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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Poor Thing, Poorly Treated

Recently, I traveled to Ireland for the first time. We stayed in Dublin, but ventured out into the countryside for day trips. I had never been to Ireland, though I was well acquainted with its reputed beauty and the warmth of its people, both of which proved to be true.

Like many Americans, I had preconceived notions about Irish food—lots of cabbage and potatoes—but I was pleasantly surprised. Dublin in particular has a vibrant, modern, and creative restaurant scene, far removed from Irish stew, bangers and mash, and fish and chips. Of course, these traditional dishes can still be found in Dublin’s pubs, which can be found on nearly every street corner. And don’t get me wrong, I like a good basket of fish and chips as much as the next guy. Simply put, the humble potato is not going away any time soon.

No other food is as tied to a nation’s history and identity as the potato is with Ireland. But this wasn’t always the case. Prior to English colonization in the 17th century, the traditional Irish diet consisted of livestock, dairy, and grains. When the English arrived, many Irish were stripped of their rich farmland and forced to rely on less productive land. Consequently, the Irish resorted to the growing of potatoes, which fortunately thrived in the wet Irish soil and yielded more vitamins and protein than corn, wheat, or oats. Served with a bit of herring, potatoes could provide a farmer or laborer with three square meals a day.

But reliance on a single crop led to disaster: The Famine. On the eve of the Famine, three million out of a population of eight million depended solely on potatoes for sustenance. Eventually, one million died and another million left for North America, Britain, and Australia. The Famine is not forgotten even today in Ireland. There is a memorial to it in Dublin. It depicts gaunt and exhausted peasants, some of whom carry their dead or dying children on their shoulders. It is no wonder the potato is perhaps the most political of vegetables.

But despite this history, the potato remains as an important and valued part of the Irish culinary repertoire.  Potatoes have endured for the simple reason that they make wonderful dishes, though rarely as the main star. They are more like that veteran character actor without whom the leading actor wouldn’t be nearly as effective. But as M.F.K. Fisher pointed out: “to be complimentary is in itself, a compliment.” 

Antoine Augustin Parmentier
Next to Ireland, no other country has embraced the potato more than the French. After all, the French gave the world the eponymous French fry! The French owe their love of the potato to Antoine Augustin Parmentier, an 18th century military pharmacist and French agronomist who promoted the potato most of his adult life. (He discovered it while he was a prisoner of war in Westphalia during he Seven Years War.) Until Parmentier came along, the French considered the potato unwholesome, fit only as food for cattle or the destitute. 

When the potato was used (which was rare indeed), it was used in the form of a flour, mixed with wheat and rye to make bread. To prove that the potato was more than a mere culinary bit player, Parmentier once served dinner to Benjamin Franklin made up entirely of potatoes. Ironically, Parmentier won a prize for the potato from the Academy of Besançon, which held a contest for the discovery of plants likely to be of use during a famine.  And, on a more pedestrian note, in 1904 the Paris Metro opened a new station named for Parmentier, adorned with references to him and his beloved potato.

Enough history! This is supposed to be a food blog after all!.  What are my favorite potato dishes? Well, French fries would be the first, and most obvious, choice, but then there’s potato salad, potato-leek soup,  and mashed potatoes. The most decadent but simple potato dish is Gratin Dauphinois. It is divine on a cold winter evening with a big juicy steak and a glass of red wine.  So here they are—my favorite potato dishes. Enjoy and remember that along with a tasty dish you may be getting a little bit of history too.

The Insouciant Chef’s Potato Salad

Take about 6-8 red potatoes and peel and dice them into 1/2 inch cubes. Boil the potatoes until tender and then cool and stop them from continuing to cook by rinsing with cold water. In a large bowl, mix with diced celery (one cup), red onion (1 cup), mayonnaise (3/4 cup), dijon mustard (1/4 cup), 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish, and salt and black pepper to taste. Of course of all these ingredients can be adjusted to suit your taste—I rarely make my potato salad the same way twice. I like to take a potato masher and mash some of the potatoes to give the salad a bit of a creamy texture. You also don’t have to use as much mayo this way.

The Insouciant Chef’s Mashed Potatoes

Start with about 4-6 russet potatoes. Peel and chop into 1/2-1 inch cubes.  Drain and rinse. Put the potatoes through a ricer into a large mixing bowl. Add to the potatoes, cream (1/2 cup), butter (1-2 sticks), sour cream (1/2 cup) and salt, and white pepper to taste. Use a hand mixer and mix until super smooth.

Potato Leek Soup (Served Cold it is Vichyssoise) 


3-4 cups or 1 lb., peeled potatoes (Yukon Gold), diced
3 cups or 1 lb. thinly sliced leeks, including the pale green parts
2 quarts water
1 tablespoon salt
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2-3 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons minced parsley


Simmer the potatoes and leeks in a 3-4 quart saucepan with the water and salt partially covered until tender—about 40-50 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender. (If you have one, and you want a super silky soup, use a Vitamix!).  Remove from heat, and just before serving, add the butter and cream. Garnish with parsley. 

N.B. The great thing about this soup is its variation. You can add ham, bacon, or mushrooms. 

Gratin Dauphinois

Preheat oven to 425 degrees


2 pounds starchy potatoes
1/2 clove unpeeled garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
1 cup boiling milk or cream


Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.

Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.

Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.

Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.

Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.

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