Sunday, May 17, 2009

To Mash or not to Mash? - mini-masterclass

We think of potato varieties as very few, yet over 700 are kept at the Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland. The largest potato gene bank being in Peru where they hold 3,694 cultivars (as at 1999). At least this means many more varieties that we expect (some in short supply) can be bought as ‘seed’ potatoes, and home-grown. Farmers’ markets will also have more varieties on sale than the supermarkets carry.

During wartime rationing there were only two varieties grown in any amount, ‘Home Guard’ being the early, and the maincrop, called ‘Arran Consul’ - known as “the potato that won the war”.

Ffor general culinary use we cannot do much better than Maris Piper, a good all-rounder, which is now Britain’s most popular potato, especially in fish and chip shops, but it can break easily if overcooked.

Desiree is said to the world’s favourite red-skinned potato, and cooks well especially when roasted or cooked in wedges as it holds its shape. Another all-rounder as it is suitable for baking, boiling, chipping, roasting, mashing, Good also for salads – in fact all methods of cooking. Rooster is another good one.

Pink Fir Apple is not so well known, and often avoided as it is very knobbly and nigh impossible to peel, but it is firm and waxy with a delicious flavour. It can be easily peeled once cooked (if you insist on peeling), and best served cold in salads, or hot as new potatoes.

Charlotte has a firm waxy texture with a hint of chestnut flavour. The best way to cook this potato is by steaming whether eating hot or cold, and eats particularly well cold in salads. Extremely popular in France where cooks respect the quality more than we might do.

(La) Ratte is a potato similar to Pink Fir, but not so knobbly, and – like Charlotte – also has a nutty flavour. Again extremely popular in France and fast growing in popularity here.

Royal Kidney – better known to us as Jersey Royals. Although the ‘royal’ is grown in different countries, only the rich Jersey soil brings out the true flavour, and Jersey Royals are respected all over the world. Being a ‘first early’ they are picked and sold within days, unlike maincrop which can be stored for months. So when on sale, make the most of them.

When it comes to preparing and cooking potatoes there are many useful hints and tips. So as I work through several of these, hope that at least some of the info will be of help. Have not covered frying potatoes (as chips), as it seems oven-chips seem the healthiest way to cook, but other methods of cooking will be given.

First the preparation:
Potatoes can be grated either before or after cooking, depending upon the recipe chosen. Raw potatoes, when grated, exude a surprising amount of starchy liquid that can help some dishes to ‘stick together’, other dishes need the liquid removing, and this is best done by squeezing the gratings by hand, or wrapping them in a clean tea towel and wringing them out.
Cold floury potatoes are easier to grate after they have been cooked, as long as they have not been overcooked. Waxy potatoes are best for making rosti and hash.

chopping and dicing:
Waxu potatoes are the best first cooked and left to get cold before dicing as then they chop more easily and cleanly. If intending to use diced potatoes in soup or chowder, then chop floury potatoes when raw as these are more likely disintegrate and their starches help thicken the soup.

Normally slices are used as a topping to a casserole or similar dish. Aim to cut them an even thickness so that they cook evenly. The recommended thickness is one eighth of an inch thick (3mm).

We are all pretty used to cooking potatoes by boiling, but even this should be done correctly according to the type of potato used, and other methods are also given.
boiling potatoes:
With maincrop potatoes, cut into similar sized chunks (or the smaller ones can be left whole) so that they cook evenly. Place in a pan immediately after peeling and cover (and only just cover) with COLD water, adding 1 – 2 tsp salt to taste, then bring slowly to the boil.
Floury potatoes need gentle cooking (simmering) or the outside will be cooked before the inside, and then they begin to fall apart in the pan (some varieties are worse than others).
When finished cooking, drain well then return to the pan to dry off (especially necessary when wishing to mash them), leaving them over a very low heat to allow moisture to escape. In the north of England the spuds are sprinkled with salt while drying off. In Ireland the cooked and drained potatoes are wrapped in a clean tea towel until ready to serve – turning out dry and fluffy.
New potatoes (because of their higher vitamin C content) should never be left soaking before being cooked but placed in a pan of BOILING water and cooked for about 15 minutes.
The very firm salad potatoes should also be put into boiling water, then simmered for 5 – 10 minutes, removed from heat, and left in the pan of hot water for another 10 minutes to cook through evenly.

