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FOOD FEATURE: Hot potatoes

FOOD FEATURE: Hot potatoes

No one would dispute that Americans love potatoes, but attacks from health advocates on the beloved starch and its most popular preparation, the French fry, have taken their toll. The United States Potato Board says that in-home potato consumption has dropped by around 15 percent since 1990.

Restaurants have not seen such declines—and few chefs foresee any major shift in the way people eat—but as new trans-fat regulations bring the fat content of French fries to people’s attention, chefs are exploring other ways to serve potatoes that allow customers to feel indulgent but not like absolute gluttons.

Others are finding that if they cast their fries in a more healthful light, sales can even go up.

Ina Pinkney, chef-owner of Ina’s, a white-tablecloth restaurant in Chicago, says that enough of her customers are concerned about trans fats that it can affect sales. She said diners shied away from ordering her fried chicken until she mentioned in the newsletter that she sends to customers that she was frying it in trans-fat-free oil.

“All of a sudden the fried chicken started to sell,” she says.

Fears of trans fats did not keep people away from her fried potatoes, however. “Everyone bought the French fries; they didn’t care,” she says.

However, once she switched to an oil that not only was free of artificial trans fats but also was high in oleic acid, which is considered heart-healthy—and once she told her customers about it—they started buying more fries. In fact, she says, sales of fries are up by 20 percent.

Pinkney says that the latest generation of trans-fat-free frying oils has a much longer shelf life. The oil she uses now lasts 75 percent longer than the previous variety, and she thinks the new oil also makes her French fries crispier.

One semi-indulgent potato preparation at Bistro Toulouse in Houston is “loaded potatoes Anna.” Chef Michael Scott Castell explains that traditional potatoes Anna are sliced and then, without rinsing them, are brushed with clarified butter, seasoned, layered in a skillet and baked. The starch that isn’t rinsed off helps to bind the potatoes together. “Otherwise it will just fall apart,” he says.

Castell’s “loaded” version includes trappings you more likely would find on a baked potato, including lardons, Cheddar cheese and chives. He says that despite the name and rich appearance, the dish is lighter than it might seem. The potatoes are brushed with a very thin layer of clarified butter—just “to make them glisten,” he says—and the other fixin’s are used sparingly.

“If you actually load it, the potatoes never stick together,” Castell says.

Another popular item is his chicken and potato “pizza.” He slices Yukon golds and mixes them with olive oil, rosemary and garlic, lays them out on a sheet pan and roasts them.

He brushes a cooked pizza crust with olive oil, basil and garlic, adds the potatoes and then tops it with four ounces of chicken breast, red onions and “some Cheddar cheese, just to kind of hold it all together.”

The pizza is put back in the oven to brown before being served. Instead of mashed potatoes, Castell has a dairy-free side dish of truffled smashed Yukon gold potatoes. He smashes boiled potatoes so that some chunks remain and mixes them with house vinaigrette, chicken demi-glace and truffle oil.

“The house vinaigrette is there for an acid more than anything else. It’s not heavy like mashed potatoes,” he says. “That dish meets the desire for mashed potatoes, but it’s a little bit different. It’s lighter and actually somewhat sweet because Yukon gold potatoes are sweet and a little buttery in texture.”

Castell said that aside from “one guy who didn’t quite understand them,” the smashed potatoes have been well-received.

In fact, his customers have requested lighter items, even though what they think is lighter isn’t necessarily so, he says, noting that when people ask for dressing on the side of their salads they often eat more dressing than if the salad had been tossed for them. “Or they think pasta’s lighter than potatoes,” he adds, when in fact regular white pasta can have more calories than potatoes, and both are primarily starch.

Potatoes can give a sense of indulgence to dishes that actually are good for you.

“There’s the perception that potatoes are carbs and carbs are bad, and that’s not necessarily true,” says Brandon Cook, executive sous chef of the culinary research and development department of The Cheesecake Factory. He says the 120-plus-unit dinnerhouse chain “loves lots of butter and cream on potatoes,” but they have found other things to do with potatoes in their menu’s weight management section, which was rolled out between December 2006 and February 2007. Every menu item in the section has fewer than 590 calories.

