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St. Patrick’s Day : In Praise of Potatoes

I have as much passion and respect for a well-executed potato dish as for a wild mushroom risotto or an exquisite apple dessert. Anyone who has sampled Robuchon’s utterly simple, superb mashed potatoes in Paris knows what I’m talking about.

Obviously, I’m not alone in this enthusiasm for potatoes. They are the most popular vegetable in this country; the average annual consumption is about 122 pounds per person. That’s almost a potato a day. This constancy is related to more than their convenience, versatility, low cost and near-perfect nutritional make-up. Their undisputed appeal is that potatoes are sustaining and satisfying, a purely honest food that stands out in the produce bins.

The Irish certainly knew a good thing when Sir Walter Raleigh, in the 16th Century, planted potatoes on his property in Ireland. A mere hundred years later, the Irish were growing and consuming potatoes in vast quantities.

The potato has a neutral taste quality that lends itself to many preparations. A perfectly baked potato can elicit as much pleasure as a crisp potato pancake garnished with caviar and creme fraiche. Potatoes often make the difference in soups, casseroles, breads, stews, salads, even cakes. Beyond that, their pure form brings delight when baked, fried, mashed, boiled, gratineed and souffled.

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The recipes that follow take potatoes from simple to elegant. The Essenhaus Amish Scramble is a tantalizing tangle of potatoes, onion, sausage and eggs, a nearly perfect meal any time of day. The St. Patrick’s Potato Soup is a vivid green with the last-minute addition of peas and lettuce, ingredients that suggest that spring is not far off. The Garlicky Golden Potato Tartlets are elegant in their simplest form with sour cream and fresh basil, but when you adorn them with caviar or little juliennes of smoked salmon and sour cream, they become the ultimate first course.

Looking for comfort food? This is surely it! Mounds of these browned potato slices cooked with onion, sausage and some wisps of egg come to the table at Das Dutchman Essenhaus restaurant in Middlebury, Ind. An irresistible sight to behold, they appear to be way more than one serving should be, but how they disappear! For 50 cents more, the scramble comes with cheese. Serve with toast, as they do at the restaurant, or with some homemade muffins and a side of warm applesauce for morning meals. For lunch or supper, a mixed green salad served with the scramble makes a great repast. The garnish is my addition and purely optional.

ESSENHAUS AMISH

SCRAMBLE

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1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/3-inch thick

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Salt

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Freshly ground pepper

1 small onion, about 3 ounces, minced

1 (4-ounce) piece smoked Thuringer sausage, skinned if desired, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 eggs

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1 tablespoon water

Minced parsley or snipped fresh chives, optional

Rinse potato slices in cold running water. Dry well with paper towels.

Heat peanut oil and butter until very hot in 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Cook, covered, over medium-high heat until potatoes are almost cooked through and browned, about 9 minutes, turning every 3 minutes to avoid burning. Add onion and sausage. Gently toss together. Cook, uncovered, until potatoes are dark brown on edges, about 5 to 6 minutes longer.

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Combine eggs, water and salt in small dish. Froth with fork. Add egg mixture to skillet. Use rubber spatula or wooden spoon to move eggs between potatoes. Cook until well set, about 2 more minutes, stirring often. Serve hot. Garnish with minced parsley. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Creamy without the benefit of any cream, this potato soup becomes bright green with the addition of peas and lettuce toward the end of cooking. It’s bright green when freshly made; its color diminishes on storage but it’s still appealing. It can be made three days ahead and refrigerated or frozen as long as three months. It freezes well, so it pays to double the recipe while you’re at it.

ST. PATRICK’S POTATO

SOUP

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1 tablespoon safflower oil

1 large onion, minced

3/4 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes

3/4 pound sweet potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes

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5 to 6 cups homemade chicken stock or canned broth (preferably low-sodium)

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup frozen peas

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1 cup sliced romaine lettuce leaves, packed

Salt

Heat safflower oil in 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add and saute onion until tender, about 4 minutes. Add russet and sweet potatoes and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add 4 cups stock, dill weed and cayenne. Bring to boil. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes.

Add peas and lettuce. Cook until potatoes and peas are completely tender, about 5 minutes. Puree soup in blender or food processor. Return to pan. Thin as desired with remaining stock or broth. Season to taste with salt. Serve hot or chilled. Makes about 6 1/2 cups.

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Here, thin slices of small potatoes (Yukon Gold or red) are tossed in a garlic oil and baked on a round of puff pastry--available ready-made in supermarkets--until golden brown and crispy. A simple garnish of sour cream and snipped basil leaves suffices to make this a memorable dish. Alternately, Parmesan cheese can be sprinkled on toward the end of baking. If you go for sheer elegance, try a dollop of creme fraiche with a spoonful of caviar. Serve as a first course or as a side dish with roasted or grilled meats, poultry or fish.

GARLICKY GOLDEN

POTATO TARTLETS

5 small Yukon Gold or red potatoes, unpeeled

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2 tablespoons light-tasting olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

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1 sheet puff pastry

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut pea-size

1/4 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil

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Scrub potatoes and pat dry. Slice into paper-thin rounds (best done with thin slicing disc of food processor).

Combine olive oil and garlic in skillet and saute gently over medium heat (or microwave in dish) until warm and fragrant. Strain oil into 1 1/2-quart mixing bowl, pressing on garlic to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard garlic. Add potatoes to mixing bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss to coat slices.

Roll pastry in 16x12-inch rectangle on heavily floured board. Use 5 1/2-inch dish to cut 4 circles dough. (Save scraps for another purpose.) Brush excess flour from rounds. Arrange on 2 baking sheets.

Divide potato slices in 4 portions. Arrange circle of tight petals on each dough round, leaving 1/2-inch border. Dot top with butter. Bake at 400 degrees until pastry is deeply browned, about 17 minutes, rotating pans after 10 minutes if baking unevenly. Garnish with sour cream and basil. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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Note: Tartlets may be frozen immediately after assembly. (Do not refrigerate, potatoes will turn brown if refrigerated.) Freeze up to 2 months, wrapped airtight. Do not thaw before baking. Bake at 400 degrees 20 to 25 minutes.

FOR PIX SLUGGED ART AM


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