In Praise of Potatoes

December 20, 2006

13 Min Read
In Praise of Potatoes

When Chef Matthew Burton joined a troupe of his colleagues on a culinary tour of Mexico earlier this year, the certified executive chef and director of culinary innovation, ConAgra Food Ingredients, Omaha, NE, had a solid idea of the regional specialties he could expect to encounter. There’d be the ubiquitous beans, simmered for hours with hoja santa or smashed and fried in a knob of lard; a menagerie of chiles charred on a comal and stuffed with cheese and cactus strips; redolent turkey moles from the jungles of Yucatán; seafood stews from coastal Veracruz; and, in every town and village, corn in all its glory—from massive, hominy-like kernels floating in pozole to hand-ground masa for tamales and tortillas to freshly picked ears covered in the dusky-colored fungus the Aztecs called huitlacoche.

What he didn’t expect to find was a lot of potatoes.

“I didn’t necessarily think of that as Mexican cuisine,” admits Burton. But while standing at a vendor’s cart in Tlaxcala, what did he see being heaped onto tortillas but America’s favorite vegetable, south-of-the-border style. “It was amazing. Potatoes were everywhere,” he recalls. “They’d take barbacoa beef or some shredded pork carnitas that they’d stewed forever, and they’d fold that into mashed potatoes with cumin and, of course, lots of chiles and a little bit of fresh crumbled goat cheese.”

Such is the charm of the potato. Just when you think you couldn’t possibly discover another way to flavor, form or feature it, it pulls a fast one, popping up in an Asian-inspired stir-fry from Peru, a puff-pastry torta with Gorgonzola and caramelized onions or, per Burton’s epiphany, a street-stall taco. But what would you expect from the food world’s consummate shape-shifter, the one starch that counts among its principal assets a knack for not being noticed?

That’s no excuse to take the trusty tuber for granted; it’s not as if it doesn’t have a personality all its own. As chefs and product developers explore the potato’s potential, they’re finding more ways to coax that personality into full flower.

Accentuate the positive

It wasn’t long ago that potato promoters had little to celebrate. The lowcarb spasm of a few years back lobbed “a real hit” to the potato’s reputation, admits Seth Pemsler, vice president, retail merchandising, Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, ID. But consumer attitudes are changing, he says.

When the United States Potato Board (USPB), Denver, conducted an “Attitude & Usage” study, it found that popular perception ran counter to reality. “In focus groups conducted two years ago, women said potatoes were nothing but sugar and turned to fat in your body,” recalls Linda McCashion, vice president of public relations, USPB. “And when we told them that there was potassium and vitamin C, plus fiber, in potatoes, they said, ‘That’s not true.’”

In the two years since the USPB launched its Healthy Potato education campaign, “Consumers’ attitudes in this area improved 4% per year,” McCashion notes. For good reason. With 45% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C, 12% of the DV for fiber and 21% of the DV for potassium—a mineral that the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey says only 6% of men and less than 3% of women consume at the recommended 4,700-mg daily level—none of a 5.3-oz., skin-on potato’s 100-odd kcal are empty. “Potatoes qualify as a nutrient-dense food, and research indicates that they are one of the most satiating,” she says.

Making comfort healthful

A cheese topping can dress up plain-Jane potatoes. Suppliers can modify process-cheese characteristics to provide proper texture, melt and flavor for various applications.Photo: Sargento, Inc.

“So the potato itself is not the problem,” Pemsler says. Instead, it’s “the fact that you put four scoops of butter and sour cream on it.”

Admit it: You do. The potato is comfort food, and what’s more comforting than wrapping it in the unctuous accoutrements that are the edible equivalent of a down blanket? The inclination to go fully loaded is now an instinct. “If you’re making a mashed potato, everybody thinks, ‘Well, I’ve got to add butter. I’ve got to add sour cream to make it taste like anything,’” Says Mark Hill, C.E.C., executive chef, J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, ID. “Yes, you can do that, but at home, I like to take plain yogurt and mix it with different types of curry powder and other flavors to make a south Asian mashed potato that’s very low-fat.”

It’s one clever tactic for maximizing potato pleasure without maxing out on fat. “Classic preparations that keep being reinvented are au gratin, hash browns and healthful potato salads,” says McCashion. Give gratins a healthful spin by layering the spuds with vegetables like summer squash or spinach, she says. Or, to make a diet-friendly potato salad, “abandon mayo for Latin mixtures including olives, capers and lime juice for a Latin profile, or vinaigrette and tomatoes for a Mediterranean one,” she suggests.

