This Spud's For You Transcript

Silver Skillet Diner

[Alton's hat: "NECI," an abbreviation for the "New England Culinary Institute"]

    The story of the potato is a tale of epic proportion. The most important food crop on earth, the potato is adored nowhere more than it is in America. In here at this diner, they serve them  8, maybe 9 different ways. They like to be shredded, sautéed, scalloped, baked and broiled, mashed and whipped, grilled, roasted and fried. Sounds kind of like the last 5 minutes of Braveheart.


Curly Q's             Au Gratin
Pancakes          Shoestring
Scalloped             Jackets
Regular Fries         Mashed
Baked           Hash Browns
Home Fries

    As for these little guys [French Fries], I'm willing to bet you that there's at least one under your car seat right now. Don't believe me? Take a look. This is Good Eats and today we're going to be taking a closer look at a food that most of us take at least a little for granted, the humble potato.

These Spuds Are Made For Walkin'
The Road

GUEST: Deborah Duchon, Cultural Anthropologist
            Mime Juggler

    Now, if you were going to make a potato movie it would have to be a road picture because that humble tuber has crossed a lot of time and space to get under your car seat. Now, the Spanish Conquistadors first scooped it from its native soil back when they were plundering Central and South America. Now, they took it home to a very cool reception in Europe, except for the Irish. The Irish knew a good thing when they saw it and by the 17th century had planted their island wall to fence with potatoes. Now, the rest of Europe was about a 100 years behind, because for some reason the French and the Italians thought it was poison.
    Now I don't quite understand all of this, but then I'm not a nutritional anthropologist ...

AB: ... but you are.
AB: Okay, why did the French and the Italians think the potato was poison?
DD: Because it is.
AB: Oh.
DD: Heh, heh. The potato plant is a poisonous plant, all parts of the plant, the leaves, the stem, the flowers, the roots and even the potato in the wild are poisonous. And it is to the credit of the Incas who domesticated it, that they were brilliant biochemists, because they were able to figure out how to grow a potato without poison in it.
AB: Wow. So, what's the connection to the Europeans?
DD: Once it got to Europe, the Europeans recognized it as being similar to the deadly nightshades that they had been growing for years and using to poison kings, nobles, family members and other undesirables.
AB: Get out.
DD: It's true.
AB: Now, what plant would we know that's in that same family?
DD: Um, bell peppers, egg plant, tobacco, tomatoes. They're all other members of the nightshade family.
AB: Anything that grows around here?
DD: Uh, actually the field we're walking next to is full of nightshades, the poison varieties.
AB: Wow. So, you eat potatoes?
DD: Sure, I love potatoes.
AB: How do you like them?
DD: I like them boiled with a little butter and a lot of parsley.
AB: Always a favorite.

    Unfortunately, the Irish didn't cover their bets. In a mid 19th century blight wiped out 4 years of crop leaving about a million dead and another million sailing for America where the potato had already proven it's road worthiness. It was the perfect pioneer chow. Transportable, storable, nutritious and it would grow out of just about any hole you dropped it in. Now, even today we still associate our favorite potato dishes with roadside stands, juke joints and truck stops. I mean, think about it. Mashed potatoes, home fries, hash browns, road food.
    Now, it used to be easy to buy potatoes. I mean after all, there are only 3 varieties. I mean, there are the ones that look like Mr. Potato Head, the red ones and some kind of white ones. Now, a few years ago farmers and grocers started to up the ante by bringing an ever widening array of new potatoes to the bins. And then we were faced with a quandary, how do you cook all those potatoes?

AB: How do you like them.
MJ: [mimes something?]
AB: Heh, those are tasty.

The Inca Indians invented freeze dried Potatoes.

Harry's Farmers Market - 11:57 am

    I think it was Shakespeare who posed the question, "What's in a name?"  Well, if he was talking about American potatoes the answer is, "not a lot."  Because in the U.S. potatoes are marketed not by variety, which would have been helpful, but by either location of origin or by color, either of which I find pretty confusing.

    Now, luckily potatoes can all be fit into 3 categories depending on their starch content: either high, medium or low. So, the secret to happy potato cooking is knowing, well, which potato fits into which category. Now, nomenclature may not be much of a help to us but looking for a few, simple, physical traits is. Let's take a tour.


    And now, representing the high starch or mealy potato and weighing in at anywhere from a few ounces to, well, over a pound, the Baker, a.k.a. the Russet, a.k.a. Burbank Russet.

High Starch

    Named after a horticulturist, Luther Burbank who invented this spud—well, developed it—back in 1872.

Luther Burbank grew the first Russet in New England. He never visited Idaho.

