Potatoes: Beyond the Latke

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Close-up of a potato

This time of year, many holiday tables are laden with latkes. These traditional disks are the quintessential Chanukah food and are pretty universally liked. I adore them; each year I make a huge batch during the Festival of Lights, overdo it, regret it, and don’t want to look at another latke for a year. They are that irresistible.

But there are plenty of other ways to use the humble, and relatively, healthy potato. And ways without the labor required to make a batch of latkes.

Let’s start with the nutritional facts. Spuds have received a bad rap, as carbs have become demonized by fitness buffs. But potatoes — without butter, cheese, sour cream and other high calorie/sodium/fat additions — are actually pretty good for you. They contain 30 percent of the daily value of Vitamin C, 15 percent of potassium, 10 percent of vitamin B6 and 6 percent of iron.

Their relatively neutral flavor make potatoes a blank slate — so they accept most other ingredients well. And have you ever heard anyone say, “I hate potatoes”? I haven’t. They are a low-risk dish to serve to a crowd — most everyone likes potatoes.

The following three recipes are great kitchen workhorses. They are not exotic, so they probably won’t invoke wrinkled noses, even from finicky eaters. They are simple to prepare with basic ingredients from the pantry. And they can be scaled up to feed a crowd. The tortilla is best done in a 10-inch skillet, but you can use two, just have them going side by side on the stove.

Potato Kugel

Serves eight to 10

This dish is like a giant latke, but with far less work. It also offers a dramatic presentation: You can either bring the skillet right to the table and slice it like a pie, serve it on a pretty platter or cut in squares. This version makes a lot — I used my 12-inch cast-iron skillet — but it can be scaled back for a smaller group. If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet, any ovenproof, wide, shallow pan will work.

A note on peeling: I loathe peeling potatoes and rarely do so, but some feel strongly that it is a must. Cook’s choice.

1 large yellow onion

3 pounds large baking potatoes (about five)

¼ cup flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt

Generous dousing of fresh cracked pepper

3 eggs

cup canola oil

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the cast-iron skillet in oven while it heats.

In a food processor, shred the potatoes and onions. Place them in a mixing bowl and add all remaining ingredients except the oil. Mix well.

Remove the hot skillet from the oven and coat it with oil. Pour the potato mixture into the hot skillet and spread it into an even layer.

Place in the oven and bake approximately 60 minutes until the top and edges are crisp and browned and the center is soft and cooked through. If you want a crisper top, turn on broiler for the last five minutes.

Scalloped Potatoes

Serves eight

Many recipes for scalloped potatoes require precooking the cream sauce, brushing the potato slices with melted butter, or any number of fussy steps. I prefer to make things simple — no brushing, preheating milk or melting butter. I mean, if you are putting butter, salt, pepper, cream and milk in a dish with potatoes and topping with parmesan cheese, you are pretty much guaranteed a delicious outcome.

I continue to stand firm on my no-peel policy, even for this recipe, but this is not always a popular position. Feel free to peel your potatoes if desired. I suggest Yukon Gold varietals because they have very thin, unobtrusive skins, so if you don’t peel them it is not a big deal.

1 clove garlic

4 tablespoons butter (divided)

2 cups heavy cream

cups whole milk

Salt and pepper

8 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled if desired and sliced thinly

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the inside of a large casserole dish with a tablespoon of butter. Cut a garlic clove in half and rub over the inside of a casserole dish.

Arrange the slices of potato in a layer in the pan, sprinkle with small amount of salt and pepper, and daub with bits of butter. Repeat the layers until all the potatoes are used up.

Pour the cream and milk over the potatoes and press down lightly. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Cover and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the cover and bake another 15 minutes until the topping is brown and potatoes are cooked through and soft.

Tortilla Espanola

Serves two generously or four as part of a meal

I will never forget my first trip to Spain. I decamped there for a semester abroad, stepped into a café and ordered a tortilla espanola. In my youth, I was not a fan of eggs in any form, and was dismayed to receive a potato and onion omelet when I expected a round of flat bread. But the dish grew on me and I soon acquired a taste, as well as a recipe, which has served me well for decades.

This can be served as a light supper, lunch or brunch with a salad and some bread. Or, it can be cut in small pieces and served as an appetizer — or tapa as they would say in Spain.

1 large potato cut in small cubes (peeling optional; I don’t)

1 small onion, chopped

6 eggs

Generous pinches of salt and pepper (especially the salt; the authentic version is quite salty)

2 tablespoons olive or canola oil

In a medium saucepan, boil the potato cubes until cooked, about 10 minutes. (Traditionalists fry them in the skillet with oil and onion, but my version cuts both fat and splatter.) Drain the potatoes.

Heat the onions in oil in a medium-sized skillet and sauté until they are soft, about five minutes. Add the cooked potatoes to skillet and stir to blend.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the eggs, salt and pepper. Pour the eggs into the hot skillet and mix a bit to distribute them over the onion and potato evenly. Allow them to cook on medium heat, gently scraping the sides of the skillet and tipping it to allow uncooked eggs to seep underneath.

When the bottom of the tortilla is just solidified, carefully slide the tortilla, cooked side down, onto a plate. The mushy, uncooked eggy side will be facing up.

Invert the skillet over the plate and quickly and carefully flip the whole apparatus over so the raw side of the tortilla lands in the bottom of the skillet. Remove the plate from the top of the skillet. Cook the remaining side until done and serve.

Note: If flipping a skillet is too daunting, you can pop it into the broiler and finish cooking in the oven. Just be sure you are using an ovenproof skillet, or wrap the handle in several thicknesses of aluminum foil to prevent it from melting.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. Soft, fluffy spuds laced with butter, milk, salt and pepper are pretty darn wonderful. But there are lots of ways to jazz up mashed potatoes that riff on these traditional ingredients. In addition, kosher diners that want to pair these with meat and/or vegans who needed an all-veg option might enjoy some of the following twists on the classic.

Dairy options:

  • Grated cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack, or Parmesan cheese
  • Cream cheese and chopped chives or scallions
  • Buttermilk
  • Greek yogurt
  • Sour cream
  • Ranch dressing
  • Pesto (omit the cheese and this moves to the pareve column)

Pareve options:

  • Mayonnaise
  • Aioli
  • Toum
  • Mustard
  • Olive oil
  • Truffle oil
  • Horseradish
  • Wasabi
  • Salsa
  • Roasted garlic
  • Caramelized onions

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