Thursday, July 30, 2009
Spice and Easy
I get asked a lot of food questions as a food blogger. Some are to be expected, like where I shop for specialty ingredients, what my go-to dishes are, and who my favorite chef is. But most surprising of all are all of the questions I get about potatoes. From making the perfect french fries, to creamy mashed potatoes and the just-like-my-mom's home fries and hash browns of their youth, people are looking for some serious answers about potato cookery. Potatoes are a big part of the Spanish diet and every woman in my family can make at least 5 awesome potato dishes off the cuff, from croquetas, to tortilla and french fries. I paid close attention when my grandmother fried potatoes on high heat in light olive oil, or when my mother added two egg yolks to her mashed potatoes. After years of watching patiently from the sidelines, I finally learned to make potatoes just like the other women in my family (even they're only half as good as theirs, they'll still be delicious).
Among the many tuber-related questions that make their way to me is a curious one: how does one make simple whole or halved potatoes? A few people tell me that they always encounter the outside being far too dark while the inside is raw, or that to get the inside cooked they end up with overcooked, mushy outsides. I must admit that I initially struggled with this type of dish as well. Why was it that every caterer, cruise ship and steakhouse in town could do it and I couldn't? I tried simply roasting on different oven temperatures, changing the temperature midway through, par boiling then roasting, simply boiling, pan roasting, and any combination in between. Nothing seemed to work, and then I encountered a new method for making mashed potatoes that involved steaming them instead of boiling. They cooked faster, more evenly, and softened without waterlogging. I figured if I applied this method to my potato dish, then quickly pan roasted them with whatever flavorings I wanted, I might stand a chance.
It worked perfectly, and shortly thereafter I learned that the steaming method is taught in culinary school, which explains why all of the professionals knew about it and I didn't. In fact, the potato recipe I made this week comes from the Culinary School of America and uses a number of my favorite herbs and spices, with an additional few that I thought would play nice. The first step was steaming the potatoes, which I do using your everyday cheapie metal vegetable steamer in a large pan with a lid. It took about 15-18 minutes for mine to cook through, but it's really the size of your spuds that determines the cooking time. After their steam bath I tossed them directly into a large non-stick skillet (very important with potatoes) with some melted butter and saffron. I added parsley, salt and pepper per the recipe, plus some fresh thyme, one of my favorite herbs to use with potatoes. I was far more generous with the salt and pepper than the recipe was, because the potatoes didn't have any of the salinity that they'd normally get from being boiled in salted water, so they were tasting a bit bland. The dish was quite tasty, and would make an excellent side for a grilled steak, a roast chicken (that's my choice for a main dish pairing) or even a nice piece of fish. At least give the method a try, and you'll never have burned or half done potatoes again!
Herbed Potatoes with Saffron
adapted from the Culinary School of America
1 1/2 lbs red new potatoes, scrubbed, halved, and peeled if you'd like
2 Tbsp butter
pinch saffron strands
2 Tbsp finely sliced parsley
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
generous pinch of salt
generous grind of white pepper
1. Steam potatoes using a vegetable or bamboo steamer over a pan of boiling water, about 15-18 minutes (I like them to be just shy of cooked through so I can cook everything a little longer in the pan without overcooking).
2. Meanwhile, melt butter and saffron in a large non-stick skillet. Add cooked potatoes, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. Toss everything to coat well and cook a few minutes until potatoes are hot and everything has cooked together, about 3-5 minutes. Enjoy!