The humble spud may not be in vogue, but there are plenty of ways to serve a potato that adventurous eaters will love. Angela Frewin reports
In the past, potatoes were assured a place on most British dinner plates. Cheap, filling and versatile, their wide spectrum of flavours, textures, preparation methods and formats make spuds good value both for food operators and consumers.
Root vegetables such as celeriac, parsnips and kohlrabi - grated, fried, mashed, puréed, or roasted to enhance their sweetness - are being tipped as trendy spud substitutes, while Spanish tapas bars have given us honey- drizzled aubergine chips. Cauliflower, too, is branching out in new directions, notes Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct - mashed, roasted whole or blitzed into crumbs to serve as a gluten-free replacement for rice and pizza bases.
Healthy eating and weight/blood sugar concerns are playing a part in the carb makeover. "Most of our customers are requesting carbohydrate alternatives, such as spiralised courgettes and carrots," says Parsonage, while Paul Turner, commercial manager for foodservice at frozen food supplier MDC Foods, has also observed a carb-watching trend among some diners. MDC offers Creamy Spiced Lentils, 4-Bean Casserole and the Rough-cut Roots, a combination of carrot, swede and parsnips.
Despite this challenge, potatoes are not ready to cash in their chips yet. "Potatoes offer operators real value for money and their popularity shows no signs of flagging", says Mohammed Essa, general manager UK and Ireland at potato specialist Aviko.
His confidence is supported by food- service figures from AHDB Potatoes (formerly the Potato Council) for the year ending June 2015. Potato servings grew by 4.9% year-on-year (outperforming the 1.6% growth in total food servings) - and chips continue to account for the lion's share (a whopping 73%).
MDC's Bubble & Squeak
This perennial favourite has adapted to rising expectations with a plethora of premium offers. Nigel Phillips, UK sales director at Lamb Weston, says its new Connoisseur frozen fries range satisfies nostalgia by "using irregular and rough-cut potatoes to give a look of hand-crafted and freshly-prepared fries".
A special coating adds extra crispiness to Aviko's Supercrunch 15mm and Supercrunch 9.5mm Skin-On Fries, which hold their heat for up to 15 minutes and offer better plate-fill with their longer-than-average length. And new settings can also help operators make a splash with chips, says Parsonage - try ultra-long, skinny straw (or shoestring) chips in place of croutons in soups or as a retro- garnish for steaks and burgers.
"Chips will always be popular, but the appetite for alternatives in the eating-out market is definitely growing," says Turner. The downside is that spud-enhancing alternatives can be pricier and more labour-intensive than chips, so a practical solution is to opt for frozen, pre-portioned products, such as MDC's Potato Dauphinoise for a touch of luxury, or bubble and squeak in place of mash.
Aviko's Essa agrees that the need to feed changing consumer desires for variety and innovation "doesn't mean that you have to step away from the humble spud". Its Craft Guild of Chefs-endorsed gratin range provides premium replacements for mash or roast spuds in the form of Bubble & Squeak Rounds (also ideal for breakfasts) or the new Parsnip & Jerusalem Artichoke mini gratins, with potatoes, cream, Emmental cheese and herbs.
Miniaturisation is also adding a wow factor to potato products. Aviko's super-crunchy Hash Brown Bites extend the format's appeal beyond the breakfast market (where hash browns are the third most popular item) to children and the all-day grazing on-the-go generation, as do Farm Frites' mini Potato Bites - a collection of eight different tastes and textures including hash browns, waffles and croquettes.
Farm Frites' new oval hash browns offer a novel way for gluten-intolerant diners to enjoy a "sandwich-type experience" with their burgers, says marketing manager Nic Townsend. The shape "mimics a burger bun and is perfect for offering simple, but tasty burgers and breakfast baps" with more appeal, adds Townsend, than the 'naked burgers' found on the gluten-free menus now offered in a third of causal-dining brands.
MDC Steak Mix side
Parsonage suggests trying new cooking methods to refresh the potato offer, such as smashed fried potatoes - simply boil, cool, flatten with your hand and drop in hot oil to crisp. A whipped baked potato is more challenging and involves infusing the skins with milk with an espuma gun, straining and mashing, adding more milk and putting the mixture through the gun to create a foam-like texture.
