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Potato pyaar

Thursday, November 08, 2018

While Indians love their aloo, potatoes are also a staple for countries that have largely only bread for carbohydrates, says Deepika Mital

What with the whole low carb mania that has gripped all those who watch what they eat, I am not sure that the starchy vegetable is currently in favour. But even so, no one (especially Indian) can do without it, however much they may protest that carbohydrates are the greatest evil confronting mankind and all efforts should be made to quash any such base urges. But frankly I ask you, is your life any the better for not having aloo parathas or fries or even the most basic of all things—jeera aloo in your orbit? Isn’t it just sadder and less sparkly just because you know that there are no yummy aloo samosas and bhajjiyas waiting just around the corner?

But before I get sidetracked into all the possibilities of potato and Indian snacks (!) I would also like to point out that they are even more prevalent in European cuisine than in Asian.

Potatoes are a staple for countries that have largely only bread as their main carbohydrate group. They alleviate the monotony of bread, are wonderfully malleable and transformative, and can elevate meat to almost transcendental heights. Ever had silky mashed potatoes with a pork chop? There you go—then you know what I am nattering about.

The thing is that potatoes are not merely potatoes here—they are a whole food group and are treated as such with reverence. There are the special Amandine potatoes that are small perfectly shaped oval pearls. They can be used to impress guests with their charm and elegance of shape as well as the hint of sweetness they bring to the meal. Then you have the rougher but much more majestic King Edward potato that is tinged with red on the outside and perfect for mashing into the aforementioned potato mash, or even the purple ones mentioned in an earlier column which are high in potassium and virulently purple.

In fact, a cursory glance at any list of potato types reads almost like a French novella with names like Justine, Amandine, Maxine and Nadine! OK, I just picked the ones that rhyme, but the bewildering variety of potatoes available here is not to be doubted. So the choice of potato is to be treated with the utmost reverence and care, else you could end up with potatoes that won’t mash or those that won’t stay whole. When shopping in India aloo is just aloo, not a food group, but in Europe it is a serious choice.

So, what is the best way to use these yummy variants? I am a huge convert to the mashed potato. It replaces, in my mind, the need for a gravy and can provide the creamy element on your plate that you didn’t even know was possible. Also, I have to confess that I didn’t really know how to make a great mashed potato before I shifted here. The trick is in firstly, using the right kind of potatoes—floury and fluffy. Peel, and boil in pre heated water. Take care to have just enough water, not too much—that means they should only be half dipped in the water. This will evaporate while they boil. Check them for softness after about 15 minutes, depending on the size. Ensure that the water is either evaporated or drained. Once they are soft through and through, start mashing them. Reduce the heat, but do not remove from the heat. When you have them broken down into a decent mash, start adding butter/ cream/milk. The rule of thumb is to add enough to give it flavour, but not so much that it turns heavy and doughy. Salt and white pepper to taste. One can always add some finely chopped herbs like dill, parsley or even coriander. But purists would rather have them pristine white. The really serious potato mash enthusiasts will sieve the mash rather than risk lumps, however minute. I must admit, this does result in the best mashed potato I have eaten. Serve hot. This should be the absolute last thing you do when serving up the meal, otherwise you will lose some level of fluffiness to delay in serving.

The other yummy use of potatoes that I would recommend is the gratin or to not give it a fancy name, just slices of potatoes cooked/ baked in milk or cream (I prefer using a half and half) and/or white sauce. I prefer not to use white sauce as this seems like overkill, but go for it if you like the more professional cohesive look. Slice them up really fine, layer in a baking dish, alternating between the potatoes and the milk/cream mixture. Season well with salt and pepper, optionally garlic powder too. Cheese on top is popular, but not a must. Bake in a moderate oven for approximately 40 minutes, depending on the quantity and thickness of the slices. Check that they are cooked through. There is no danger of over cooking this, as the potatoes will just get more caramelised and tasty, so this is an easier side than the mashed potatoes. Serve hot, but not directly from the oven as that will just result in burned tongues. This dish really holds its heat, so it can be left to cool for a while, whilst you get the rest of the meal together.

Both these potato dishes can hold their own with most meals, so it is just a matter of choosing your texture in relation to the other dishes comprising your meal. Go conquer those low carb woes and don’t let anyone keep you away from the king of vegetables!

Deepika Mital is an Indian cook in Europe, a writer, no-nonsense martinet at home and avid traveller

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