    Russets and all high starch potatoes are great for whipping, mashing, frying and baking. Ah, baked potatoes. So simple, so perfect, and yet so misunderstood.

The Kitchen

    The world's best baked potato goes like this.

    First, preheat your oven to 350°, then carefully approach the spuds.

350° F

    Here's the secret: Russets. I like Washington State but Idaho is fine, too. Now, the first thing you want to do is go Psycho on the potato. You want to poke holes all over it with a fork. Now that will let steam out as it forms which will help you get that nice, fluffy texture that we all so desire.
    Now, into a bowl and give it just a little bit of oil. Now, what this is going to do is give us a kind of a crunchy skin but also because the oil can get so much hotter than the water inside the potato, it's going to regulate the moisture in there and actually gives us that texture that we want. Now, because I like to eat the skins I give it a little bit of kosher salt, just to up the ante.
    Now, into the oven. No baking sheet. No pans. Nothing fancy. Just straight into the middle of the oven like that. Now, your average russet is going to be done in about an hour. And there's only one way to tell if it's finished, you've got to give it a squeeze. If the skin feels kind of crunchy but the meat inside is soft, it's dinner time. And unless you like limp, soggy, gummy baked potatoes, please stay away from the foil. If you're in a hurry, you can start a potato in the microwave. Just put it on high for a couple of minutes. But do yourself a favor, finish it in the oven.

Harry's Farmers Market

    Representing the low starch or waxy potato is the Norland which is sometimes just called a Red or Boiling Potato. Now, although in the great majority of low starch potatoes are round and red there are also Fingerling potatoes that look like ... well, you guessed it.

Low Starch

    Now, these spuds get the short end of the name stick because even though there are dozens of varieties from Pontiacs to La Sodas to Norlands, they're often just called, Red. Some people even call them New Potatoes, which is kind of funny, since New Potatoes are just little baby versions of any potato.

Let My Mashers Go
The Kitchen

    Remember what Richard Dreyfuss made a mountain out of in Close Encounters? Hmm? Mashed potatoes.  That's right. The Grand Pooba of comfort food. When I make mashers I like to use two different kinds of potatoes. I used peeled Russets and I use unpeeled Red Potatoes.
    Now, if we were just going to make real super velvety consistency kind of fluffy whipped potatoes, we would just use the Russets because they break down so nice when they cook. They get nice and fluffy. But you know, when I make mashers I really do want some chunks. I want a little bit of contrast for my mouth to get into and that's where these little red guys come in. Because these are low starch, waxy potatoes they'll stay chunky even after they're cooked and that's what I'm after.

    So, everything goes in the pot together. By the way, I'm using I guess, about a 2 to 1 ratio of Russets to Reds but you can change it around to your taste.

2 to 1

    Now, we're going to fill this pot with hot water only to the top of the potatoes. We just barely want to cover them. More water will only slow down the cooking and you've got a chance of water logging the potatoes. Okay, that's plenty.

Start in Hot Water

    Now, potatoes, like pasta and eggs, really do need some salt to taste like themselves and now is really the time to do it. If you do it later you're never going to get the flavor the same. Now, I like to get the water to taste kind of like sea water so I'm going to heat this up and I'll taste it after it dissolves. Now, high heat and put a cover on the pot because a covered pot always boils faster.
    Mashed potatoes really do need 2 things. They need some dairy and they need at least a little bit of fat. Now, they are some health pundits out there who would say you could make perfectly good mashed potatoes just with some vegetable stock or some tofu juice. Well, I don't know. That's sounds like a Charles Dickens novel in a bowl to me.

    I like to use low fat buttermilk, not skim buttermilk. That's going to add some tanginess and a nice texture. I also use just a little bit of whipping cream. What that's going to do is carry the flavor of the garlic and it's also going to stabilize this so that this sauce doesn't break as it cooks. Now, breaking has to do with acid and dairy and heat and stuff we'll get into later.

Low Fat Buttermilk

Whipping Cream

    Now, I just eyeball this. I never know how much I'm really going to need but if you twisted my arm I'd say that you'll be fine with a total of about a 1/4 cup of dairy per pound of potato.

1/4 Cup Per Pound of Potato

    Now, we're going to put this on to simmer for about 15 minutes or until that garlic is nice and soft. Whatever you do you don't want to let this to boil, though, cause it will really make a mess.

Simmer - 185°
Small Bubbles Breaking Surface

    Once your potatoes come to a boil they'll probably be done in just a couple of minutes. If they're not, go ahead and back off of the heat just a little bit. Because if these come to a rolling boil they're going to water log, they're going to fall apart and get soggy and disgusting. That you don't want. We're just going to give these a couple more minutes.

