an alternative for the "courageous" cook.

Unknown said...

I adore potatoes! From buttery Yukon Golds to fingerlings, to even the blues.

It must be part of my eastern European heritage. I grew up loving them any way - roasted, boiled, baked. (Fried is okay but I think flavor is lost, myself!)

It's still very much a comfort food, and I can really make a production out of picking a potato, scrubbing it, rolling it in kosher salt and wrapping it up, baking it until it melts in your mouth and just adding a little salt and pepper. lol

(If you don't mind, I have some questions about gluten and wheat allergy. After a recent bout with serious illness, I've been told that is possibly an issue for me. I'm researching it, and would like some resources, if you have some?)


Blogger said...

3 Studies SHOW How Coconut Oil Kills Waist Fat.

This means that you literally burn fat by eating coconut fat (also coconut milk, coconut cream and coconut oil).

These 3 studies from big medicinal journals are sure to turn the conventional nutrition world around!