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Article

Potatoes as the Main Event

They're earthy, they're filling, and—paired with the right ingredients—they make a great main dish

Fine Cooking Issue 32
Photos: Martha Holmberg
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What turns a potato into a main dish rather than a side dish? Partly just your attitude. We’re all so used to thinking of potatoes as a “side” to accompany meat or chicken, but in fact their earthy flavor and substantial nature make potatoes a perfect choice to be the center of the meal. Even though we’ve both been known to eat just a bowl of buttery mashed potatoes or a baked potato with sour cream for dinner, to make potatoes truly feel like a main dish, they have to be paired with the right ingredients. They need to lose their neutral nature and become more complex in flavor and texture.

One way to do this is by cutting through the starchiness with fresh, sharp ingredients, such as the bell peppers, garlic, and lemon in our Braised Potatoes, Eggplant & Red Peppers with Garlic, Spices & Cilantro, or the chives, radishes, green beans, and vinaigrette in the New Potato Salad with Spring Vegetables & Shrimp.

You can also enrich potatoes with cheese, cream, or butter (or all three; check out our Potato & Leek Gratin). Because potatoes are so starchy, they can accept quite a bit of richness without becoming cloying.

Some people might like to add a small amount of protein, such as the ham in our gratin or the shrimp in the salad. But you can go completely vegetarian; as long as you have some complexity in the flavors, the dish feels just right as a main dish.

Starch content makes a difference to the cook

Generally, potatoes fall into two categories, high starch and low starch.

You can see the difference between high and low starch potatoes when you bake them: the low starch variety at far left is dense, moist, and chunky after baking, while the high starch one is fluffier and drier.
If you’re not sure how much starch a potato has, cut it with a sharp knife. If there’s a lot of milky liquid on the blade and it feels like the potato is grabbing the knife, the potato is a high starch one.

Potatoes with a high starch content are drier, mealier, more floury when cooked. They also tend to fall apart, so they’re not suited to dishes in which you want them to retain their shape, such as salads or gratins. High-starch potatoes make great baking potatoes and are also good for deep-frying. Some cooks like to use them for mashing, as they become light and fluffy (just don’t overwork them, or they’ll get gluey).

Low starch potatoes are definitely wetter and waxier. They hold a clean shape, even when cooked until very tender. And they’ll produce dense, creamy mashed potatoes, as opposed to fluffy ones.

We actually prefer a medium starch variety, such as Yukon Gold (which are in all the grocery stores now) or Yellow Finn, for mashed potatoes and many other dishes, too. These varieties have a great nutty flavor. They’re good for baking, giving a nice dry result, but they also hold their shape fairly well and can tolerate boiling or simmering.

Potato varieties and taste

Potatoes are on the market shelves year-round, but they definitely have a season in which the flavors are at their peak. According to David Washburn of Red Cardinal Farm, an organic grower in Minnesota, new potatoes are harvested as early as April or May; mature potatoes through the middle of October. After that, the plant tops are cut and the potatoes left in the ground until it’s time to ship them; they’ve stopped growing but continue to age, albeit not as rapidly as they would in a warehouse or on the shelf. This explains why the heirloom potatoes we used for recipe testing in November, though tasty, bore no comparison to the same varieties savored last summer.

Try a taste test with a few different potato varieties. You’ll likely find some more nutty, others more vegetal, and some are downright sweet. Wood Prairie Farm is a certified organic producer in Maine that sells 15 varieties of potato via mail order. For those with a little more patience, the company also sells seed potatoes so you can grow your own.

New potatoes are not a separate group, but the new crop of any potato. Generally speaking, they’re lower in starch than their mature relatives. Size isn’t necessarily an indicator of newness, as new potatoes range from marble- to golfball-size. New potatoes don’t keep very long, losing their appeal quickly. Keep true new potatoes in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for a few days.

And keep all potatoes away from light. Both sunlight and artificial light can cause potatoes to turn green just under the skin. The “greening” can contain solanine, an alkaloid that gives a bitter taste and is mildly toxic. You can peel off the green, but we prefer to throw those potatoes out.

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