Flavour is a tried and tested way of adding interest to menus and is central to Farm Frites' Spanish patatas bravas cubes and Aviko's newest launch, Premium Marinated Potatoes. Ready to use either as a hot accompaniment or as a cold buffet or salad option, these baby potatoes come in wild garlic, sweet chilli and roasted shallot, or lemon pepper.
In October, McCormick unleashes its new Schwartz Chip Seasoning, a mild-heat blend of paprika, onion, garlic and black pepper that can be sprinkled over chips, fries, wedges and roasties and added to sweet potatoes or mash. McCormick's research suggests that two-thirds of consumers would upgrade to seasoned chips, which typically command a 10p-30p premium - which means, says marketing manager Al Thaken, each 300g shaker jar of chip seasoning could net operators up to £35 in profit.
The thousands of potato varieties available also enable chefs to ring the changes with colourful lines, like the black-skinned, purple-fleshed French truffle (or Vitelotte) potatoes which, says Parsonage, "look fantastic" whether roasted, mixed in a potato salad or boiled, cold-smoked and shaped into croquettes (Parsonage also forecasts the comeback of the flavoured croquette).
He also sees Cornish potatoes gaining ground on chef favourite the Jersey Royal: "Cornish mids are equally as good, are grown in similar soil and share a similar flavour to that of Jersey Royals."
Several years ago, two-Michelin-starred London restaurant L'Atelier de JoÁ«l Robuchon featured the world's first potato-tasting menu of eight courses (including cocktails, desserts and petits-fours) to highlight the tubers' versatility. So it seems likely chefs and suppliers will be able to continue adapting spuds to taste trends and keep them a menu staple.
The sweet potatoes' recent addition to the Office for National Statistics official shopping basket, their proliferation in supermarkets and inclusion on chain restaurant menus such as Nando's and Gourmet Burger Kitchen highlights the tuber's progression from exotic trend to menu staple, says Stan Smith, chief executive officer of North Carolina sweet potato grower, Scott Farms.
Data compiled by the fourth-generation farm (the largest importer of sweet potatoes into Europe) shows that, between 2011 and 2015, sweet potato consumption soared by 91% in the UK (from 42,584 to 81,271 tonnes), while the number of people regularly eating them rose by 40% to 38m. They are consuming them roasted, mashed or baked, as fries/chips and wedges - even juiced or raw.
The recipes on Scott's www.lovesweetpotatoes.com website - which range from sweet potato hummus and gnocchi to ice-creams, jams and sweet potato and white chocolate cake - underline the versatility of these members of the morning glory family.
And their visual impact is not limited to the familiar orange hue, as demonstrated in Scott's new cooked-in-the-UK, skin-on sweet potato crisps, which mix three different-coloured varieties in one bag for the first time - the sweet orange Covington, delicate white Bonita and rich, earthy purple Nash.
Their media-reinforced status as a superfood - unlike potatoes, they count as one of your five-a-day - also makes sweet potatoes ideal for family restaurants, according to Turner. As well as matching a range of cuisines, he says, "This versatile vegetable lends itself very well to creating a bright-coloured mash which, in addition to the sweet flavour, really appeals to children."
Scott Farms orange, purple & white sweet potato chips
Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct, offers some uses for the vegetables and fruits - both familiar and exotic - that are jostling for attention as potato replacements.
Plantain or breadfruit Roast chunks of these tropical fruits in coconut oil, or slice into chip-sized bites, toss with allspice and deep-fry.
Pumpkin Toss in milk, rice flour and fry: use as gnocchi or in Spanish omelettes.
Jerusalem artichoke Slice paper-thin for gratin or dauphinoise dishes, or make into crisps.
Celeriac Bake directly on the coals of a fire or salt-bake and peel.
Salsify (oyster plant) Cook, crumb in rice flour and deep-fry to make chips. Alternatively, slice thinly or grate for gratins or fritters.
Cassava root, pumpkin, celeriac or avocado Use as alternative fries.
Lotus root Add chunks to Asian stews and braises.
Yam Great in savoury and sweet dishes (such as carrot cake).
Oca Chip, roast, or add paper-thin slices to salads.
Parsnip Make into hash browns or mash.
Swede/carrot Mash and serve as an accompaniment or a shepherd's pie topping.
Sweet potato Roast, hasselback-style.
http://www.aviko.co.uk" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">
Fresh Direct www.freshdirect.co.uk
Lamb Weston's Connoisseur fries