Cheap, nourishing, eminently available and fuss-free, the humble potato is just the thing for these days and weeks of stay-at-home, nearly nonstop cooking.
Potatoes have always had mass appeal. And I find them beyond appealing, really. How deep is my love for potatoes? The mere mention of them makes my pulse race, starts me salivating, makes my mouth water and drool.
Potatoes are undeniably delicious, and there are so many ways to prepare them — steamed, boiled, baked, mashed, smashed, roasted or fried. Simply slathered with butter or anointed with olive oil, the only seasoning required is a little salt. But a sprinkling of black pepper from the mill or a dab of sour cream or a bit of chopped parsley, green onion or chives improves the experience for not much extra effort.
These basic preparations reveal but the iceberg’s tip. There are an endless number of potato soups, pancakes, stews, stuffings, soufflés. Gratins, gnocchi, salads, samosas, pies. Every culture has a potato repertoire, which means a potato lover’s opportunities are without boundary.
Under the best circumstances, you can count on tender new potatoes in the spring and summer. Red-skinned boilers, earthy russets, yellow-fleshed Yukon, purple Peruvians and diminutive fingerlings are normally obtainable throughout the year. For the recipes that follow, medium-sized yellow potatoes are ideal, with russets as a second choice.
These dishes may be considered first course, main course or side. Personally, I relish the opportunity to make a meal of potatoes only.
This easy vegetarian soup is surprisingly full flavored and accessible. Aside from potatoes, there are no special vegetables required, just onion, carrot and celery, and it’s easily made vegan by substituting cooking oil for the butter and ghee. A little fresh ginger, cayenne and turmeric are spices most cooks have on hand, but I like to add a pinch of asafetida (also called hing), which can be found in specialty spice shops or Indian groceries. It adds real depth and a kind of heady aroma that is especially good with potato dishes. But don’t worry if you don’t have it. More important are the sizzled cumin seeds, mustard seeds and garlic (the tarka), added at the end, which really give the soup its character. This soup keeps well and actually tastes even better a day or two after it is made. If you find it too thick upon reheating, just add a splash of water and adjust the salt as necessary.
Paired with spicy salsa brava and garlicky allioli, patatas bravas are traditionally served in tapas bars throughout Spain. The salsa brava is made with pimentón, the smoked Spanish paprika sold as picante (hot) and dulce (sweet). Some cooks include a lot of chopped tomato, but my friends in Madrid tell me they prefer this version, which looks a bit like rusty gravy. As for the allioli, a garlic mayonnaise very similar to the French aioli, you can mount it by hand with a whisk, or use a stick blender as most Spaniards do. Some add lemon juice; I don’t. Though patatas bravas are typically pan-fried on the stovetop, I came up with this easier oven-fried method. The potatoes emerge beautifully browned and crisped, and their flavor is sensational. This is not fancy fare. Grab a fork and dip the hot potatoes in both sauces for the optimal experience.
Serve this zesty room-temperature potato salad on its own with crisp lettuce or arugula leaves on the side, or alongside meats from the grill, a roasted chicken or any type of fish. The dressing is essentially a well-seasoned vinaigrette, enhanced with Dijon mustard, capers, a little garlic and a few chopped anchovies. Red onion, thyme leaves and chopped parsley complete the picture — in all, a very simple dish. The key is to dress the potato slices very carefully with your hands, in order to coat them well and to keep them breaking. It is a potato salad you’ll grow to love, best eaten within hours of assembling (but perfectly serviceable the next day.)