Hold the Starch
The Kitchen

    We've been doing a lot of talking about starch. And what is it exactly and why should we care? Well, there are a lot of different starches in the vegetable world. But, you can kind of think of potato starch as tiny little granules made up of long strands of a sugar called glucose, kind of like fuel cells for the potato. Now, these little granules are very stable until they come in contact with heat and moisture. Now, there's already plenty of moisture in a potato so all you have to do is get the temperature up to about, oh, a 160° and these little granules change. They start taking in the water around them and they blow up to, well, hundreds of times their normal size. The result, a light and fluffy potato.
    Now, the reason why we poke holes in baking potatoes and why we would never, say, let a pot of Red Orlands just boil and boil and boil is that there is such a thing as too much heat and too much water and when that happens, [balloon pops] well, it's not so fluffy.

The Kitchen

    We've given these a couple more minutes and I think they're done. Just pick them up with some tongs and give them a squeeze. If they crumble like that you're good to go.
    We are going to dump these into a colander and then put them right back into the pot for mashing. A $1 flea market potato masher is all you need. Now, our mixture is ready, got some nice softened garlic in there, so we're going to start mashing by adding just a little bit of the mixture. You don't want to go overboard on this stuff because before you know it, you could have potato soup which is nice but it's not really what we're after. So, we mash.
    Now, we don't want to overdo the mashing, either, because potatoes can kind of get gluey on you and we don't want to loose that chunky texture that we've put the Red Potatoes in here to get. I'm going to go with just a little more of the mixture. That is probably going to be enough. Every time you make this it's going to be a little different so it is always nice to have a little more of the mixture than you think you might need. I like the way that looks. And give that a taste. You can see the red skin in there and you still see the chunks along with the creamy. Hmm.
    Now, before you lay them out in front of your Pavlovian table guests, you might want to take a look around your refrigerator. Remember what we said, potatoes are great refrigerator Velcro. And you can make some pretty nice special dishes out of leftovers. There we go. Now, we've got some sautéed onions over here, some sun-dried tomatoes, some old pesto, and oh, my favorite, bacon. Love bacon. Now just by adding just one or two of these things—maybe some horseradish which is my favorite—all of a sudden we've turned, you know, a perfectly acceptable pile of mashed potatoes into something a little bit special.
    Now, if you wanted to, you could spilt this mother lode into 3 different bowls and kind of lay these out and have a mashed potato party and, you know, that's kind of nice because then all of a sudden a basically rustic dish becomes a cornucopia of splendor and heh, you're a hero.

A 6 oz. Potato yields:
100 Calories
23 gr. Carbohydrates
3 gr. Protein
and no Fat.

Exploring the Yukon
Harry's Farmers Market

    Now, stepping up for the medium starch category is the Yukon Gold, a relative newcomer in the potato field, heh, developed by the Canadians about 20 years ago.

Medium Starch

    Now, medium starch potatoes do look kind of like Russets but they always have lighter kind of thinner skin. Now, varieties like this Yukon Gold, Kennebecs, Superiors or, say, these California Longs are for some reason always marketed as white. Racism. It's ugly. Even in tubers.
    Now, for some reason these have always been considered all purpose potatoes which is kind of funny. I mean, they do hold together kind of like a waxy and they get kind of fluffy like a mealy. But where these really excel is in scalloped dishes, pancakes and gratins [pron: gruh-TAN].

The Gratin: Refrigerator Velcro
The Kitchen

    You know, everybody is talking these days about fresh ingredients. Everything must be fresh. Well, what am I supposed to do with all the stuff I've got that's not so fresh? I mean, am I supposed to bury this stuff in the yard when the neighbors aren't looking? I don't think so.
    Luckily, potatoes are a lot like eggs and pasta, they can help you get rid of things that are kind of hanging around getting ready to grow fur. Now, let's see. My reconnaissance has flushed an old block of Asiago cheese, some Portobello mushrooms from last night's salad and some pretty middle-aged looking parsley. Clearly, it's time to make a gratin.
    Now, a gratin is basically just a casserole constructed out of thin slices of potato layered with, well, whatever you salvaged from the refrigerator. Now, these things can look kind of intimidating but they're impressive at the same time. I've seen recipes call for 6 pounds of potatoes all sliced 1/16th of an inch thick. I don't know about you but I leave my calipers down at the lab when I come home. Now the trick is that nobody said you had to use a knife and anybody that would want to needs some professional help.

Kitchen Company

GUEST: Sally Bernhardt, Kitchen Company

    Now, a mandoline is perfect for executing a lot of uniform cuts quickly. It can slice, it can shred, make shoestrings, waffle cuts, whatever. Now I'm not saying anything can replace good knife skills but come on. You'd have to be a circus knife thrower to out pace this puppy. Now, this professional model is sweet, built like a tank, full of features ...

