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Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: 300 Best Potato Recipes

I love potatoes. For some time, I've been intrigued by potato pizza, a style that (or so I've read) is prevalent around Rome. After pizza, my second favorite food would have to be french fries. And on vacation, I've been known to make side trips to tour the local chip factory.
So I eagerly accepted a review copy of 300 Best Potato Recipes:  A Complete Cook's Guide by Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh. And yes, there was a recipe for a potato pizza, although not what I had expected, and for fries, and I tried them both.
Why an entire cookbook devoted to one ingredient? Well, in the case of potatoes, why not? They're remarkably versatile, they lend themselves to cooking in any number of ways, and they can be enjoyed on their own or in a supporting role.
The book starts off with a useful introduction that covers a bit of history, an overview of cooking methods, and the wide variety of potatoes that are available today, most of which I'd frankly never heard of before. From there, it moves on to some recipes for classic standbys like mashed potatoes and English "chips," before going on to soups, salads, sides, "mains" (Sloan-McIntosh is Canadian, so her writing tends to use Britishisms), breads, and desserts. If there's a dish using potatoes, chances are it, or something close to it, is in here.
The first thing I did on receiving the book, of course, was to look up "pizza," which led me to the recipe for "Potato-Crusted Margherita Pizza." Sloan-McIntosh states that this is "a traditional recipe style from Apulia, in southern Italy," and that she's enjoyed it at a sidewalk bakery/cafe in the city of Lecce.
Unlike Roman-style potato pizza, which is a pan-baked pizza topped with thinly sliced potatoes, this recipe uses cooked potatoes in the crust. I know from bread baking that potatoes will tend to soften the crust, and that's what happened here. The pizza did have a soft crust, and yet I can't say that I didn't enjoy it. Imagine a regular pizza crust infused with mashed potatoes and you'll get an idea of what it was like. Not something I'd want every time, but not bad, and rather unique.
The fries - hmm. It took me a little while to find the recipe I was looking for. The entry for "French fries" read "See fries and frites." Under "fries and frites (chips)," I found subheadings for "deep-fried," "fat for," "oven-fried," and "shallow-fried." I figured "deep-fried" was what I was looking for, but there were eight separate entries under that subheading, which were listed only according to page numbers, so I had to go through them one by one to find what I wanted - "Frites a la Kingsmill," named for a friend of the author.
While my fries did come out caramel colored, as described in the book, I wasn't thrilled with them. My ideal french fry is more golden than brown, with a delicate exterior crispness enveloping a fluffy, potatoey interior. These were darker and oilier than I wanted. There are other recipes in the book that I have yet to try, but the use of the term "frites" in this one led me to expect something closer to classic French fries, more golden than amber. Perhaps the recipe for English chips will come closer to my ideal, as it recommends the use of a "floury" potato, whereas the "frites" recipe called for Yukon Golds. My research indicates that floury potatoes, like russets, are best for french fries.
But the temperature recommendations may play a role too. Like a lot of frites recipes, this called for two fryings - for reasons that are debatable - but this recipe calls for an initial frying at 375 degrees, followed by a second frying at 400. Most other sources I've consulted recommend much lower temperatures for the first fry. I'm no food scientist so I have no idea what effect that had, but it must have some effect on the finished product.
Despite my less than perfect fries, I found a lot to like in this book. It's good for flipping through to look for ideas, especially after you just bought that 50 pound bag of potatoes at the Public Market. And there's a lot more here than just simple spud recipes. How does a dinner of smoked haddock with Yukon Golds in mustard beurre blanc sound, topped off with sweet potato cheesecake with pecan praline crust and caramel cream? Even if you're not that ambitious, if you like potatoes as much as I do, this is a worthwhile addition to your kitchen bookshelf, especially if you'd like to move on past the usual fried-baked-or-mashed variety.
300 Best Potato Recipes by Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh. 448 pages. Pub. by Robert Rose 2011.

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