Burton emphasizes the importance of maintaining a sumptuous texture when slimming down potato formulations. “There are a lot of ways to use things, like evaporated skim milk, that give you mouthfeel in a killer mashed potato without all that fat. Add a little roasted garlic to the evaporated skim milk and I’d challenge most palates to tell the difference between that and mashed potatoes with heavy cream mixed in. It’s all about mouthfeel, really,” he says.

It’s all in the process

A potato without cheese is like peanut butter sans jelly, so cheese suppliers have developed ingredient strategies that go over the top with flavor, not fat. Guy Beardsmore, R&D corporate chef, Sargento Food Ingredients, Plymouth, WI, finds “it’s always better to use strong-flavored cheeses with potatoes, because you don’t have to put as much in.” His top picks include “mature Cheddars, the blues, the Stiltons, Gorgonzolas. And goat cheeses are good for that, too.” In sauces and processed applications, he adds, “You can use enzyme-modified cheeses to really push the flavor.”

While processed-cheese technology has been a boon to potato formulation all around, it’s really aided the design of healthful products. “A highly flavored process cheese used at a lower level could significantly impact total fat and sodium without sacrificing flavor,” says Jill Norcross, associate principal scientist, Kraft Food Ingredients (KFI), Memphis, TN. Incorporating a compounded dairy flavor into a low-solids cheese powder, she adds, “can achieve nutritional goals, as well.”

Burton recommends adding flavor like “fine dining’s been doing for years, in the sense of adding textures or particulates to fried, mashed, or whatever. Think of the mashed potatoes at a restaurant that may have crispy shallots, maybe bits of bacon, on top or mixed in. It’s all about adding texture as well as flavor. Being able to add vegetables or bigger particulates that give a different mouthfeel or extra flavor without having to add all that extra fat.” Here processed cheeses again prove their mettle. “Modified-melt process cheeses would be ideal in applications where cheese particle identity is important, such as in a casserole topping” he says.

Adds Beardsmore: “I’m a classically trained chef, so I’d always go straight to natural cheeses. But for prepared meals at retail, processed, to me, is usually the preferred option. As the natural cheese ages more, it’s going to oil off; whereas with processed, you can emulsify that oil. You can change the viscosity. You can change the melt. You can make it very runny or very solid, depending on what potato dish you’re making.” For a gratin dauphinoise, “you’d want it to be quite saucy, whereas, say, for a deep-fried potato croquette, you may use a quite stable, restricted-melt so you still get the cheese integrity when you cut it in half.”

Processed cheeses also lend themselves to all-in-one customization. Chives, cracked black peppercorns, sun-dried tomato bits, roasted pepper chunks—all add value to processed cheese sauces. “My favorite potato dish right now is mashed potatoes,” says Beardsmore. “And if you were to use a processed cheese sauce, the sauce can include your seasoning, your butter, your cream. It could become a buttermilk- dairy replacer.”

Updating the classics

The idea of tarting up a potato with sun-dried tomatoes and pepper chunks would’ve seemed transgressive a few years back. But once forward-thinking chefs—and their product development comrades—began adding roasted garlic or a hit of spice to those spuds, the effect “was revolutionary,” Burton recalls. “The question now becomes: How do you take comfort food and change it a little but without scaring anybody? How do you add new flavors to dishes that consumers are still comfortable with?” he says.

How about wasabi? It proves that a reinvention of our favorite starch can come in small, easy-to-swallow steps. We sell consumers short when we underestimate their openness to change, notes Steve Logan, manager of culinary product development, McCormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, MD. The trick is to keep one foot in the familiar. “Start with something the general population really likes and then build on it,” he says. “Add roasted red pepper to roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. Go a step further and add toasted Parmesan cheese shavings, sautéed prosciutto, a bit of basil pesto. You can see how easy it is to ‘upscale’ potatoes and give them a new twist while still linking them back to the things we love.”

Logan also has fun reinterpreting the classic potato salad. “It’s creamy and comforting,” he says, “but the flavor is rather neutral.” By treating neutrality as a strength, “we can easily turn this into a flavor adventure,” he says. “Try adding some ground roasted ancho chile, cumin, cilantro, diced roasted poblano peppers, and queso fresco to the same dish. Suddenly, classic potato salad is now intriguing simply by adding a few accessible flavors.” Another approach simply upgrades the classics. “Use fried leeks instead of chives, peppered maple bacon instead of just plain bacon, Stilton or Gorgonzola cheese in place of blue,” Logan says. “Specific flavor call-outs will add more interest and intrigue.”

