WOLFGANG PUCK once told me that when growing up in Austria his favorite food was mashed potatoes. He loved them so much that if his mother didn't serve them with the main dish, he wouldn't eat anything on his plate. ``To me the mashed potatoes were more important than the main course. Still I love them today,'' he said.
The celebrated chef has been known to serve mashed potatoes with truffles at his most popular restaurant, Spago, in West Hollywood, Calif.
But Chef Puck is not the only one elevating the image of this starchy root vegetable, scientifically known as Solanum tuberosum. Other chefs, cookbook authors, and home cooks are fostering a new reputation for the spud as well. Instead of associating it with childhood games, the 1845 famine in Ireland, Dan Quayle's spelling blunder, or something you turn into when you watch TV from the couch too long, they are applauding the potato for its versatility, nutritional content, and variety.
Call it a tater renaissance or a tuber comeback: Vive la pomme de terre!
``Potatoes are cheap. They're good filler, and there are so many different things to do with potatoes,'' says Bryon Ingraham, chef of Duck's American Grill & Bar in Boise, Idaho - the potato state.
Everything involving potatoes on the restaurant's menu has gone up in sales, notes Chef Ingraham. Right now one of the specials he's preparing is red potatoes, served with steak and salmon. The potatoes are steamed then left in a butter-garlic sauce. Ingraham's personal favorite is ``a scalloped potato.''
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the production of potatoes has been growing steadily in this country over the past decade. In 1992, 41 billion pounds of potatoes were produced, compared with 35 billion in 1982.
Per capita potato consumption in this country has risen as well, from 118 lbs. in 1973 to 133 lbs. in 1992. French fries have more to do with this than any gourmet mashed potatoes, however. The demand for processed potatoes has increased faster than that for fresh potatoes, says Arvin Budge, an agricultural statistician with the USDA. Mr. Budge notes that the microwave has helped increase consumption of fresh potatoes.
Fast food aside, some serious cooks are on a praise-the-potato crusade. Witness the fact that a handful of cookbooks specifically on potatoes has been published in the last two years.
Enid Nemy's ``Hot Potatoes'' (Doubleday, 1992) features a collection of ``recipes, wit, and wisdom of well-known potato lovers'' - people such as Geoffrey Beene, Paloma Picasso, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Barbara Walters.
In ``A Passion For Potatoes'' (HarperPerennial, 1992), Lydie Marshall writes, ``I have eaten potatoes practically every day for two years while doing research for this book, and I know that I can eat potatoes forever. I never once tired of preparing and eating them. I believe that the potato is like a chameleon: It changes face and color with ease.''
In ``The Goodness of Potatoes and Root Vegetables'' (Random House, 1992), John Midgley observes, ``Today, a new fascination with potatoes and their many varieties old and new will ensure that they will continue to be enjoyed as a nutritious food of some sophistication, enjoying a new elevated status that is a far cry from their former use as mere fodder. ...''
Maggie Oster's ``The Potato Garden'' (Harmony Books, 128 pp., $17) is chock-full of information on how to cultivate the world's most widely grown vegetable. She also includes tuber trivia: ``Pot Hole'' is a term that originated in Ireland; the earth floor that held the potato pot got deeper as more and more potatoes were mashed in it.
In ``The Perfect Potato,'' (Villard Books, 160 pp., $16), Diane Simone Vezza offers innovative ways to cook with potatoes, from Potato Moussaka to Sweet-Potato Tart.
IN the past, most people thought of potatoes in the classic ways: hashed brown, mashed, double stuffed, baked, scalloped. Now, people are looking beyond those, Ms. Vezza says in a phone interview. ``I put potatoes in a chocolate cake and served it to guests. Nobody believed it.''
Vezza recently helped The Idaho Potato Commission put together a collection of ``famous'' Idaho potato recipes from celebrity-owned restaurants across the country.
Another reason for the spotlight on the spud has been an increased focus on different kinds of potatoes.
There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes that pique the interest of aficionados around the world. Some of the newly grown varieties have names such as Red Pontiac, Maris Peer, Jersey Royal, and Carlingford.
``Farmers are finding new ways to breed the older potatoes and make them taste better,'' observes author Vezza. Some of her current favorites include the Yukon Gold, which has a yellow flesh (``it almost looks like someone put butter inside''), the purple-blue Caribe, and the Peruvian blues that are purple and white marbled inside. A potato can be a different experience every time depending on how it's used and prepared, she notes. Recently she went into a restaurant that was serving steamed potatoes with truffles as a main course - all for $38.
But Vezza prefers to prepare potatoes at home, where she always has red potatoes as well as baking potatoes on hand. (The No. 1 potato is the Russet Burbank. Starchy and fluffy when baked, it has a higher solid content and stores well.)
GENERALLY speaking, most people associate potatoes with Idaho, which grows more than one-fourth of the total crop in this country.
Out of the 41 billion pounds produced in 1992, Idaho accounted for 12 billion pounds, says USDA's Budge. Other big producers include Washington (6.6 billion); North Dakota (2.8 billion); Wisconsin (2.5 billion); Colorado (2.4 billion); and Maine (2.2 billion).
Remember, author Vezza says, ``don't store potatoes in the refrigerator. The sugar increases. Keep them in a cool, dry, dark place.''