Even the most ordinary of foods seem to have lost some of their magic in recent times. As with the regular summertime lament that tomatoes don’t taste like they used to, when was the last time you had a really good potato cake?
Nowadays potato cakes are prepared in bulk and frozen for takeaway venues. These prebattered, preformed, partially cooked items bear little or no resemblance to the local fish and chip shop staple I remember from childhood. I used to watch in wonder as the proprietor put our basket of chips in, gently dusted and battered our potato cakes, then lastly slapped our flake into a different bowl of batter, wiping the excess off on the sides of the bowl before slipping it and the potato cakes into the cauldron of oil. Little did I know this was my first real look at service – preparing multiple things with different cooking times and having all of them ready at the same time.
The baskets would be lifted, drained and then upended onto paper, wrapped and passed over the counter into my eager hands. In those days, you used to wait for your fish and chips to be cooked. Now, many shops prefry and keep things warm in a bain-marie, where food has a tendency to lose its lustre.
Deep-fried food is definitely not good for you, but it has been around for millennia. It has its place in the basics of cooking and can be trotted out for the odd treat. The process that makes it special is that by immersing food in oil that is almost twice the temperature of boiling water, the oil dehydrates the outer layer by drawing out the water content, thus forming a crisp shell within which the food steams. With clean oil at the correct temperature – 180ºC – the results are quite delicious.
At this time of year, I usually stop on my trip to work each morning at a roadside stall to buy bags of potatoes for the restaurant. During potato season, the farmer puts out a large variety of spuds. At the moment there are kennebecs, nicolas and Dutch creams. I know in the months to come there will be sebagos, King Edwards, the odd bag of kipflers and an occasional purple-skinned variety. They cost the princely sum of $5 for a five-kilogram bag.
On the morning of my most recent photo shoot for The Saturday Paper, I stopped to get my spuds and was taken by an unusual label that proclaimed “large” kennebecs. I popped my money through the slot and flung the bag in the back of the car. When I got to work and opened the brown paper sack, they were the biggest potatoes I have ever seen, standing almost as high as a long neck of beer.
The flesh of the kennebec is fluffy and white when cooked, perfect for potato cakes (or, if you come from north of the Victorian border, potato scallops). The potatoes are sliced, steamed until almost cooked, dipped in seasoned flour and then dipped again in beer batter. Beer is perfect for batter, as when it is subjected to the heat of the oil, the little bubbles of carbon dioxide help make the end result crisper and lighter.
This may seem a lot of effort for what is a fairly ordinary item of food, but for those of us who are older, it brings back delightful memories of childhood. For those who are younger, you’ll be stunned that a potato cake can taste this good.