SALLY BERNHARDT: ... and well over a hundred dollars. We've got a whole variety of different kinds of slicers and graters and things.
AB: Well, we're just doing some basic slicing. Going to make a gratin.
SB: V-Slicer is great for that. It has adjustable widths so you can adjust the thickness of whatever it is you're slicing and of course it has a hand guard which I have a feeling you're going to be needing.
AB: Okay, thanks.
SB: No problem.
AB: Heh, do you like potatoes?
SB: Oh, I'm passionate about them.
AB: Okay.

The Kitchen

    Now, medium starch potatoes like these Yukon Golds are really perfect gratin fodder because they'll bind together when they cook without losing their consistency.

    I must warn you to use the hand guard because the last thing you want is to find fingernail pieces in your gratin.

Use the Hand Guard

    Butter your casserole first because believe me this will set up like concrete if you don't. I've been there. So, it's a lot like building a sky scraper. We're just going to put down a layer of potatoes—casino dealers are really good at this and a lot faster than I am—and then we're just going to put the other ingredients on top and then repeat it until we've got about 4 layers down.
    Now, some mushrooms. You want to go kind of light on the mushrooms because they'll form a barrier in between the lower and upper potato layer and that will keep the gratin from setting. You'll end up with chowder instead of a gratin. So that's enough. A little bit of parsley, not much. Some salt, more than you'll think you need because potatoes always need salt. A few grinds of pepper and a little bit of that Asiago cheese. Again, that's going to go on every layer so go easy. You don't have to put a load on every single layer.
        So, we're just finishing up the 4th layer of the gratin. Great. Now, before we put on any other ingredients we're going to add some dairy and that's going to enrich the flavor. It's also going to aid the consistency, help the whole thing to bind together. 

    Now, I like using Half & Half. If you can afford the calories you can use cream, that's what the French do. Uh, and if you want you can use cream combined with milk which is homemade Half & Half. Anyway, I add about half a cup and then we're going to squeeze the whole thing. Now that's to get the Half & Half really distributed and also to get all of the air bubbles out. Now, I know I've got enough in there because it's coming up around the edges, so that's great.

One Third to Half
A Cup Half & Half

    Now, I've got a 400° oven. Anywhere between 400 or 450 is fine.


    Now, for about the first 45 minutes of cooking I like to cover this with foil very loosely. I don't want to trap the steam in there but I do want it to stick around a little bit and help the potatoes cook. Doing this also helps us to not over brown the top which is, of course, just another word for burning.
    Now, except for these little New Potatoes which don't store real well because of their high sugar content, most potatoes will last 10 to 20 days easy if you handle them right, even longer if you buy them fresh at a farm stand.

    Now, your root cellar is the perfect place to store potatoes. Oh, you don't have a root cellar. Yeah, well, neither do I. That's okay. Any place dark, dry and cool is fine for potato storage. For instance, a kitchen drawer is fine as long as it's not next to the dish washer or the oven. I like that.


    Now, an open basket is okay, too, down inside a cabinet but you want to make sure that it's not the cabinet underneath your sink. It's humid in there and it's probably already loaded up with chemicals and things that are yucky with food. Now, for the truly spatially challenged, a paper bag, on the counter, folded up in a dry place is fine.

"Potato" comes from the Caribbean word Batata, Meaning Sweet Potato.

The Kitchen

    Now, like all cooking shows, we can fold space and time. 50 minutes has just disappeared. So, we pulled the foil off about 10 minutes ago to let the top brown. It looks pretty good.

50 Minutes Later

    Now, the only way to really tell if this is done is to give it a few pokes with a sharp knife or fork. If the blade really goes in easily but you can just kind of feel a delineation between the layers, it's dinner time. Well, it's almost dinner time because this really will be a lot better if it's allowed just to sit for, say, 15 to 30 minutes. That way the layers will bind up really nice and you'll be able to cut it into wedges easily. Believe me, in half an hour it will still be plenty hot.
    Ah. Now that is hearty fare. Lucky for me it's about as complicated as sitting on a sofa. You know, we work hard to keep recipes at bay here at Good Eats. We'd rather you experiment with your food, not go by lists of instructions and ingredients. Now, these dishes are a perfect example. Go ahead. Build a couple of gratins, mash up some mashers. In no time, friends and family are going to be begging you for recipes that you can happily admit don't exist. They'll be in awe.
   Now, I hope you appreciate that French Fry under your car seat more than you did a half hour ago. Join us again for Good Eats. And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010