With potatoes, blanching helps to soften the skin to make them easier to peel, they can then be returned to the water to finish cooking.
Blanching also helps to remove excess starch from the spuds, this being necessary for some recipes, and is also done before roasting.
To blanch, place the potatoes in a pan of COLD water, bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 2 – 5 minutes depending on size. They can either then be drained (peeled if necessary and cooked on), or left in the cooling water until needed.

Steaming is an excellent way to cook floury potatoes and those that fall apart easily. The small and new potatoes, when steamed in their skins (as they should be) are particularly delicious. Adding a bunch of mint to the simmering water gives a subtle flavour to the steamed spuds.
Allow 5 – 7 minutes steaming time for sliced or small potatoes, and up to 20 minutes for the larger ones. Test by sticking the tip of a knife into a potato to tell when it is cooked.
Once the potatoes are cooked, they will keep warm for several minutes if placed in a steamer over a pan of boiling water.

When roasting potatoes, use the large baking potatoes (Maris Piper, Desiree, King Edward, Kerr’s Pink etc). Cut into even sized pieces, blanch for 4 - 5 minutes (depending on the size), then remove from heat and stand in the cooling water for a further 4 - 5 minutes so that they part-cook evenly, then drain well and return to the pan over low heat for a few seconds to dry off.
To give a really crispy coating to a roast potato, rough up the surface with a fork, or give a good shake in a colander. Some cooks sprinkle the surface of the potato with flour or semolina before roasting.
The success of a good ‘roastie’ depends upon the type of fat used. Traditionally, beef dripping gives the best flavour, although goose fat is also delicious and gives a very light and crispy result.
A vegetarian alternative is a light olive oil, which is basically equal amount of sunflower and olive oils blended together.

To have perfect roast potatoes, the fat needs to be fairly shallow and hot enough to seal the surface of the potato immediately. The temperature of the oven should be 220C, 425F, gas 7. When the oil is very hot and shimmering, add the dried-off potatoes and toss immediately so all the surfaces are covered in the oil. Roast on the top shelf for up to an hour, occasionally turning the potatoes so they cook evenly. Towards the end of the cooking time, drain off all the fat as this will allow the potatoes to crisp up and brown more easily.

mashed potatoes:
However many time we mash potatoes, always they seem to have some lumps. If large potatoes are cooked in the microwave, the flesh mashes easily with a fork and there should be no lumps at all. When boiled in water (the more usual way), they need draining and drying off in the pan over low heat for a few minutes to get rid of the excess moisture. It is worth knowing that cold potatoes mash more easily than when hot.
How the potatoes are mashed depends upon the cook. Irrespective of whether butter, cream or eggs are included, the initial mashing can be done in several ways. Using a fork does not usually give good results, making for an uneven and lumpy texture (although suitable for the fashionable ‘crushed potato’ look). A potato masher works much better, but the best utensils to use are either a potato ‘ricer’, or a food mill (aka mouli mill). Pushing though a sieve also works but can take a long time and a fair amount of elbow grease.
NEVER ‘mash’ potatoes in a blender or food processor as this causes them to end up as a solid, gluey mass fit only to use when making soup. While an electric hand whisk does a reasonable job – if the potatoes are not overworked – it still remains that the best ‘mash’ is made by hand,

my chores. Pleased to hear you are enjoying the potato Masterclass, and hope today does not fail your expectations.
As to using mustard. When mustard is made with water, it can be really ‘hot’, but much milder when made with milk, this is perhaps why it seems to have less ‘bite’ when made into a mustard sauce. Many recipes originate in France where they normally use a milder mustard such as Dijon, so it maybe wiser to use less ‘Coleman’s’ if the ingredient just states ‘mustard’ without giving a type.
Incidentally, using mustard powder (either directly as an ingredient or made-up) works out far cheaper than buying it ready made in bottles or tubes.