Sliced, mashed, roasted or fried, potatoes prove their popularity and their versatility.
This article first appeared in the 1 October 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By">http://www.foodservice411.com)By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor**
Picky eaters choose potatoes for their familiarity. Adventurous eaters appreciate potatoes for their versatility. No matter the dinner clientele or the restaurant, it's a rare chef who doesn't have at least one box of russets on hand in the kitchen.
"They're the culinary little black dress," says Susan Goss, chef and co-owner of West Town Tavern in Chicago. "You don't have to dress them up, but they're so versatile that you can. You can count on them being popular. So I think people love potatoes, and they love being surprised by potatoes."
Potatoes' overwhelming acceptance among the dining public has provoked experimentation, with novel ideas delivering some surprise success stories.
At Devin Tavern in New York City, ridged chocolate-covered potato chips garnished with nuts had an infectious effect on customers, according to owner John Mautone. In and around Pittsburgh, potato taquitos are a hit among vegetarians at 9-unit Mad Mex. Corporate Chef Bill Fuller calls the taquitos, made up of flour tortillas filled with mashed potatoes, Monterey Jack cheese and black beans, distant cousins of pierogis.
Chefs who play around with potatoes' neutral flavor and malleable texture include Rob Evans, executive chef at Hugo's in Portland, Maine. Every year he brings in locally grown heirloom potatoes for a 10- to 12-course potato tasting menu. "Potato is such a medium in the kitchen, no matter what the cuisine is," Evans asserts.
Yet in this seemingly bottomless bucket of ideas, most chefs know when to pull out the stops and when to let a tuber be. Even Tracy O'Grady, chef-owner of Willow in Arlington, Va., whose impressive potato-purée-filled french fries are so labor-intensive that she limits their menu appearances to maintain her prep cooks' sanity, acknowledges that elaborate isn't always better.
"For someone like me, it's important [to try new things] because I like to do new things, but sometimes mashed potatoes are what you need for a dish," she says.
Adam Hegsted, whose restaurant's Northern Idaho location necessitates a deep familiarity with the state's famed crop, also knows when to say when. "It could be as simple as whipped potatoes, cooking them perfectly and serving them with a bit of horseradish," says the chef of Brix in Coeur d'Alene.
Whether it's simple or intricate, much depends on technique, and as anyone who has grappled with making the perfect house-made batch of french fries knows, these tubers can be unforgiving.
John Hallman, district manager for Pittsburgh-based Parkhurst Dining Services, ensures that potatoes are cooked from scratch in-house, although he acknowledges that this means extra training for staff on knife skills and cooking technique. "You have to have your processes down," he says.
The first step in creating a potato dish is to identify whether to use starchy or waxy potatoes. For Hegsted, waxy potatoes are perfect candidates for fried smashed potatoes. He first simmers small, red-skinned varieties in salted water until they are cooked through; then he drains the potatoes, flattening them with his palm while they're still warm. Once smashed, the potatoes can be cooled and then sautéed or deep-fried to order.
The starchy interior of russet potatoes generally makes them the potato of choice for french fries. For handcut fries, O'Grady cooks unpeeled russets all the way through in salted water and then cools the potatoes completely. O'Grady next slices the potatoes into thick french fries and fries them to order. It's a modified version of the classic technique of blanching raw fries in a low-temperature batch of oil and then cooling them and frying them a second time at a higher temperature.
"We came upon the technique accidentally," O'Grady explains. "At the end of one night we had leftover cooked potatoes. We cut them up, threw them in the [fryer] and thought that they were delicious."
While Evans mixes and matches starchy and waxy varieties on his potato tasting menu, he prefers starchy butte potatoes for his Potato Risotti, where brunoised potatoes take the place of rice. Although it's a labor-intensive dish that requires cooks to brunoise potatoes quickly to prevent oxidation (some chefs soak potatoes to prevent browning, but Evans doesn't want to rinse off any potato starch essential to the texture of the dish), it showcases the true flavor of the potato variety and complements local matsutake mushrooms.
Dehydrated potato flakes also find their way onto menus as breading. Goss uses potato flakes to coat her popular fried potato salad because the flakes fry up crispier than breadcrumbs. Other fresh spins on classic potato items receive a similarly enthusiastic reception, says Goss, who serves potato chips with white truffle oil, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh rosemary and parmesan. "They'll still want au gratin potatoes, but now they want it with goat cheese and fresh herbs."
"La Flor Morada de Los Andes," explains Doris Rodriguez de Platt, is a Peruvian nickname for potatoes, given because of the purple-blue potato flower that grows in South America's longest mountain range.
When it comes to finding potato inspiration, it's hard to beat Peru, potatoes' ground zero, not only for the country's sheer potato variety but also for the innumerable potato preparations Peruvians use.
The potato chip probably originated here, with potatoes sliced thinly and left to dry in the sun. At Andina, an upscale Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Ore., owned by Platt and her family, dried potato slices are made into a traditional sopa di papa seca, a soup of dried potatoes, flavored with a rich soffritto of onions, garlic and peppers and finished with dried oregano, cheese and avocado.
Peruvian varieties, particularly purple ones, are making inroads into American menus. Chefs such as Tracy O'Grady like their visual impact and their dense, waxy texture, which is ideal for the grilled potato base in a scallop appetizer at Willow in Arlington, Va. Chef Adam Hegsted of Brix in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, turns to purple potatoes any time he does a South American-influenced dish. Both purple and waxy yellow potatoes work well in the Peruvian dish causa (served at Andina), which features puréed potatoes mixed with lime juice and shaped into flat disks that support various savory fillings.
"You don't know how many flavors you can get with a potato," Platt says. "You have different tastes, colors and textures."
Wax On/Wax Off
With the growing interest in plating different kinds of potatoes, chefs are separating small waxy varieties from starchy varieties for preparations. Waxy potatoes seem better able to hold up on their own, whereas starchy potatoes such as buttes from Maine are as go-to kitchen workhorses for chefs such as Rob Evans.
Waxy: Fingerlings, larattes, red clouds or any other small, round red-skinned potato, or Yukon golds and other yellow-skinned potatoes. For super waxy, look for Peruvian purple potatoes.
Preparation: Sliced and baked, boiled whole, used in rustic mashed potatoes, served in salads
Starchy: Buttes, carolas, russets
Preparation: Baked and served whole, fried into french fries or chips, puréed and used in creamy mashed potatoes