All Eyes on Potatoes

This humble starch is one to watch all year long.

Few foods can beat the potato on versatility. Sliced thin and fried, mashed or even decked out for dessert, potatoes are the ultimate blank slate for creative chefs—a cost-effective route to building a signature dish. And now, potatoes are the go-to substitute for diners with dietary restrictions, from vegans to those saying no to gluten.

Whether they’re the one-pounders loaded with a bounty of ingredients or the pebble-sized baby potatoes sauted in butter, potatoes can suit up for any occasion or time of year. Fall, in particular, brings potato and other comfort food cravings.

“That’s when we start doing a lot of mashed potatoes and heavier food,” says Greg Hardesty of Recess in Indianapolis. “I love braises with horseradish mashed potatoes. I love potato gnocchi.”

Hardesty discovered how to get creative with potatoes while working under Chef Joachim Splichal at Café Pinot and Pinot Hollywood in Los Angeles. Under Splichal, he learned to use potatoes as a vehicle to showcase seasonal flavors, such as a trio of mashed potatoes with riffs on local ingredients.

“He’s known as the potato maestro,” Hardesty says. “It’s something I learned and loved. Potatoes are starchy and somewhat neutral, therefore great vehicles for both bold and subtle flavors.”

On his local, seasonal prix fixe menu, which changes daily, potatoes have taken the form of a pasta-free mushroom lasagna. Thin slices of potato are baked flat between sheet pans and then layered between plenty of Parmesan (or other cheese) and wild mushrooms.

Otto, a pizzeria in Portland, Maine, with other locations throughout New England, hooks potatoes up with pizza, a mashed potato pie that’s garnered national attention. The thin-crust pie is layered with mashed potatoes, mozzarella, bacon, thyme, rosemary and parsley. A 12-inch version sells for $13, a 16-inch for $21.

“The pizza has become a favorite among our signature pizzas,” says Eric Shepherd, the restaurant’s spokesman.

At Next Restaurant in Chicago, Executive Chef Dave Beran revisited the classic twice baked potato earlier this year for the restaurant’s steak-house-themed menu.

Beran first made a twice-baked potato filled with bone marrow mashed potatoes but found it lacked finesse. “We started looking at other ways potatoes are served in steak houses—home fries, hash browns, potato salad, etc.,” Beran says, “and we wanted to touch on these.”

The second attempt began with hollowing out a baked potato. The shell was fried, but so was the soft, fluffy inside after being tossed with bone marrow, sour cream and mayonnaise. The 2-inch-long potato boats were topped with crispy fried beef bits—remnants of the marrow rendering process.

“At the end of the day, you basically have a very fancy, twice-baked potato garnished with chives, crispy beef and sour cream,” he says.

Heather Lalley is Chicago-based freelance writer and part-time baker who never says no to potatoes.


Be a Spud Master 

Mashed potatoes are deceptively simple: Cook, mash and load with butter and cream. But they can easily turn into a gummy, flavorless mess. To be the master of your spud, follow these tips from Sean Sanders, chef-owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Browntrout in Chicago.

DO

+ Salt the water for cooking potatoes so that “it tastes like the sea.”

+ Use a wooden skewer or meat fork, not a knife, to judge whether potatoes are cooked. A knife passes through too easily, even if the potatoes aren’t done.

+ Cook unpeeled potatoes with the skin on to retain nutrients and flavor.

+ Keep the butter cold and cream hot to emulsify the potatoes.

+ Use a stand mixer to mash larger quantities of potatoes, but do so lightly and carefully, unless you want a gummy result.

Don't

- Add potatoes to boiling water. Instead, start them in cold, salted water, bring to a boil and simmer until tender.

- Use water-logged potatoes (which happens if they are not drained immediately after cooking). To save the spuds, pop cooked potatoes in a preheated, 275 F oven for about 15 minutes to fully dry the exteriors.

- Think it’s OK to use potatoes that have turned green underneath the skin. It’s a natural toxin released when the potato is exposed to sunlight. The flavor can ruin a dish even when the green is removed.

Potato Mash-Ups

The country’s most innovative kitchens are reimagining traditional potato dishes with creative flavor combinations and cooking techniques:

Potato hash

with sweet potatoes and pork belly at Citizen’s Band in San Francisco

with braised duck leg and green onionsat Egg in Brooklyn, New York

with beef brisket, roasted beets and horseradish creme fraiche at Serpentine in San Francisco

with crab and potatoes at Alice’s Arbor in Brooklyn, New York

Potato gnocchi

with lobster and abalone mushrooms at Boulevard in San Francisco

with ramps, wild mushrooms, sugar snap peas and basil at Proof in Washington, D.C.

with peas, artichoke, ricotta salata and smoked tomato veloute at Twenty Five Lusk in San Francisco

with sweet potatoes, mascarpone and sage butter at Tulio in Seattle

Salads

Shrimp Louie Cobb salad with potatoesat Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C.

Spinach salad with grape tomatoes, all blue potatoes, pancetta, balsamic onions and hard-cooked egg at La Brea Avenue Bakery in Los Angeles

Korean potato salad at The Good Fork in Brooklyn, New York