Spud Sunday: Forty Shades Of Potato

Chips

I had potatoes coming at me everywhere I turned. In Ireland, “and chips” is a phrase that annotates much more than fish.

For Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic and now Op-Ed columnist, the ubiquity of spuds in Ireland was a cliché confirmed, and, it seems, a tiresome one at that. He was writing in a recently published NY Times article about his first trip to Ireland, a journey which he often views through the prism of his late mother’s Irish ancestry – her love of the colour green is at last explained by the greens of the Irish landscape, encounters with gregarious and welcoming inn keepers identify Ireland as the source of her chattiness and storytelling, her temperament is echoed by the frequently changing moods of the Irish weather.

His mother’s Irishness, however, clearly did not extend to food (and the article does tell us that, his mother having married an Italian and been “swept into his Italian clan,” food in the Bruni household had a definite Italian accent). Given that Italians tend to go rather lighter on the spuds than we do, it may explain why Mr. Bruni felt somewhat besieged by potatoes during his visit to these shores.

While Ireland is Italy’s peer in natural beauty, it isn’t on the culinary front. As a visitor you just have to make peace with that.

To be fair to Mr. Bruni, the almost universal “and chips” suffix does say much about the fact that, while there is some very fine food to be had in this country – 700 pages worth in John and Sally McKenna’s latest Irish Food Guide – there is plenty that you would not want to write home about (Mr. Bruni says that he ate well here “by eating carefully”). He takes particular umbrage with the serving of several types of potato on one plate. Referring to a dish he had in The Winding Stair (a place he otherwise much enjoyed):

There my stuffed cabbage was filled with mashed potatoes and placed beside what tasted like a thin potato purée, which abutted wedges of roasted potato. The kind word for this would be redundancy. The accurate one would be overkill.

One man’s overkill, however, is another’s tradition. The serving of two (or more) types of potato on the same plate is part and parcel of the Irish food landscape. The many shades of potato, to me, speak reassuringly of home, of Sunday dinners, and of my Irish mammy. Done well, I believe it has a place in modern Irish cooking. It is as intrinsically Irish as the forty clichéed shades of green. You, Mr. Bruni, will just have to make peace with that.

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Caramelised Apple Mashed Potato

Caramelised apple mash

It seems only appropriate that I should follow all of that by dishing up some spuds – in this case, a seasonal mash involving potatoes and apples.

Now, if you are in any way unsure of this combination as a runner, then you don’t have to take my word for it. Flicking through Neven Maguire’s newly released and beautifully produced MacNean Restaurant Cookbook (kindly sent to me by Gill & Macmillan, whom I think may be trying to kill me with cookbooks) – I see that, amongst other potato sides, he, too, includes a recipe for potato and apple purée. Come to think of it, I daresay Neven, one of Ireland’s best-loved chefs, wouldn’t be averse to including more than one form of potato on his plates, and I can’t imagine but that he would do it very well.

This, by the by, is a recipe I originally did for the folks over at potato.ie, and you can see what I had to say about it over here. The main thing you need to know when making this is that the spuds should be floury and the apples firm (the otherwise lovely Bramleys will tend to disintegrate too quickly in this case).

For the mash:

  • 800g potatoes, preferably a floury variety
  • salt
  • 100ml milk, or more for a looser consistency
  • 1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed
  • 75g butter, melted
  • 1 tsp dijon or other mustard

For the caramelised apples:

  • 1 large or 2 small apples, such as Granny Smith, about 200g once peeled and cored
  • 2 tblsp butter
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tblsp cider vinegar

You’ll also need:

  • A ricer is always handy for mashing.

The Steps:

  • Steam or boil your potatoes in well salted water until just fork tender.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the apples:
  • Peel, core and chop the apples into approx. 1-2cm cubes. Place a wide frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, add 2 tblsp butter. When the butter has melted and is bubbling, add the apple pieces and stir to coat with the butter. Sprinkle with the sugar and continue to stir and cook for around 10 minutes or until the apples have begun to soften and are starting to brown.
  • Remove the apples and add the cider vinegar to the pan, stirring to combine with any remaining butter and apple that may have stuck to the pan. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  • When the potatoes are done, drain well and return them to the saucepan. Then either let them sit, covered by a tea-towel, for about 5 minutes or place the pan over a low heat for a minute or so while they dry out.
  • Add the milk to a small, heavy saucepan, along with the garlic. Bring just to the point of boiling, then remove from the heat.
  • Peel your potatoes if you haven’t already done so and put them through a potato ricer, if you have one, or mash with a potato masher or fork.
  • Pour in the melted butter and stir through. Strain the milk to remove the garlic and then stir into the potatoes. Add the caramelised apples and mash together lightly. Add the reserved cider vinegar, mustard and salt to taste.
  • This would be especially good with pork or bacon or perhaps some roast chicken.

The Variations:

  • Mash is endlessly variable. You could, for example, cook the potatoes with a few sprigs of rosemary or make the mash richer by using cream instead of milk.

The Results:

  • Serves 4-6 as a side-dish
Comments
  • Yum. I can see that Bramley’s might not caramelise well, as they do fall apart – but they do mash so beautifully! They disintegrate into a fluffy texture that blends in perfectly with a floury potato to my mind. Have to admit I’m just a bit prejudiced against Granny Smiths

  • Hi there Cooking with Larousse (can I call you Larousse for short? :)) I’ll grant that Granny Smiths aren’t my favourite of apples (my real preference here would actually be for Howgate Wonders, which my Mum grows – beautiful cooking apples which hold their shape well – but unfortunately, not many people are likely to have access to those!) – and I’d certainly agree that, if I wanted a more blended mash, then Bramleys would be the way to go.

  • Dear Spud, you should send Mr. Bruni to my page and I could tell him a thing or two about being a good guest. One could say when traveling to Italy that there was always pasta served. How could some one not appreciate the vast and varied preparation of spuds? A food critic or a critic of good food, I wonder. It is visitors like Mr. Bruni that gives we Americans a bad name, tell him to get off his N.Y. Times high horse and admit he enjoyed the noble spud.
    Brian.

  • Ah Brian, indeed, a certain type of visitor to Italy might view pasta in the same way as Mr. Bruni viewed spuds in Ireland (and it would be interesting to see the reaction to a NY Times piece that said as much). Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course and it would be a boring old world if we all ate and liked exactly the same foods. Travel can broaden one’s palate (and one’s perspective), but only if you allow it to do so.

  • It seems to be a rule of thumb in a lot of country establishments that you need to have potatoes boiled, wedged and chipped so that you won’t have people complaining that they didn’t get enough to eat. I’m thinking of my farming father here…

  • I’m all too familiar with that scenario Caroline, and my own Dad was an out and out potatoes man too – graduate of the you-can-never-have-too-many-potatoes school…

  • Sorry spud but I felt my countryman deserved a beating,
    Cheers,
    Brian.

  • No worries Brian, potatoes can be an emotive topic!

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