I love potatoes.
Which is evident by my general size and shape. I am not small. Potatoes will do that to a person. Give you substance.
They are the perfect peasant food, and I grew up eating like a perfect peasant. Meat, potatoes and vegetables. Three food groups on the plate. Sometimes, we had bread, too, but there were always potatoes, even if we had biscuits, cornbread or dinner rolls, potatoes were ubiquitous.
The best potatoes were the ones Grandma and Grandpa grew. His favorite variety was the Kennebec, but I also remember him growing the Irish Cobbler, too. But he would hold forth at the dinner table about the good qualities of the Kennebec, while the rest of us shoveled many ounces of said potatoes into our gullets.
My Gram, Dad’s mother, on the other hand, preferred red potatoes. Hence, her mashed potatoes had a different texture than Grandma’s who always used russet-type potatoes, which have a drier, mealy texture that sheds moisture. I learned early on that the texture of Gram’s mashed potatoes was silkier and more moist, in part because she used real butter and half and half in hers, but also because the red potatoes are a waxy potato with a starch structure that holds onto moisture.
Also, Gram used a hand potato masher, vintage from the 1920’s–a steel disk with stars cut out on it with a steel stem growing up from it perpendicularly, with a green–painted wooden handle that fit perfectly into her palm. She was very thorough in her mashing and beating, but there were always small lumps that escaped her ministrations, and Gram always said that was how you could tell they were real.
Grandma’s potatoes tended to be lighter and fluffier, and were always perfectly smooth. She whipped hers up using her old Sunbeam stand mixer, and she served them on the table right from the heavy glass mixing bowl that went with the mixer. She used milk, sometimes evaporated milk, and margarine in hers, and the flavor of the home grown potatoes really shone through the minimal enhancements.
I wonder what my Grandpa would have thought of blue potatoes?
He didn’t much care for the red ones; he didn’t like the waxy texture or the sweeter flavor. I suspect that not only would the unusual color of blue potatoes put him off, but the slightly sweet flavor would distress him, too. He always said that potatoes should taste like the earth they grew in, and that when we ate them, we were eating the land itself.
I reckon he might say that there must be something wrong with the land if the potatoes are purple.
For, indeed, blue potatoes are really purple, once you cut into them.
The vivid violet color of the raw potato fades to a medium blue when cooked. More color is retained if you cook the potato whole, as the pigments which make the potatoes such a rich royal purple, anthocyanins, are water soluble. They tend to be concentrated in the cell vacuoles, so if you cut the potatoes and damage the vacuoles, the color leeches out.
In addition, the vacuoles which store anthocyanins tend to be acidic, and most tap water used for cooking is slightly alkaline; in an acidic environment, the anthocyanins tend towards the red area of the spectrum, while in an alkaline environment, they tend more towards the blue-green coloration. So, if you cut up your blue potatoes and cook them in regular tap water without adding any acid, not only do you lose a significant amount of pigmentation to the water itself, you also change the color by virtue of a loss of acidic environment.
When cooking purple vegetables like say, red cabbage, it is traditional to add an acidic ingredient like vinegar (sweet and sour cabbage, anyone?) in order to keep the cabbage reddish purple, rather than have it turn a kind of greyish blue, which is not an appetizing color. I suppose you could do the same with blue potatoes, but I have found that simply boiling them whole helps retain a lot of the color, though it does fade to a more pale violet color rather than the bold royal violet hue of the raw vegetable.
If you are wondering why I know so much about plant pigments and the chemistry of cooking, you can thank Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook. He is one of my favorite authors; a chemist by profession, he has unraveled the mysteries of cooking and baking and has written the best tome to explain the science of the kitchen to lay persons I have ever read. And believe me, I have read all of the popular books on the subject, and his is the most complete and sensible of the lot.
Besides, he is fun to read, and his works have singlehandedly made me a much better cook than I would ever have been without reading them. His books should have been required reading in culinary school; I found my knowledge of his work invaluable when navigating the perilous shoals of baking and pastry classes. It also helped when it came to vegetable cookery; my vegetables were consistently prettier than other students, and I have McGee to thank for it.
Which brings me to the question of what exactly does one do with blue potatoes? Well, I like to make violet color mashed potatoes with them, but they are a bit shocking on the plate. Especially so for guests who are not used to my fits of culinary whimsy where I cook up a bunch of weirdly colored things and present them together. Some folks use them in potato salad, and I think that so long as you didn’t use a mustard-based dressing, that would be great; a German potato salad made with them and some Yukon Gold potatoes would be striking.
My very favorite use for them is in Indian cookery, most specifically in a dish of potatoes cooked with spinach, called Saag Aloo. In many restaurants, saag aloo is a very creamy dish, with pureed, somewhat overcooked spinach in a somewhat spicy dairy-based sauce, with chunks of boiled white potato dotted throughout.
I make mine differently. I generally start with carefully browned thin slices of onion and garlic cooked until golden. Then, I add ground spices, and cook until they are fragrant, then add the spinach, which I have thawed and squeezed the excess water from. I turn up the heat and add a bit of yogurt and a tiny bit of cream, just to bind it together. Potatoes which I have cooked separately whole, are drained, cut up into dice and added, and the entire dish is cooked down until the still vibrant green spinach clings to the potato chunks, and the spices are married together into a melange of subtle flavors. Sometimes, chopped fresh mint is added at the last minute as a garnish, and I usually use it as a dish alongside something a bit spicier like a vindaloo or a korma.
I find that using a combination of red-skinned white potatoes and purple potatoes really makes the dish turn out beautifully, and makes it seem as if it tastes even better. The jewel-like colors are at home on a plate of Indian food; it makes me think of the gorgeous silk saris and the polychromatic painted statues of Hindu deities bedecked with flowers that are venerated with food offerings in the great temples and houses of the faithful. The dish is like a green field dotted with white and purple wildflowers, and that visual ideal only helps boost the mingled flavors of the vegetables and spices.
2 medium sized red skinned potatoes and 2 medium purple potatoes, scrubbed well and cooked in salted boiling water until tender
1 medium onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 tbsp. ghee
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. cardamom seeds, freshly ground
1 tsp. fennel seeds, freshly ground
1/4 tsp. fenugreek seeds, freshly ground
1/4 tsp. black peppercorns, freshly ground
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. coriander seed, freshly ground
1 8 ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
1/4-1/2 cup cream
salt to taste
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves coarsely chopped (optional)
After the potatoes are finished cooking, drain and cut into a medium dice, and set aside.
Heat ghee and vegetable oil in a heavy skillet. Add onions and cook, stirring constantly, until they are medium brown. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly until garlic is golden in color and very fragrant. Add spices and cook one minute more, until the air is strongly scented.
Add spinach, along with yogurt and the smaller amount of cream. Add potatoes, and salt to taste and cook, stirring, to reduce sauce until the liquid is almost gone and the very green spinach clings to the potatoes.
If you wish, you may add a bit more cream to make the dish a bit more moist; I prefer it nearly dry.
Salt carefully; you can easily over salt if you salt it to perfect taste while there is still a lot of liquid. Under-salt at first and then reduce the liquid by simmering it off, then taste again and correct the salt at that time.
You can cook this ahead of time and set on a cold burner if you need to, then reheat gently with another bit of cream or some milk, until it is sufficiently hot. This has the effect of deepening the flavors, and so long as you take care not to overcook the spinach, nothing is harmed, and in fact, the dish is improved in this way.
Add the mint just before serving.
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