“Potatoes by themselves taste great, and you can prepare sauces and use potatoes as vehicles for those sauces,” Cook says.

Currently, he uses potatoes in a seafood salad in Cheesecake’s weight management section. Inspired by the traditional Niçoise salad, the dish has greens, green beans, kalamata olives, potatoes, red onion, capers and hardboiled eggs dressed in a low-calorie vinaigrette made with vegetable stock and minimal oil. The salad is topped with either seared albacore tuna or “oven-poached” salmon.

“Sometimes we want something a little bit lighter,” Cook explains. “And when those salads were in development we didn’t want to feel that we were depriving ourselves of anything.”

The result has been good. “We’re seeing a really nice response,” he says of the weight management items. “They’re doing quite well.”

David Litchman, founder of Pockets, a 10-unit chain in the Chicago area that specializes in whole-wheat sandwiches and promotes itself as a more healthful alternative to typical fast food, says about 10 percent of the restaurant’s orders include baked potatoes.

For $3.99 the potatoes can be topped with three ingredients, including Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella or feta cheese, as well as spinach, jalapeños, olives and other healthful items. For the chain’s entire 18-year history, the most popular combination has been broccoli, bacon and Cheddar, but Litchman says that customers have changed what they order in recent years.

“I do think that people are being a little more conscious about the toppings they’d put on a salad or a potato,” he says. “I think it’s most important that they enjoy the food experience, [but] knowing that they can eat healthfully is definitely a plus.”

Susan Goss, chef-owner of West Town Tavern in Chicago, says she doesn’t see her customers ordering more healthfully.

“We get our share of people who order a house salad with no dressing for dinner, but for the most part people want to go out to indulge,” she says, and they continue to demand big portions. However, she has noticed that her customers, though ordering whatever they want, are eating less of it.

“Waiters will bring back dishes that are half eaten, because [the customers] want to take the rest home,” she says. She’s seeing more sharing, too.

Goss points out that potatoes can be a boon to dieters, because they are low in fat and add weight to the plate. “You make a dish seem heartier and more bountiful, so you can serve a little less, which subtracts calories,” she says.

Her best-selling fish dish comes with potatoes. It’s a trout—“skin on, head off, tail off”—with a sauté of fingerling potatoes, braised baby artichokes, oven-roasted tomatoes, asparagus and a sauce of Chardonnay, chicken stock “and a little bit of butter.”

She boils the fingerlings until tender and then chills them. As the trout is sautéing, she adds the potatoes and braised artichokes, along with black, brine-cured olives. The roasted tomatoes are added at the last minute and “just break down and become part of the sauce.”

Goss advocates using firmer potatoes, like fingerlings, for sautéing. “Any time you’re going to prepare potatoes not in a purée form, it’s always better to use firm, waxier potatoes,” she says.

Jeff Gaetjen, chef of Colvin Run Tavern in Vienna, Va., serves marinated, grilled Yukon gold potatoes with his whole roasted snapper. He slices them a quarter-inch thick and simmers them in just enough salted water to cover them.

“If you cook them too fast, they fall apart, and sometimes if you use too much water they cook unevenly,” he says, adding, “they cook more evenly in a shallow pot.”

After the potatoes are cooked, he tosses them with salt and vinaigrette.

He also makes a hot, German-style potato salad, for which the potatoes are tossed with hard-boiled egg, grilled sausages, bacon, scallions, celery, Dijon mustard and olive oil.

He uses regular baking potatoes for potato cakes that he serves with leg of lamb. He par-cooks the potatoes halfway in their skins and then peels them, grates them and adds chopped garlic. He forms them in a cake and fries them in olive oil. Traditionally, he says he would use butter, but some of his customers are concerned about eating more healthful fats.

“People come in with a lot of healthy requests,” he says. “Probably once or twice a night you get people who want things that are low-fat, or vegetables that are steamed.”

At Anthos, a new Greek-inspired fine-dining restaurant in New York, executive chef Michael Psilakis uses a bit of poached potato in his five-bite raw “meze,” which features five bitesize fish preparations.

“I think every Mediterranean country has a potato-and-flaked-fish salad,” he says. For his, he poaches sliced potato in a spicy Cretan olive oil with savory and garlic.

