Autumn, when the air turns cooler, is when I think of adding potatoes to our meals.
Growing up, we rarely had the starchy goodness of potatoes or bread. The occasional exception was rich, eggy challah on a Friday night or for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. For the latter, the bread was not the usual plait but was circular and studded with raisins.
And there was fresh rye bread with caraway seeds once or twice a year when our mom cooked one of Dad’s favorites, tongue. As a child, I had no idea that tongue was the actual tongue of an animal—an alarming revelation later in life.
As with bread, we did not often eat potatoes. When we did, they were usually served alongside a roast or baked chicken. I loved my mom’s twice-baked potatoes. First, she baked the russets until tender, then scooped out the flesh to mash it with heavy cream and butter. She would return the flesh to the skins, then bake them again to crisp the tops, often adding a sprinkling of grated cheese. Underneath, the mashed potatoes were rich and creamy.
My mom would have been happy to simply eat the skin of the potatoes. That’s where the nutrition lay, and she adored the taste. For the rest of us, she decided to forgo the skins and purchased a set of aluminum tins in the shape of little boats. She piled the mashed, fortified potatoes into them and used them for the second bake. I imagine she sat at the kitchen table, devouring the skin of all of those potatoes with a dab of butter and a couple grinds of black pepper. It wasn’t until adulthood that I, too, came to appreciate the skin of the potato. I would give away the innards to a dining companion and add butter, salt, and a bit of sour cream to the quarter-inch outer layer left.
Potatoes are a good source of fiber and are full of antioxidants. There are close to 4,000 varieties of potato, each of which has specific agricultural or culinary characteristics and attributes. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the nutritious and delicious sweet potato. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to toss cubes of sweet potato in good olive oil and oven-roast them (perhaps with some shallots and chopped rosemary) at 425 degrees until tender. I also oven-roast the smallest fingerling, Yukon gold, or new potatoes, the perfect accompaniment to eggs any which way at breakfast.
My favorite farmers’ market vendor for spuds is Lucky Dog Organic Farm, owned by partners Kalan Joslin and Richard Giles. Theirs is the first stand I visit every Sunday morning at the Callicoon market. They have a terrific variety of potatoes in all different colors and know which are best for certain recipes.
I recently had a craving for potato salad when I was grilling a couple of steaks and bought Kalan’s beautiful purple potatoes, which he suggested I try for their taste and texture. They made an amazing potato salad, though my decision to add chopped hard-cooked eggs turned a wee bit comical when they turned blue next to the purple potatoes. He suggested that in the future I add the eggs on top as a garnish before tossing them when ready to serve.
My favorite way to eat potatoes this time of year is in a creamy gratin, made all the more flavorful with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and flat-leaf Italian parsley.
So, bundle up and dig into this warming side dish while ‘taters are at their peak.
Potato Gratin in Bechamel Sauce
Serves 2, amply
This gratin is luxuriously rich and creamy. Serve it alongside something simple, such as roast chicken or sliced flank steak, accompanied by a green salad.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the herbs in a small bowl.
Next, make a béchamel sauce: Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan over moderately low heat. When melted, add flour and cook, whisking, to make a roux, about 2 minutes. Add milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly until smooth. Raise heat slightly to medium, and whisk constantly until mixture thickens and comes just to a simmer, about 2–3 minutes more. Remove from the heat and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Set aside.
Butter a small gratin dish with the remaining teaspoon of butter. Make a layer of potato slices, overlapping, on the bottom of the gratin. Using a rubber spatula spread 1/3 of the béchamel sauce over the potatoes. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated cheese and some of the herbs, and season with salt and pepper. Repeat the process twice more, ending with the final 1/3 of grated cheese, herbs and salt and pepper.
Place the gratin in the oven. Bake for 30–35 minutes until browned and bubbly. A sharp knife inserted into the potatoes should meet with no resistance. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
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