Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Nine: Potatoes
Dear Foodie Voyeur,
When looking over western hemisphere cuisine, the potato seems to be the real workhorse of civilization. It can be baked, fried, boiled, stewed, shredded, mashed, turned, etc. etc. etc. Yet it seems to always be an afterthought, and even the term "fry chef" is a term of derision -- as if even "the common clay of the new west" could make good fries. Of course, none of use really believe that -- we don't make our own fries at home, after all.
This class goes over basic preparations in classic French cuisine for the potato. Just in case you didn't realize, the French don't boil a potato except to cook it further some other way. They don't mash it. Seems odd, and I'm sure they do in the privacy of their homes, but you don't really see mashed potatoes as mashed potatoes on a French menu. You will see it as a binder for preparations like bacalao or to be piped out as Pommes Duchesse, but not as plain mash with gravy over it like the Irish do so well.
Basic to potato cookery is the French mandoline, a device that resembles a carpenter's wood plane with multiple blades and propped upon some fold-out legs. It's a tool necessary if you are slicing massive quantities of potatoes, and really is the only practical way to cut gaufrettes or "waffle-cut" potatoes. The basis for pommes frites or "french fries" is an evenly cut rectangle of potato. The length can vary somewhat but not the other dimensions:
Basic cooking techniques apply: deep frying, sautéing, boiling/steaming, and baking. Which cooking method applies really depends on whether the potato is mealy/floury or waxy. Mealy potatoes (wasn't there a character in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield named Mealy Potatoes??) include the famous American Russet-Burbank, or Idaho baker, which is ideal for baked or fried applications. Waxy potatoes include the Red Pontiac or Pink potato (often mistakenly called a "new" potato -- any potato dug up at the beginning of harvest is actually a new potato, waxy or mealy), and Fingerling potatoes, the most famous probably being the Yukon Gold. These have a less dry texture and a more buttery flavor. A third category is the sweet potato, which tends to have more beta-carotene (thus is yellow or orange in color) and more sugar. They do not crisp up like mealy potatoes do, and tend to be very dense and burn easily. Two type of sweet potatoes include the yam, which is more tube-shaped, and the American sweet potato, which is more bulbous and brownish-orange in color. Many South American potatoes tend to be sweeter, as well.
Deep-frying is actually considered a dry-heat method, like baking, because an outer crust of coagulated proteins and caramelized sugars/starches will form on the food when plunged into the oil. This coating will prevent oil from entering the food itself.
The "boiling" of oil is actually the evaporation of water to form steam. The energy in steam can burn badly, and forces the volume of the cooking oil to expand violently. Thus precautions needs to be taken, including drying the food to be cooked by blotting or dredging in a dry coating; making sure the oil does not exceed half the volume of the pot you're frying in (but should be at least 3 inches deep); putting food into the oil carefully, using a strainer, skimmer, or basket, rather than dropping it in and causing splashing. A high boiling temperature oil, such as peanut oil or duck fat should be used, rather than butter, which contains water and proteins. The oil should be clean and shouldn't be allowed to smoke, which signals the oil's decomposition.
Techniques for using deep-frying's properties include one-, two-, and three-step cooking.
In the one- and two-step cases the potatoes are rinsed and blotted dry before frying. The three-step frying technique requires no rinsing of the extra starch. In each case, salt while still hot after the final fry.
Boiled / Steamed
One of the annoying aspects of French cuisine is that they can't just say "boiled," or "simmered." They name food based on size and method of cooking, so the waiter has to remember it and describe it for you:
Worse, the cook gets to remember it and do it. No wonder people think the French are prissy. Too bad it looks and tastes so good.
Speaking of cuts, you know that melonballer you have and never use? It's called a parisienne knife and can be used to cut round potatoes, called pommes parisienne. If a bit bigger, like a nut, it's a noisette (this term is used to describe both size/shape and color, by the way). Ovoid shapes are referred to as olives. If you want to cut tile-shapes from the batonnes listed in the table above, the bigger ones are parmentier (from a pont-neuf) and vert pres (from a mignonette). Argh.
If the potatoes are thin and cut on a mandoline, pan-cooking them in oil in a sautoir or russe is simple enough. There are a lot of classice recipes, including Pommes Lyonnaise -- that term means it's cooked with sautéed, sliced onions till finished to a golden brown in the oven. We used duck fat, and we were screaming about the fat content, but who could question it when it tasted so good??
Mashed / Puréed
As stated, the French don't simply mash potatoes and serve them as is. Strictly speaking, they put the simmered potato pieces through a ricer or foodmill; they do not use a food processor or blender to purée, since overworking the potato will result in gluten formation, making the potatoes stretchy and glue-y. Then it's mixed with warm milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg and mounted with butter (like a sauce). Like this, with heavy cream and more butter, it's called pommes mousseline for a "mousse" or "texture like muslin cloth." Other treatments get more complex:
Baked / Molded
A potato is not simply shoved in an oven and cooked. It is a versatile vegetable, and the French try to take advantage of all it's myriad properties. Here, the potato is cut and not rinsed; instead, it's pressed into a russe or sautoir for stove-top cooking, then finished in an oven. It seems like gilding the lily, but if you can, why not? Take a simple dish like the French version of scalloped potatoes (a "scallop" is shaped like a scallop, but thinner) is made with cream and thyme (instead of the British version, with a white sauce). It's delectable and subtle -- there's garlic in it, but it's split then the cut end used to wipe around the bottom and sides of the russe. The dish is simmered in the cream, then topped with grated cheese and finished in the oven. It's wonderful, and my partner and I politely tried to take it all home (neither won out, and we each took a small bit home). Here's a dish with it's own sauce, with simpler starting ingredients than the British version, and interesting enough that no one would dare refer to it as a simple 'side dish'! Here's another chart with the basics of baked/molded potato dishes:
(By the way, after cutting, none of these potatoes are rinsed -- you want the extra starch so that the pieces will stick together to form a "cake," which is typically served in wedges.)
See what they mean when they say all of Western Hemisphere cooking has been categorized and developed by the French? It's clever that they did, in that they can standardize training from one end of the country to the other, part of the apprenticeship education. It's also why it's harder to teach other types of cuisine -- no dogma!
Susu, the Culinary Padawan
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