Pump up potato dishes

Arthi Subramaniam

Potatoes never go out of style, and neither do herbs. So when they are combined, you get au courant yet down-to-earth balancing flavors.

Whether the potatoes are baked, roasted, stuffed, fried, boiled and buttered, and mashed or smashed, herbs are fantastic team players, and they don’t even have to be fresh and verdant. Dried thyme, rosemary and oregano can be roasted with new white potatoes, and dried dill or parsley work just fine in casseroles.

Split open a baked potato and fill it with a handful of chives, a dollop of sour cream, crumbled goat cheese and pecans, or perfume a potato-leek gratin with sprigs of thyme and parsley or take crisp latkes on a sage spin and add the fresh herb to grated potatoes and onions and mix them with flour and eggs.

“Potatoes and herbs are two amazing mediums that anything and everything goes,” says cookbook author/chef Raghavan Iyer. “The potato is like a painter’s empty canvas and can absorb it all.”

Versatile: Kevin Appel, culinary director at Sterling-Rice Group, an arm of Potatoes USA, says the neutral nature of potatoes not only makes them a versatile carrier for delicate or strong-flavored herbs but also enables them to absorb herbal aromas and flavors well.

Potatoes are believed to have been first domesticated in South America as early as 500 B.C, but they were not widely grown in the United States until 1719, when they were planted by Scottish-Irish immigrants in Derry, New Hampshire.

When cooking potatoes, it all starts with picking the right kind, as there are more than 600 varieties sold in the United States.

Potatoes USA categorizes by the color of their skin and size — russet, red, white, yellow, purple/blue, fingerling and petite. Pennsylvania predominantly grows whites, reds and yellows, says Roger Springer, general manager of PA Co-operative Potato Growers Inc., who is not a fan of fingerlings or petites. “They are for a chef’s eye appeal and are kind of tasteless.”

Iyer says he chooses potatoes depending on the technique he adopts. He opts for the starchy, floury russet, Yukon gold or Kennebec when he bakes, fries or mashes them. For a potato salad or stew or for dishes that require the spuds to retain their shape, he goes with the waxy fingerlings, reds and purples.

Herbs: When it comes to pairing potatoes and herbs, both the chefs believe in mixing and matching. Potato has a tendency to work with almost all green herbs — dill, chives, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, oregano and mint. While Appel says the three classics are chives, parsley and rosemary, Iyer says he gravitates toward tarragon and cilantro. “Tarragon has a haunting perfume and I love the taste. It’s also so under utilized,” he says. And cilantro was a natural because of his Indian roots.

In his latest cookbook, “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked — And Fried, Too!” (Workman Publishing; November 2016), Iyer has a recipe for Cheesy Tarragon Tots, in which fresh tarragon leaves are added with Yukon Gold potatoes, onion, cheese curds and potato starch, and fried to make crispy tots.

“Tarragon does well when it is cooked. Its presence is maintained even after it is deep-fried,” he says.

Herbs are assertive depending on which stage they are added. They are mellow when they are mixed in early in the cooking process and contrastingly sharper in the end.

In another of Iyer’s recipes, Purple Potato Focaccia, flatbread is topped with thin slices of purple potato, cracked black peppercorns, red pepper flakes and two headstrong herbs — mint and rosemary. “The herbs nullify their individual assertiveness,” he says, “and the focaccia showcases the beauty of the herbs and the potential of the potato.”

His Russian potato salad is made with new red potatoes, dill and chives along with radishes, celery and cucumbers. “The dill gives the salad an intense grassiness while the chives cuts it down, and so there is contrasting balance,” he says.

He uses a quintessential Italian herb, basil, in his Yukon Gold potato lasagna, incorporating it in the ricotta filling. “I wanted the lemon and ricotta cheese to shine through, and the basil helps to do that.”

Inspired when listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme,” Iyer decided to push the boundaries of the classic Swiss rosti by pairing tarragon, thyme and chives with shredded russet potatoes to make a crisp pan-fried version.

Citrus: Often a sour or citrus element sneaks into herb-heavy sauces that are drizzled over roasted new white or red potatoes or fingerlings. For the Canary Island native, mojo, white wine vinegar is blended with olive oil, ground cumin and cilantro; and fresh tarragon, cilantro, chives, parsley and white balsamic vinegar are blended together for a chimichurri. Iyer adds orange juice along with basil, cilantro and coriander seeds in a fingerling potato salad and Appel likes fried potato planks with fresh parsley, sea salt and malt vinegar.

That is because “citrus rounds it up better; there’s a better mouth feel. You need to balance multiple taste elements,” Iyer says. Appel adds that acids and salt tend to cut fatty elements of a dish while accentuating the potatoes and herbs.

Although the potato also can be gussied up with cheeses, creams and dairy sauces, herbs have a down-to-earth way of adding a chic flavor.

“When you add ingredients that might seem to make no sense and are diametrically opposite, the potato pulls it all together,” Iyer says. “That’s the brilliance of the potato.”

Roast Potatoes With Chili, Mint and Preserved Lemon

Thanks to the mint, the potatoes, which are crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, have a sparkling accent.

