Thursday, November 10, 2011

Savor the Spuds

The countdown to the holiday season begins, as Thanksgiving soon leads the way into tree-trimming parties and gift gathering frenzies.  Another year will see its conclusion, but what a way to go; ushering the year's end with holiday feast after feast for two months sounds pretty good to me.   We begin with the Thanksgiving turkey day tradition on which we eat ourselves into a tryptophan-induced comatose oblivion.  A month later the Christmas Eve feast of seven fishes rolls around, followed by the elegant Christmas Day dinner.  With only a week to recover from those two meals of indulgence, then it's the New Year's Eve cocktail parties and the New Year's Day dinner to embrace good luck for the coming new year, and to feed the resulting hangover from said New Year's Eve cocktail party.  Let us not forget all of the little gatherings in between to trim trees, bake cookies, engage in shopping marathons and team up for gift-wrapping sessions.  We endure office parties with coworkers that you swear you have seen quite enough of at work already; and meet up for drinks with old friends that you know you should have been meeting up with all along during the preceding ten months.  November through January first is truly a foodie's paradise indeed!

We kick off the season with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey repast.  Thanksgiving dinners have come a long way since the pilgrim's debut of this annual tradition.  With the emergence of ethnic ingredients in our markets, the basic components of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner can now be jazzed up into platefuls of culinary intrigue to tantalize the palate.  One specimen of this creative cookery is the humble potato.

The ancient Incas cultivated the potato thousands of years ago; now hundreds of varieties are available around the globe.  We have the russet potato, also called the Idaho potato for its place of origin when first developed.  Picture a naked Mr. Potato Head, if you will.  The long tuber with its thick and rough brown skin is the spud of choice for making baked potatoes or French fries.  Round potatoes come dressed in very thin white or red skins, and are ideal for boiling, roasting, and making mashed potatoes.  My favorite potato for roasting or mashing is the Yukon Gold potato, which has a gorgeous creamy-textured golden flesh.  New potatoes are basically young round white, red or Yukon gold potatoes.  Often referred to as baby potatoes, they are perfect for roasting or boiling with little preparation involved, as the skins are wispy and therefore do not need to be peeled; and the potatoes are small enough to cook halved or even whole, so little to no cutting is necessary here either.  Potatoes which are shaped and sized like a thumb are called fingerling potatoes and are just as effortless to cook as new potatoes.  I love the blue potatoes I have recently been purchasing.  They are readily available in both the new potato and the fingerling variety; and unlike many blue or purple vegetables, they do retain their color throughout the cooking process.  Finally, we have the sweet potato, a large tuber with a thick coppery skin and a deep orange flesh.  Although much firmer than the aforementioned potatoes, it cooks up moist and tender and can be used in many of the typical potato preparations.

For weekday side dishes, roasting some new potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper works just fine.  For Thanksgiving dinner, however, add some more flavor and dimension to that roasting pan, such as a combination of chopped fresh herbs and some grated pecorino romano cheese.  Thinking about potatoes au gratin?  Make it extra special by substituting basic cheddar with a goat cheese, or a combination of a blue cheese with gruyere.  You could even use both Yukon golds and sweet potatoes to make a gratin that will offer up wow factor.  Another option for the Thanksgiving side is the twice-baked potato, in which the potato is baked, halved, the flesh then hollowed out into a bowl and mixed with some other flavor-boosting ingredients such as cheeses, herbs, garlic, onion, chopped bacon, etc. and then stuffed back into the skins and baked once again.  The possibilities here are endless.  

By far the most popular starchy side on Thanksgiving remains the mashed presentation.  Mashed potatoes do not have to be boring run-of-the-mill potatoes mashed with milk, butter, salt and pepper.  No, there are infinite opportunities to create here too.  Mashed potatoes benefit from the addition of such ingredients as roasted garlic, truffles, rosemary, chives, corn, even chopped chili peppers or wasabi.  You could even boil a root vegetable, such as parsnips or celery root, and mash that along with the potato for an added flavor dimension. Here is a recipe that I came up with one day, rather effortlessly, just by grabbing things off the shelf of the pantry and spice rack.  It turned out to be one of those occasional culinary gems I concocted that turned out to be a winner.
Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes (4-6 servings)
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks   
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup sour cream
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
½ teaspoon liquid smoke
Salt, to taste

Place cut-up potatoes in a large stock pot (not a nonstick pot), then fill pot with water.  Bring potatoes to a boil.  Reduce heat slightly and allow potatoes to continue a low boil for about 30 minutes, or until very tender. Drain the potatoes, making sure to shake the colander several times in order to drain as much water as possible.  Return potatoes to the same pot.  Add sour cream, heavy cream, chipotle chili powder and liquid smoke to the pot.  Using the highest setting on an electric hand-held mixer, beat potatoes until they are well mashed and blended.  If they appear too stiff, add more sour cream, a little at a time, until desired consistency is achieved.  Mix in salt to taste.  The flavorings for this can be adjusted to your personal taste: if you want more heat, add more of the chili powder; if you want a smokier flavor, add more liquid smoke - a little at a time, a little of the liquid smoke goes a long way on flavor.

This is how you put a not-so-traditional spin on flavor to some of your traditional Thanksgiving dinner courses.  Start turning your kitchen into a laboratory, peruse your spice rack, herb garden, pantry shelves and your refrigerator's dairy ingredients, and let the creative experimentation begin now so that your ingenious creation will be tweaked and ready for presentation once the holiday table is set.  Sure, Thanksgiving is a traditional American holiday; but there is no reason you cannot infuse some of your family's ethnic heritage into the mix.  You could even abandon tradition altogether and season the basic dishes with ingredients which center around a theme cuisine which you are particularly fond of, whether that turns out to be Italian or southwestern American or Cajun.  Be creative, but also be warned: after this year's sampling, invitees may be counting on a permanent seating at your future holiday tables!

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