Variations on the potato across Europe

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Inspiration. Those nights when you find yourself hanging on to the refrigerator door, scanning the shelves for ideas, and the only inspiration that comes is to order pizza.

Well, in those moments you need the spirit of a cook who is constantly riffing, a master at turning the mundane into the magnificent. Diana Henry is a British food writer who has this drill down pat. She is the author of several books, including Plenty and Salt Sugar Smoke.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I want to talk about where you go for inspiration, because you guys on the other side of the pond, your heads go in very different directions when it comes to coming up with ideas.

Diana Henry: We have a very kind of magpie culture in terms of cookery in this country. We have lots of Indian restaurants and now in London we're getting more eastern European restaurants. We have a lot of Middle Eastern influence as well. I think increasingly we look to Scandinavia, partly because they have the same ingredients as we do, and as you do (in the U.S.). Vegetables, beets and stuff like that. We also look to Greece and Turkey. All of these countries really have dishes that are very good for you -- very healthy, very light -- and they're kind to your purse as well.

LRK: OK, I have a challenge. I've just handed you a bag of potatoes. Where are you going to take me with those?

DH: My place to go to for potato dishes would be the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. There's a Greek dish that sounds quite plain, but it's got real potential because it's olive oil-rich. It's waxy potatoes that you saute; you stew them basically, sweat them with leeks and onions. When they're softened, you add a bit more olive oil and some endive. It's the lettuce that looks as if it's been stuck into the electric plug. Then maybe rockets (arugula), watercress, spinach, dill and mint, and you braise that. It needs good seasoning and it also needs quite a good homemade chicken or vegetable stock. Turn those over and serve it. Some of the leaves are still crisp and some of them are still a little bit bitter, but you want that, because that's lovely against that rich oiliness.

In this country and probably yours, we don't cook with the kind of absolute abandonment they do in the Middle East, with regard to adding herbs. You want to be very generous with those and season well. You can serve it with some Greek yogurt, into which you've chopped a little mint and squeezed some garlic.

That is sumptuous. That's dinner. It sounds like a side dish to most people, but that's dinner.

LRK: That's dinner?

DH: Yes.

LRK: All right. What would they do with the potatoes in northern Europe?

DH: Oh my, it would have to be pyttipanna, which is a Swedish dish they make with leftovers.

I make it with leftovers, but they start with new raw potatoes and fry those up in a pan with onion. Then you want a bit of smoked bacon or smoked sausage, and you fry all that around too. They serve this with a raw egg on top. (I put a fried egg on top of it.) On the side, a sweet pickled beetroot and a little cucumber salad with a sweet and sour dressing and a glass of lager -- very cold golden beer.

And don't forget the dill. Don't forget the dill as well. It's got to have that Swedish kind of flavor. That's a lovely northern European way to approach potatoes on Monday, I think.

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