Potatoes, another kitchen staple that I couldn't do without. There's definitely no hint of low carb dieting in our house!

Potatoes can be used in a large variety of ways: a filler in stews; a thickener in soups; a dough in Gnocchi; a side dish; a main meal; part of pizza toppings and also in every meal from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between.

There are so many varieties of potatoes available that I couldn't begin to mention them all. I will talk about some of my favourites, and why I use them for certain recipes. The best thing to do is to buy and try different varieties, experiment with them and settle on the ones that you like best.

Texture plays an important role in choosing potatoes for a dish. For things such as Gnocchi, or baked potatoes a fluffy potato works best. For scalloped pototoes you are looking for a more starchy type, and for mashed potato it often just comes down to personal choice.

A potato that is simply boiled or baked is low in fat, and contains a lot of potassium, vitamin c and vitamin B6. The addition of all the butter, cream and cheese (to name a few favourite potato toppings) is what gives the humble potato a bad rap. To still benefit from the natural goodness of potatoes, try using low fat milk instead of cream; buttermilk or no fat yoghurt instead of sour cream; strong flavoured cheese where less still gives a boost of flavour; olive oil instead of butter (or just use less butter).

The varieties I use most often are russets, which are large, and have a drier fluffier inside. They are great for baking, for Gnocchi, and for making oven baked fries or wedges. Baby red potatoes are our favourite for roasting, tossed with salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh rosemary. For potato salad I like to use either  fingerlings or purple potatoes. Yukon golds or white potatoes work well for scalloped potatoes or other baked dishes. New white potatoes are perfect for boiling and tossing in herb butter, or vinaigrette while still warm. Mashed potato works with just about any potato, it all depends on what kind of texture you are looking for. I like to use russets, as the drier inside absorbs more of the butter, milk, cream or whatever is being added.

Potatoes are relatively inexpensive, and flexible when it comes to flavour. I love trying new things with them, such as Potato Crusted Pork Chops with Bacon Relish. Let your imagination go wild, potatoes are very forgiving. The way I see it is if it doesn't work out, it can always be mashed!

For most potato recipes sweet potatoes can be used as a substitute. Keep in mind that sweet potatoes have a higher sugar content, and will brown faster in the oven. They also tend to cook faster than white potatoes do.

When buying potatoes look for firm, unwrinkled tubers. I always try and buy nicely shaped potatoes. This way if I peel them, it's a lot easier than navigating the bumps with the peeler, and if I use them for a dish where presentation counts, I have nothing to worry about. Store potatoes in a cool, dark place but not in the fridge. The cold will start to turn the starch into sugar. Light will cause the potatoes to turn green, and they will taste bitter.

When peeled, potatoes oxidize quickly and turn brown. This can be avoided by either peeling them just prior to cooking them, or keeping the peeled potatoes in cold water, making sure they are well covered. I prefer not to do this, as some of the nutrients and starch tend to leach out into the water.

Some of the most used ways to prepare potatoes are:

  • Mashed : Peeled or unpeeled (this is a personal preference) potatoes are diced and cooked in boiling, salted water until soft. They are then drained and mashed with salt, pepper, butter and milk or cream. This is the basic version. Alternatives include adding grated cheese such as cheddar or Parmesan; crumbled blue or goat cheese; finely chopped green onions, chives or other herbs; sour cream or buttermilk; chopped, cooked bacon or crumbled cooked sausage; other cooked vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots or parsnips mashed with the potatoes; olive oil instead of butter; roasted garlic or caramelized onions.
  • Boiled: New potatoes are best for this. Boil them in salted water, whole or cut into chunks until tender. Drain and immediately add plain or flavoured butter, chopped fresh herbs or vinaigrette. The hot potatoes will absorb the flavours. The cooked potatoes can also be cooled and then pan fried for breakfast, or when making potato hash.
  • Roasted: Peeled or unpeeled. potatoes are cut into chunks and tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted at 375F until tender inside and crispy outside. The oven temperature can be raised to 400F to achieve a crispier outside. I like to use russet or red potatoes for this. Variations are as many as you can think of...chopped herbs, especially fresh rosemary; garlic salt or fresh whole cloves; paprika, sweet or smoked; chili powder; peeled and quartered shallots; bacon fat instead of olive oil; adding chopped bacon to cook with the potatoes; adding corn; topping the potatoes with crumbled feta cheese for the last 5 minutes of roasting.
  • Scalloped: The thinly sliced potatoes are cooked with a liquid such as chicken stock or whipping cream, and topped with grated cheese and then baked until tender and bubbling. Russets and Yukon Golds work well for this, and are usually peeled first. Slice the potatoes as thin as you can, around 1/8" - 1/4" is good. Grease an ovenproof dish and layer the potatoes into the dish, lightly seasoning each layer with salt and pepper. Pour heated whipping cream, or a combination of whipping cream and chicken stock over the potatoes. A good ratio to remember is 1 cup of liquid to 1 pound of potatoes. Cover the dish with lightly greased tinfoil and bake until the liquid is bubbling and the potatoes are tender, about 45 -60 minutes. Uncover and top with grated cheese (Swiss cheese is used most often). Russet potatoes tend to break down more than Yukon Golds, so the choice is dependent on whether or not you want to still have definitive slices of potatoes when you serve the dish. The sliced potatoes can be parboiled to speed up the cooking time in the oven. The potato layers can be alternated with thinly sliced onions, leeks or shallots. Any cheese can be used, and chopped fresh    herbs or diced ham or bacon can be added. The cream can be flavoured by adding bayleaves, garlic, spices, Dijon mustard or hot sauce.

Other uses for potatoes are potato pancakes, where grated potatoes are seasoned and cooked in a non-stick pan until crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Other vegetables such as leeks, zucchini or onion can be added. Sometimes a bit of flour and/or egg are added as binding agents.

Grated potatoes can be used as a crust for pork or fish. Mashed potatoes are used as a crust for shepherd's pie, and as a base for Gnocchi. Thinly sliced and parboiled, potatoes make a great pizza topping. Parboiled baby red potatoes can be skewered and grilled, as I did in the post Let's go Greek!

The flesh of baked potatoes can be scooped out and mashed with butter, cheese, herbs and green onions and then put back into the skin and baked again (Twice Baked Potatoes).

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