2 preserved lemons

2 pounds petite white potatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

4 garlic cloves, minced

About 20 mint leaves, torn

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the flesh from the preserved lemons and discard it. Cut rind into slivers; set aside.

Wash potatoes and drain well. Place them in a shallow roasting pan or glass baking pan, where they can lie in a single layer. Coat potatoes with 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper.

Roast them in oven for 30 minutes, tossing in chili flakes after 15 minutes and stirring well. Potatoes should be tender right through.

Gently fry the garlic in remaining oil, until pale gold. Toss garlic in potatoes; mix well. Scatter mint and lemon rinds on top of potatoes.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

— Adapted from “Simple: Effortless Food & Big Flavors” by Diana Henry (Octopus Publishing; September 2016)

Potato Salad and Garlic-Cilantro Mojo

Mojo, a cold sauce made with oil and vinegar, originated in the Canary Islands and can be spicy or not. This cilantro version has a nice kick and earthiness to it and is perfect for the salt-crusted potatoes.

11/2 pounds Ruby Sensation potatoes or petite red potatoes

3 tablespoons sea salt

4 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

1 small green chili

1 bunch cilantro, leaves only

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 cup olive oil

21/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a single layer in a heavy flat-bottomed skillet or saute pan.

Sprinkle them with sea salt. Add enough water to the pan to just cover the potatoes.

Bring to a boil, stirring often until the water has evaporated completely. Test for doneness with the tip of a knife. If potatoes are not done, add a little more water and continue to boil.

After the water is evaporated and potatoes are tender, turn heat to low and keep cooking a little longer, turning potatoes every so often until they are dry and their skins are wrinkled and covered with salt.

For mojo dressing: Blend garlic, chili, cilantro and cumin. Add oil and blend again until sauce is chunky smooth. Add vinegar and blend until sauce is smooth.

To serve, drizzle mojo sauce over potatoes. Sprinkle black pepper on top.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

— Adapted from “The Peace, Love & Potato Salad Cookbook” by Zack Brown (Spring House Press; July 2016)

Kung Pao Potatoes

Don’t let the number of red chilies deter you from making this wonderful spin on the typical chicken kung pao — you need them. The crunchy potatoes get a lot of pizzazz from the snipped chives and the salt, spicy, sweet and sour flavors.

11/2 pounds russet potatoes

Canola oil, for deep-frying

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/2 cup blanched raw peanuts

12 to 16 whole dried red chilies

8 slices fresh ginger, cut into thin shreds

1/4 cup soy sauce

21/2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons unrefined granulated sugar

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives

Fill a medium-size bowl with cold water. Peel potatoes and slice into 1/2-inch-thick planks. Submerge them in the water to rinse off surface starch and to prevent them from discoloring.

Heat 3 inches of oil in a wok until candy thermometer (without touching the wok bottom) registers 350 degrees.

While oil heats up, drain potatoes in a colander and then shake it to get rid of the excess water.

Add cornstarch to potatoes and toss to completely coat them.

When oil is almost hot enough, line a cookie sheet with several layers of paper towels. Gently drop potatoes in the oil.

Fry, turning them occasionally with a slotted spoon, until they are caramel brown and crisp all over. Remove them and spread on the paper towels.

Repeat process with rest of the potatoes.

Heat another wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Remove 2 tablespoons of hot oil used for frying and add it to the second wok.

Add peanuts, chilies and ginger. Stir-fry them until peanuts turn sunny brown, chilies blacken and ginger is a light caramel color and smells fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour in soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Add potatoes and toss well to coat. When potatoes are warm again, stir in sesame oil and chives. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

— “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked — And Fried, Too!” by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing; November 2016)

Skillet Potato Salad With Basil

This easy potato salad bucks tradition by leaving out the mayo, mustard and hard-cooked eggs. Instead, it’s flavored with citrus, basil and cilantro, and gets a touch of heat from cayenne. For a prettier presentation, chiffonade the basil leaves into delicate ribbons.

11/2 pounds assorted fingerling potatoes

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1/4 cup orange juice (from 1 juicy orange)

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

11/2 teaspoons coarse sea or kosher salt

1 teaspoon unrefined sugar

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Wash potatoes well under running water. Cut them into 1-inch pieces, drop them in a medium-size bowl and cover with cold water. Allow to soak for 15 minutes to remove any surface starch.

Drain the potatoes in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Give the colander a good shake or two to rid potatoes of excess water. Spread potatoes on towel and dry them well.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once oil appears to shimmer, add potatoes, cover them and cook them, stirring occasionally, until they are crispy brown on the outside and tender when pierced with a fork or knife without being all-apart overcooked, 15 to 20 minutes.

As potatoes brown, heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. As soon as pan is hot, sprinkle in coriander seeds. Toast seeds, shaking the pan very often for even browning, about 1 minute. Transfer seeds to a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Once they are cool, grind them to the consistency of finely ground black pepper.

Once potatoes are ready, dump into a serving bowl, along with any residual oil in skillet. While they are still warm, add orange juice, basil, cilantro, salt, sugar, cayenne and the coriander. Give it all a good stir. Allow salad to sit for a half hour or so to let the flavors mingle.

Serves 6.

— “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked — And Fried, Too!” by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing; November 2016)