Passionate about potatoes
Beyond fries — potatoes offer array of flavors
Tangy potato, eggplant stir-fry: In the Northeast region of China, potatoes are used in stir-fries and stews. Look for Chinese black vinegar in Asian markets, or substitute with balsamic vinegar. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Growing up in the Midwest, I found potatoes were part and parcel of most every family dinner: baked, mashed, scalloped or cottage fried. Then came my teenage love affair with french fries, which has not abated with the years.
I remember heading to the neighborhood drugstore counter with my sisters in our weekly tradition. The fry cook knew his stuff. We would linger over his french fries for hours, enjoying each fry, perfectly crisp on the outside and soft-and-potatoey on the inside. We would wash them down with the ideal partner (we thought then): vanilla Coke.
Little did I know then that potatoes could be dressed up in more intriguing ways than a sprinkling of salt over fries. And that potatoes would become available in many colors, sizes and textures. Scientists have found more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes around the world, according to Diane Morgan in her cookbook "Roots" (Chronicle, $40). Rather than describing potatoes by color or shape, Morgan classifies them by texture to best "understand how to use them."
High-starch potatoes: mealy, granular texture when cooked, lower in sugar and moisture, good for deep frying, baking and mashed. Russets are the best example.
Low-starch potatoes: waxy, smooth texture, cannot absorb much moisture, so they hold their shape well in soups, stews and salads. Also good for roasting because the sugar content helps them brown and caramelize. Red potatoes fit this category.
Medium, in-between starch content: These all-purpose varieties include Yukon Golds and some fingerlings.
Such versatile uses make the potato a standby side dish or a dinner party favorite. In her new cookbook "Haute Potato" (Adams Media, $18.95), Jacqueline Pham writes: "There are few other vegetables dynamic enough to be roasted, boiled, steamed, baked, fried or mashed. Multiply this diversity by the dozens of varieties now readily available and the opportunity to create unique dishes truly knows no bounds."
Pham describes the potato as a passport that "allows us to sample foods from around the world." By teaming the "always agreeable" potato, as Morgan writes, with ethnic flavors, the cook's world expands. Add a glaze of soy sauce, garlic and vinegar, for example, and potatoes become a northeast Chinese classic. Stir in crispy sauteed kale and onions, and mashed potatoes pivot to become a new version of the Irish dish, colcannon.
The combinations of spices, herbs, sauces and condiments that marry well with potatoes are so numerous that even a die-hard french-fry lover is glad to put down her salt shaker and explore.
Variations on spuds
• Toss chunks of potatoes with 1 minced canned chipotle chili, olive oil and salt and roast until tender, about 40 minutes at 375 degrees.
• Layer thin potato slices in place of noodles in your favorite lasagna recipe.
• Top baked potatoes with horseradish butter: Mix together in a bowl 2 minced green onions, 6 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup prepared horseradish and salt and pepper to taste.
• Scatter seasoned diced purple potatoes in soups and stews.
Tangy potato and eggplant stir-fry
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Note: In the Northeast region of China, potatoes are used in stir-fries and stews. Look for Chinese black vinegar in Asian markets, or substitute with balsamic vinegar. Inspired by a recipe in The New York Times.
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 1/2-inch dice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons each: soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar, cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1 eggplant, peeled, cut in 1/2-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1. Heat about 1 inch of water to a boil in a steamer; add potatoes. Steam potatoes until just tender, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt; set aside. Meanwhile, mix broth, soy sauce, vinegar, cornstarch and sugar in a small bowl.
2. Heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat; add 2 tablespoons oil. Add peppers; stir-fry until edges start to turn brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon. Add eggplant to wok, adding 1 tablespoon oil if needed; stir-fry until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic; stir-fry, 1 minute.
3. Add potatoes and red pepper to wok; stir to mix. Add half of the soy sauce mixture; reduce heat to low. Simmer, stirring, until thickened, about 1 minute. Cook, slowly adding remaining soy sauce mixture, until vegetables are tender and sauce is reduced, 5 minutes.
Per serving: 149 calories, 5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 304 mg sodium, 4.5 g fiber.