Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One Potato, Two Potatoes

Everyone’s favorite tuber – the humble potato is so versatile and can be cooked in so many different ways. The trick is to choose the right potato for the job! There are two basic categories of potatoes – mealy and waxy – which makes them sound so unappetizing right? Mealy potatoes are also referred to as all-purpose – Idaho or russet potatoes are in this category. Waxy potatoes include everything from red bliss to my favorite fingerlings.

Idaho potatoes make the best baked and mashed potatoes, their light, airy texture are enhanced by proper baking or boiling. Waxy potatoes are great in stews, soups, braises, and so on since they hold up to cooking for longer periods of time and don’t lose their shape.

We took our humble Idaho potato and prepped it for deep-frying – another cooking method that is ideal for this type of potato. With the aid of a mandoline (think fancy miniature guillotine) we cut our potatoes in to many different shapes, Pommes Pailles (thin juliennes), Pommes Gaufrettes (lacy waffle cut), Pommes Chips (name says it all), Pommes Allumettes (matchsticks), and Pommes Pont-Neuf (thick-cut fries).

Potatoes can be fried uncoated and when fried properly they will form a golden outer crust that will prevent them from absorbing too much oil – for this reason this cooking method is considered a dry-heat method.

There are a few things to remember when deep-frying. Only use a vegetable or peanut oil since these have very high smoke points – never mix oils. The oil should be 3 to 4 inches deep in your pot, consider using a fry basket – it makes removing your fried potatoes much easier. It’s smart to always test the oil with one piece to ensure it is ready for the rest of the batch. Invest in a good thermometer – we will be reaching temperatures up to 370 degrees. Keeping an eye on your oil’s temperature is extremely important – this is where you have the most control. Never crowd the deep-fryer with too many pieces – frying food needs room to dance around. Always, dry off your potatoes of excess water! Water and oil DO NOT mix and will splatter and is very dangerous.

I know you are thinking, too much to remember, why bother? Well, I’m not condoning eating lots of fried foods (yes, I agree they are tasty!), but in this case you are controlling what you are cooking, and how much – which brings me back to the concept of reminding people to think about where their food comes from and who is preparing it.

Back to the fryer – some potatoes may be cooked in a one-step method. This means that the potato will be cooked completely at one temperature – in this case somewhere between 350 – 370 degrees. This cooking method only works for thin-cut potatoes, such as the waffle-cut, matchsticks, and chips.

The second way is called the two-step method where the potatoes are “blanched” in oil at 300 – 320 degrees for 5 to 6 minutes depending on the size to help cook the inside of the potato and should not color your potato. Remove potatoes from oil, drain on paper towels, and boost the heat up to reach 350 degrees but no hotter than 370 degrees and cook the potatoes again. In this second stage the potatoes will get that wonderful crisp golden color and finish cooking. Again, drain on paper towels and season while hot. This method works wonderfully on thin and thick-cut French fries.

We rounded off the class by cooking Pommes Purée (mashed potatoes), Pommes Anna (gorgeous scalloped-shaped potatoes arranged in a circular pattern sauteed in clarified butter), Pommes Darphin (almost like hash browns), and Gratin Dauphinois (decadent, creamy and finished in the oven with lots of gruyère cheese). So many delicious recipes that I am happy to share – at the end of the night, I was carb-loaded, and ready to run a marathon straight to Grand Central Terminal.

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