Potato power

The hardy and humble spud can also be transformed into an elegant chilled soup.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the United States, potatoes, in their unassuming way, have been an integral part of dinner. For decades the country has been known as the land of meat and potatoes. Even today, whenever comfort foods are mentioned, mashed potatoes top the list. Is there anyone out here who does not love potatoes? Mashed, baked, fried, boiled, scalloped: The versatility of the spud is legendary.

Unbelievably, there are perhaps 5,000 varieties of potatoes in various shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. Potatoes come in three basic categories:

Boilers: These are low in starch. They're waxy, thin-skinned, and moist. Because they hold their shape when cooked, they work especially well in stews, soups, and salads.

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Bakers: These are prized for their dry, snowy, fluffy flesh and crisp skins. A baked Russet, when added to stews and soups, will quickly break down and bring a rich thickness to the dish.

All-purpose: These are a mixed bag of potatoes that have a moderate amount of starch and moisture. They work well boiled or baked. Yukon gold is one of the most popular.

Store potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place and use them before they discolor or start sprouting. They should never be refrigerated or frozen. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a greenish cast and become bitter. When possible, leave the skins on when using them in recipes, as they add flavor and nutrition. The flesh of potatoes will darken when exposed to air, so cover cut potatoes with water unless they are to be cooked immediately.

VICHYSSOISE

Serves 8
Despite its French name, Vichyssoise is as American as apple pie. It was actually created at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1910 by Chef Louis Diat. It’s an elegant cold version of the potato-leek French soup Potage Parmentier. More often mispronounced by Americans than not, it’s veeshee-swahze, not veeshee-swah.
For a completely vegetarian version of this recipe, substitute vegetable stock for the chicken broth. The recipe may be halved.
6 large leeks, white part only
1/4 cup butter
1 large onion, chopped
4 large Idaho russet baking potatoes
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped chives for garnish
Cut leeks in half lengthwise, and rinse thoroughly under cold running water to remove sand; then thinly slice the leeks.
Melt butter in a large, heavy pot. Add leeks and onion and cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally until soft and limp, but not browned, about 30 minutes. Add water if necessary to keep vegetables from drying out.
Peel and thinly slice potatoes. Add potatoes to leeks and onion along with chicken stock. Simmer gently until potatoes begin to fall apart, about 20 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool slightly. Puree vegetables in a food processor in small batches or pass through a fine sieve or whip thoroughly with a potato masher.
In a large saucepan, bring milk to a boil. Stir in pureed vegetables; simmer 3 minutes. Pour mixture into a fine strainer and with a rubber spatula press all liquid into a large bowl. Discard any vegetable mixture that is left in strainer.
Chill soup thoroughly. Before serving, stir in heavy cream, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in chilled bowls; garnish with chopped chives.
OVER-THE-TOP MASHED POTATOES
Serves 6
2 pounds baking potatoes
Vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
12 tablespoons butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoon melted butter
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork and rub them with oil.
Bake them at on a rack until tender when pierced with a fork, about an hour.
Cut potatoes in half and scoop out flesh; discard skins. Push potatoes through a strainer into a large bowl, or mash them with a ricer. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and softened butter.
Beat until smooth. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in cream.
Transfer mixture to a shallow baking dish and bake 15 minutes. Drizzle melted butter over potatoes, raise oven temperature to 450 degrees F. and bake an additional 5 minutes.

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