Credit: Photography: Earl Carter

Cue the tubers

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

It’s good to know your spuds. The generic supermarket “no name” potatoes, which are sold as baking or boiling potatoes, are available all year round. They are sometimes convenient and reliable for a roast chicken at home or a buttery mash but offer little personality.

Beyond them, the many potato varieties on offer at good grocery stores and markets are worth exploring. To use a perfect waxy potato in a potato salad is far superior to an old-school “baking potato”. Go for a named variety or heritage potato and you will be happily rewarded.

The price of potatoes is not the only attraction. This ever so humble staple has graced the tables of the rich and poor for centuries. Often taken for granted, potatoes are the anchor of many home-cooked meat and three veg dinners. The same staple ingredient can also be elevated to grace the grandest of dining rooms.

Selecting the right potato for each dish is the key to success. The structure, flavour and, most importantly, the starch content dictates what potato is best for each preparation.

As a basic rule, I go by the following:

•     For roasting and baking: desiree, nicola, King Edward, Dutch cream.

•     For steaming: Dutch cream, nicola.

•     For mashing: desiree, bintje, King Edward, Otway red, nicola.

•     To serve cold, as potato salad, etc: kipfler, pink fir apple.

•     For frying: sebago, bintje, Otway red.

•     For boiling: desiree, kipfler, nicola.

I tend to eat more potatoes in winter than at any other time of the year, and gratin potatoes are the perfect winter dish. The word gratin originated in France and is now part of the common food vernacular. It is often applied to a cooking preparation that develops a brown crust or molten layer, usually facilitated by butter, cheese or breadcrumbs. Another variation to the recipe here is to substitute the onions with celeriac, and towards the end of the cooking process top the gratin with a good handful of Gruyère cheese.

Nutmeg can also be added – this being one of the few recipes I cook at home that warrants hunting for the three-year-old jar of nutmeg in the back of the cupboard. Then the picture is completed for this one-pot wonder by serving it with a slice of protein and a few winter leaves.

A more elaborate potato recipe that I enjoy cooking is crepe parmentier, or potato pancake. Here, the potatoes are cooked until soft and mashed. A small amount of cream, eggs and flour is added to make a pancake batter. Tablespoons of this are pan-fried with clarified butter before being served. These warm, delicate morsels, which resemble pikelets, are often prepared to accompany caviar. A small slice of smoked salmon and crème fraîche is also a fine substitute. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was one of the biggest promoters of the potato and was in some ways responsible for introducing and endorsing the potato when it was considered poisonous and was only used as hog feed. He is now acknowledged by having his name attached to some of the greatest French potato preparations.

1 . Baked gnocchi

Serves 6

Homemade gnocchi is great simply tossed in butter and cheese. These gnocchi can also be fried in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil until golden.

– 1kg large desiree or nicola potatoes
– strong bread flour (quantity will vary depending on the weight of
    the cooked potatoes)
– salt
– 1 egg, whisked
– 100g Taleggio or parmesan cheese

Peel the potatoes and dice into two-centimetre pieces. Place in a pan, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt, place on the stove and bring to a simmer. When the potatoes are just cooked, strain and push through a food mill or fine mesh sieve. It is important not to overcook the potato otherwise it will take on too much water and the gnocchi may become heavy.

When cooked, weigh the potato, as you will need one-third of its weight in flour. Quickly, while the potato is very hot, mix in the flour and a generous pinch of salt. When the flour is almost incorporated, add the egg and mix well.

Take a small piece of the mixture, roll it into a one-and-a-half-centimetre-thick log, then cut the gnocchi into two-centimetre-long pieces.
Add a generous pinch of salt to a pot of water and bring to the boil. Drop in a few pieces of the gnocchi and when it floats to the surface, remove and taste. It should be firm to the bite but still relatively light and fluffy. If the gnocchi seems a bit wet, add a touch more flour to the mixture and salt to taste. Once you are satisfied with the consistency, roll all the gnocchi out, shape into two-centimetre pieces and place on a tray lined with flour. Blanch the gnocchi in the boiling water in a few batches, one handful at a time. As the gnocchi floats to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of iced water. As soon as the gnocchi has cooled, remove it from the water and place on an oiled tray in the fridge until it’s ready to use.

To serve, liberally butter a ceramic baking dish or non-stick pan and lay the gnocchi in the dish. They should snugly fit into the tray and not be stacked on top of each other. Top with thin slices of the Taleggio or grated parmesan cheese and bake in the oven until molten, golden and aromatic. Serve immediately.

2 . Potato and onion gratin

Serves 8

– 2kg desiree potatoes, peeled  
– 2 large brown onions, peeled
– 2 tbsp butter
– 300ml chicken stock
– 500ml cream
– salt and pepper
– pinch ground nutmeg

Using a mandolin, slice the potatoes about two millimetres thick and set aside in a bowl of cold water.

Halve the onions lengthways and slice them into half moons the same thickness as the potato.

Using one tablespoon of the soft butter, brush the base and sides of a large baking dish. Layer the potatoes, in slightly overlapping rows, until the base of the dish is covered. Sprinkle over some of the onions and season with a little salt and pepper.

Continue to build up layers of potato and onion until the dish is very full and you end with a layer of potato. The top layer should sit about one centimetre above the edge of the baking dish. (As it cooks, the potato will sink into the dish.)

Meanwhile, bring the cream, chicken stock and nutmeg just to the boil and pour it carefully and slowly over the potatoes. Dot the remaining butter over the top of the potatoes and cover with aluminium foil.

Bake in the oven at 180ºC for an hour, then remove the foil from the potatoes and raise the heat to 190ºC.

Bake for another half hour or until the potatoes are cooked, most of the liquid has been absorbed and the top has developed a golden crust. Remove from the oven. For best results, leave the gratin to cool to room temperature for an hour or two to set, and reheat in the oven to warm through just before serving.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Cue the tuber section".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.