Raghavan Iyer is the Indian chef and writer who's tallied up awards for his classes and writings, like his inspired tome 660 Curries. The man has a gift with seasonings. In his latest book Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked - and Fried Too!, he is coming to terms with a lifelong addiction -- to potatoes. The book includes recipes from nearly ever continent.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Am I right that, for the first time, potatoes have names? It's not just russet and red skin. It's designer potatoes?
Raghavan Iyer: It is. And I think they're finally coming into the limelight after what, 10,000 years? Potatoes do have varietal names. But, for the most part, people still shop based on the kind of potato they want for their recipe. Especially in North America, you see people are still looking for either russets or Yukon Gold. Nobody's going to go into the store and say, “Do you have any Kennebec?” We shoppers are still just looking for the type of potato.
LRK: Your book divides up potatoes by their style: they're starchy, they're waxy, they're "new." That dictates what recipe you're going to use them in. To get people thinking about looking for names, what are a couple in each category that we should keep an eye out for?
RI: I feel like the workhorse of the starchy potato is the Russet Burbank. That's your common potato that is now available just about everywhere. That's a great baking potato, but it's also a great potato for making the ultimate mashed potatoes because of its low moisture content and high starch content. The Yukon Gold is a Canadian variety named after the Yukon River, but they added the name gold to kind of pay homage to the California gold rush. It’s middle-of-the-line in terms of starch and moisture, it's supposed to be an all-purpose potato whether you're making mashed potatoes or potato salads.
On the other end of the spectrum, you've got red potatoes or fingerlings which have a high moisture content. Those are waxy and beautiful for when you want the potato to hold itself well, to be cohesive, especially for pan roasting and for boiling. Those work really well. And you're starting to see names like the Peruvian Purple, the Russian Banana, and the Amarosa.
LRK: What would you do with these: the Kennebec or the waxy kind of potatoes?
RI: There's an amazing go-to salad. I don't know about you, but I have a craving for a good mojito sometimes. One of the days when I was having a mojito I thought, “Wow, this would be amazing as a dressing for a good waxy potato.” I had a variety of fingerlings, multi-colored, that I boiled until they were just tender. You don't want to overcook them. Then I took, in a mortar, fresh mint and key limes. I muddled the two together so the essential oils from the skin of the limes permeated and flavored the mint. The mint got much stronger. I threw in some course cracked black peppercorns and a really good sea salt. To top it all I added a little bit of sugar for balance and poured white rum into it.
LRK: You actually did the alcohol part?
RI: I did because that's what made it a mojito. I combined all of that and then I added it to the fingerling potatoes. As you know, the best way for the potatoes to absorb the flavors, you can toss them while they're still warm. Often people forget to do that. To give it a further pizzazz I actually swirled in some fresh pomegranate seeds.
LRK: Gorgeous to look at?
RI: Gorgeous. The word that came to my mind was “sexy.”
LRK: That, too.
RI: We eat with all our senses. To see the flavors come alive, the mojito sang with such pizzazz, and the mint came through beautifully. The key limes really made a big difference.
LRK: That reminds me, you have a couple of recipes from the potato's homeland, Peruvian recipes.
RI: I have an amazing soup, locro de papa. Ecuadorians claim that to be their soup as well. It’s potatoes that are actually boiled in milk. To make it richer, I added cream cheese. I punctuated the potato with a combination of cumin and annatto seed -- or the achiote seed -- which I ground and gives the beautiful sort of a sunny disposition. A little bit of cayenne for kick. I puréed everything and the color of that soup was dynamite. You top it off with scallions and fresh avocado, with a little bit of queso fresco or blanco, and you feel like this is the perfect soup for cold weather.
Of course, I'm a fried freak. One of my favorite recipes in the book is cheesy tater tots with fresh tarragon. I used Yukon Gold for that or you could use russet. You fry them at a low temperature until it's just barely brown, then you drain it. Once it's cool I pulse that with cheese curds because of the low moisture. Just a little potato starch to bring it all together, then I throw in fresh tarragon. You shape them into these little tater tots and fry them a second time at a higher temperature. And oh my God. The recipe says you can feed about four people but for me it was just one person.
LRK: It’s very similar to the way you make French fries.
RI: A low temperature fry and then high temperature fry.
LRK: Okay. I'm sold.
Raghavan left us with a recipe for Locro de Papas, the Peruvian potato soup. You can find it at this link.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.