Rarely it is that my beloved and I disagree. We are amiable, amicable, peaceable beings who refer to avoid conflict – and so it mostly goes. There are, however, occasional exceptions, and the cooking of potatoes constitutes one.
I admit straight up that he is a magnificent potato cook. His potatoes are always perfect, especially when he roasts them: they are consummately crunchy on the exterior and meltingly creamy within. With great generosity – or more likely in the hope that my potato cooking improves – he has given me two of his ‘secrets’. One is to heat the baking tray prior to adding the potatoes readied for roasting. Two is to add, when you are convinced your spuds are done, another half-hour to the cooking time. ‘How often do people burn potatoes?’ he asked me the other night as we argued yet again. I was in charge and I was doing baked wedges rolled in a little smoked paprika and salt. I have to say that they were wonderful, wonderful – but they were wonderful because (a) I pre- heated the baking tray; (b) I cooked them an additional half-hour after the knife I applied to the flesh slid in and out with ease; and (c) he was supervising.
The odd thing is that I had always believed my roast potatoes were close to flawless. Hadn’t I been taught by bossy Italians the art of tossing chunks through a hearty slosh of olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and fresh rosemary sprigs before subjecting them to a moderately hot oven for an hour, showered liberally in salt? Hadn’t I become fat on several occasions due to my inability to resist them?
Cooking potatoes seems to be the most elemental process and yet I am not alone in being challenged. (Cooking chicken falls into the same category and I reserve those tribulations for another column.) There are many people guilty of serving lumpy mashed potatoes or embarrassingly bad potato salads. In 1881 a householder’s handbook was published in the US entitled The Household Cyclopedia of General Information. On the subject of cooking potatoes the author says, ‘The vegetable kingdom affords no food more wholesome, more easily prepared, or less expensive than the potato, yet, although this most useful vegetable is dressed almost every day, in almost every family – for one plate of potatoes that comes to table as it should, ten are spoiled’.
The most novel way I ever heard of cooking potatoes was related to me over Christmas by my Sydney friend Barbara. She was describing the potatoes cooked in soil she had watched at the recent Sydney International Food Festival (SIFF). Chef Ben Shewry from Melbourne’s Attica restaurant was demonstrating one of his signature dishes which consists of baking potatoes in a roasting dish filled with soil – and Barbara, who had tasted one, was determined to try it herself at home. You actually, thank God, separate the potatoes (coated with grapeseed oil and seasoned with river salt) from the soil with a dampened tea towel and a piece of muslin, which also covers them before a final layer of soil, then alfoil. After that the potatoes cook for two hours at 180°C then for another three to five hours at 100°C. The result should be a texture ‘firm yet yielding and creamy’. I must ask Barbara how her attempt went.