That’s especially so with specialty cheeses. “I think that gone—or, at least, going—are the days of the plain cheesy mashed potato,” Beardsmore says. Even the era of non-specific four-cheese Italian has passed. “when you could put ‘four-cheese Italian’ on your mashed potatoes and it didn’t matter what cheese was in it” has passed. Today’s consumers prefer cheese with a history, if not a national identity. Don Odiorne, vice president, foodservice, Idaho Potato Commission, wonders why more restaurants haven’t taken a similar tack in “upscaling” the potato skin. “You could probably recite to me off the top of your head the standard toppings for a potato skin,” he says. The selection usually runs from bacon and sour cream to chives and an anonymous cheese. But why not use the potato skin as a vehicle for new international concepts? That needn’t mean abandoning the original. Rather, he says: “Offer two types. It’s a great way to update your menu. Do your favorite and then offer another as a limited-time-offer. Offer healthy toppings—roasted vegetables, salsa, things that are easy to execute with items already in your pantry.”

Give “meat ‘n’ potatoes” a new whirl with a tip from Burton: “What I like to do, whether on the frozen side, for foodservice, or when you move over to manufactured products, is take classic meat flavors and add them right to potatoes to bind the two themes together. So you pair a nice reduction of beef stock tossed with some browned potatoes, or roasted potatoes with a really rich roasted chicken stock. When you think about it, it’s not that different from a meat gravy served over potatoes.”

These days it’s easy to find roasted stocks, specialty cheeses and premium seasonings for potato applications. “The palette of available ingredients to deliver on-trend flavors is simply impressive today vs. just five years ago,” Logan says. “For example, if you wanted to add lemongrass flavor to a new mashed potato product, you can easily find the right form to suit your needs. Your choices would include a dry flavor, wet flavor, seasoning, IQF, powder, puree—both frozen and shelf-stable.”

So maybe Hill is right. “Potatoes are the perfect blank slate,” he says. “They carry great flavor, both externally and internally. They can be shaped or molded. They can be breaded. They can be grilled, hashed or mashed, sautéed or barbecued. They can be wrapped in foil. There’s not much that you can’t do with a potato.” Not much, that is, except resist it.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. Contact her at

[email protected].

Potatoes with Pedigrees

Photo: United States Potato Board

Whether it’s the slim, creamy-fleshed Ruby Crescent, the buttery, golden fingerling the French call La Ratte, or the now commonplace Dutch Bintje and All-Blue, heirloom potatoes are proving there’s more to the spud story than the Russet. Consumers’ newfound interest in these varietals represents “a huge opportunity for the category,” says Seth Pemsler, vice president, retail merchandising, Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, ID.

While admitting “our category has been kind of sleepy” while everything else from beans to beer hopped on the upscale bandwagon, he’s now convinced the heirloom potato is “catching up.” Russets may still hog the core of the market—and with good reason: they work well in what they do—but “whites and reds have become mainstream,” he says, “and now we’re seeing fingerlings and creamers and purple Peruvians, too.”

We can thank fine-dining and farmers markets for the introduction. Small-scale growers extract a premium for these delicate, thin-skinned varieties with textures ranging from waxy to downright buttery, and colors spanning the spectrum. “What you see going on in foodservice is so much more creative in the way they use these varieties of potatoes,” Pemsler says. “That is where the market’s going to be. And it’s starting to emerge slowly at retail.”

With an eye to supplying foodservice, J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, ID, has come out with Baby Baker, a pre-roasted potato that has been “extremely successful for us—so successful that we can’t keep enough of it in stock,” according to Mark Hill, C.E.C., executive chef. Likening it to a Bintje, with “yellow, creamy flesh inside; half the size of a golf ball,” he says it requires special equipment and handling to harvest. “Then, basically, it’s blanched, roasted and enrobed in seasoning so the operator can just take it and heat it up,” he says. Amenable to baking, frying, microwaving and even grilling, the product lends itself to culinary invention. “Think of it in tapas or a small-plates type of item,” he says. “Top it with a variety of ingredients, like a roasted tomato tapenade, a butter sauce, or even blue cheese with pancetta. Or you could serve a dipping sauce next to it, like a potato fondue. It can be anything.”

For the civilian population, which may not “really know what to do with a fingerling or a purple potato,” Pemsler points out, it’s up to product developers to fill the gap. By featuring heirloom potatoes in frozen, drymix and ready-meal form—and packaging them with clear instructions and serving suggestions, if not with the whole seasoning setup included and ready to go—we can take these heirloom varieties from the boutique to the supermarket.

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