“The potato cooks for so long, it’s really kind of enriched with that grassy, green olive oil,” he says.

He tops a small, quarter-inch thick slice of the potato with an equally small piece of lightly smoked black cod and garnishes it with mint and spicy red pepper. The combination will remind people of traditional fish-and-potato salads, he says.

Psilakis also makes a variation of a traditionally healthful potato preparation, skordalia, which can be made from many starches, including moistened bread. The key is to load it up with garlic—garlic in Greek is “skordo.” The starch is then whipped with olive oil, vinegar and sometimes other ingredients, such as parsley or nuts, and eaten with grilled fish or meat or spread on bread.

At Psilakis’ more casual and more traditional restaurant, Kefi, also in New York, he boils and rices the potatoes and then makes an emulsion with them, wine vinegar, raw garlic and olive oil.

At Anthos, he starts his version of skordalia by braising leeks in white wine, vinegar, verjus, Champagne and stock. He adds boiled, riced potatoes and raw garlic and emulsifies it with Canadian sheep milk yogurt.

“It gives it a really nice tang that you associate with sheep milk, and it gives it that lemony, acid kind of flavor, and the garlic also comes through,” Psilakis says. He passes this soupy mixture through a food mill to make “a really, really silky smooth soup.”

Separately he poaches cod in olive oil, flakes it and tosses it in anchovy vinaigrette with capers and herbs. He makes a quenelle of finely diced beet and puts it in the bottom of a bowl. He adds the cod salad and pours the soup around that.

“There’s actually not much fat in there,” Psilakis says. “There’s no butter, no heavy cream.” The yogurt gives the dish “a velvety tongue” similar to what you would get by adding cream, he adds.

In Los Angeles, Jean François Meteigner, executive chef of La Cachette, uses yellow, pink and purple fingerling potatoes, which he steams or boils and then peels and rolls in olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt and red pepper.

He might also leave their skin on, brush them with grapeseed oil and finish them in the oven. He then seasons them with salt, pepper, garlic, chervil and a little olive oil.

He buys the heirloom fingerlings locally. “The little pink ones have the same color as red potatoes on the outside, but the inside is like a light purple-red. It’s very cute,” says Meteigner, noting that they look beautiful in bouillabaisse.

He will cook different varieties together, except for purple ones, which he says are starchier and take longer to cook. The purple ones also have thicker skin and tend to dry out. Sometimes he’ll make a gratin of those potatoes with olives and lamb stock.

“It’s fabulous, and the potatoes get very, very creamy,” he says.

Bernard Guillas, executive chef of The Marine Room in La Jolla, Calif., uses crimson fingerling potatoes as part of his salmon dish. He slices the pink-colored potatoes in half, steams them and then tosses them with herbs, fleur de sel, crushed Malabar pepper and a bit of grapeseed oil.

He quickly oven roasts them at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for about eight minutes “so they kind of crunch a little bit.” The potatoes go in the bottom of a bowl and are topped by salmon that has been crusted with minced, sautéed abalone mushroom, which Guillas describes as a cross between an oyster mushroom and a porcini. The crust goes on the flesh side of the fish, which is seared and then flipped on to the skin side to render out some of the oil and crisp up the skin.

On top of the salmon are slow-roasted tomatoes, a thin roll—“like a cigarette”—of Serrano ham, and micro pepper cress seasoned with salt, pepper and a little truffle. The sauce is a reduction of veal stock and Viognier flavored with a little truffle oil and chopped fresh truffle.

Guillas notes that his customers’ eating style has changed.

“I have changed, my customers have changed,” he says. “Everybody wants to have a good time, but they also are paying more attention to their eating habits.”

He says that doesn’t have to be bad for your bottom line. After seeing that diners were not finishing the 7 1/2 ounces of protein he would put on a plate, he cut it down to 6 ounces. His grain timbales that once were 3 ounces are now 2 ounces.

Guillas says a meal in a restaurant “should be a journey.” People should share some appetizers, have a main course, a little cheese and then some dessert. “It should all be in perfect balance when it comes to portion size,” he says.

He says that philosophy is one reason dessert sales have gone up in his restaurant, including his two $12 “dessert trilogies.”

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