Potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day

The starchy vegetable can be found in every grocery aisle
March 16, 2011
Grilled potatoes can be a nice twist, but don’t worry about cooking them entirely on the grill or they may burn to a crisp.

In honor of this week’s Saint Patrick’s Day celebration we’re paying homage to the humble potato. Served in every imaginable form, from fast-food staple to gourmet dining accessory, the potato has long been a comfort food favorite. Known in this country for only a few hundred years, the familiar tuber originated in the South American Andes Mountains several thousand years ago. An adaptable crop, potatoes could survive tough growing conditions, long-term storage and contained a powerful nutritional package under an ungainly exterior.

As the potato made its way across Europe and the Americas during the 16th century, it didn’t enjoy very much popularity. Initially, potatoes were considered an inferior food, best suited to the lower classes. Over time, this reputation improved, especially as the abundant potato crop proved capable of feeding Ireland’s growing population. Unfortunately, because only a single potato variety (the lumper) was cultivated, the fungus Phytophthora infestans struck the crop during the 1840s with devastating results.

Through a combination of effective fungicides and greater genetic diversity, the potato has since become ubiquitous in the Western diet. In your local grocery store, you can find potatoes in almost all the aisles. Potato bread and potato rolls, frozen French fries of every size and shape, potato salads, flavored potato chips for any snacking need and an array of fresh potatoes - Yukon gold, russets and baby redskins, just to name a few. With all those choices, the possibilities of potato dishes are almost infinite.

For the potatoes in the photo, we didn’t try to cook them completely on the grill, which allowed us to avoid a hard-as-a-rock and burned-to-a-crisp side dish. Instead, they were parboiled until almost tender, but not yet falling apart. While they were cooking, I greased the grill with a slice of onion coated with olive oil to add flavor and prevent sticking. The halved potatoes were dunked in a lemon chive mixture and finished over the flames.

Whenever I see wasabi mashed potatoes on a restaurant menu, I wonder what to expect. Will they be creamy and soft with a hint of horseradish flavor? Or will they be faintly green and too spicy to enjoy? I’ve mixed all sorts of things into mashed potatoes (sautéed leeks, minced chives, roasted garlic, cheddar cheese) but had never tried wasabi because I wasn’t sure how much would be too much. After lots of research and some experimentation, I came up with a ratio that works for us: one scant tablespoon of wasabi powder to one pound of potatoes. I’d be curious to hear from those of you who’ve created your own golden ratio.

I’ve gotten into the habit of making extra mashed potatoes when I have them on the menu, since we both love potato pancakes. I’ve included a recipe that starts by making a batch of mashed potatoes, in case you don’t have any on hand. The remaining steps add seasonings along with egg and some flour. If you cook these in a nonstick skillet, you’ll need very little butter (or oil) to keep the pancakes from sticking. I like to make extras of these, too, so I can reheat them in the toaster for breakfast the next day.

The last recipe is for a simple potato salad that is delicious served warm or cold. It’s an excellent accompaniment to a spicy entrée or to complement a luncheon sandwich. If you want to add more color interest, replace the celery with diced red pepper; if you don’t have a leek, try green onions instead. This is a great dish for fresh new potatoes to showcase their flavor against a lemony backdrop and a wonderful way to honor St. Patrick.

Lemon Chive Potatoes
1/2 lb new red-skinned potatoes
1/4 t salt
2 T minced chives
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 T olive oil

Preheat grill to medium. Scrub and halve the potatoes. Place in a saucepan and cover with water. Add salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and set aside. In a shallow bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Dip the potatoes in the chive mixture, cut side down, and place on the grill. Drizzle skin side of potato with any remaining chive. Grill the potatoes until softened, about five to eight minutes.

Potato Pancakes
1 lb russet potatoes
1 t salt
2 T flour
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 C milk
1 T parsley
1 T grated onion
1 minced garlic clove
white pepper, to taste
1 T butter

Peel and coarsely chop the potatoes. Place in a saucepan; cover with water and add salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes and put them through a food mill or ricer into a large bowl.  Add flour, eggs, milk, parsley, onion, garlic and pepper. Melt butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Spoon 2 T of batter for each pancake into the skillet.
Cook until crisp, about three minutes; turn and brown the other side. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.

Light Potato Salad
6 new potatoes
1 leek
1 celery stalk
2 T olive oil
2 T lemon juice
1 T chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste

Scrub the potatoes and cut into quarters (or eighths, if too large). Place in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender, about 10 minutes; drain. Thoroughly clean the leek, halve lengthwise and thinly slice.

Dice the celery. In a serving bowl, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Add remaining ingredients and toss to combine. Serve warm or chilled.