Make Potatoes the Star

The potato’s versatile charms make it the perfect foil for the rich, concentrated flavors of winter cooking.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

We are so often cavalier with potatoes, reducing them to a mashed or baked afterthought while we lavish attention on the proteins and vegetables. Like an unassuming back-up singer, the potato’s versatile charms make it the perfect foil for the rich, concentrated flavors of winter cooking. But if you coax out their various textures – crisp, soft, waxy – pair them with great supporting ingredients, and place them on center stage, they will become stars in their own right.

These three main-course dishes, each perfect for a family supper, shine a spotlight on potatoes and provide the perfect accompaniment to torrential rain, dark evenings, and an overdose of Netflix. Now is the time to treat yourself to a little carb-based coziness.

Potato, Bleu Cheese, Caramelized Onion, and Hazelnut Crostata

This tasty vegetarian pie is easy enough to make for a family supper, but spectacular enough to be a dinner party showstopper. Bleu cheese and hazelnuts, onions and sage — these two flavor pairings always work well, brought together in perfect harmony by sweet ricotta and topped with a lid of crisped potatoes.

Serves: 6–8 | Active time: 35 minutes + 1 hour 45 minutes chilling and baking time

For the hazelnut pasta frolla (basic Italian pastry crust)

  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts (or hazelnut flour)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 eggs
  • 3–5 tablespoons ice water
  • Flour for the work surface


For the crostata filling

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 leafy sprigs sage (about 10 medium leaves)
  • 8 ounces bleu cheese
  • 12 ounces ricotta
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon parsley leaves, chopped
  • black pepper to season
  • 5 small waxy potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon hazelnuts, chopped


Recipe

To make the pasta frolla first grind the hazelnuts in a food processor. Place the ground hazelnuts in a bowl, stir in the flour, salt, and sugar, and add the butter pieces. Place the bowl into the freezer to chill for 10 minutes. Then return the dry ingredients to the food processor and process until you have fine breadcrumbs. Separate the eggs and reserve the whites. Add the yolks to the flour mix and process again. With the processor running, add enough ice water to almost bring the dough together. When it has reached this stage, tip everything out on a floured work surface and press everything together into a flattened disk of dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about an hour.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet until hot but not smoking. Add onion and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until softened and golden brown, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat. Strip the leaves from one of the sage sprigs, chop the leaves, and stir into the onions. Set aside.

Combine bleu cheese, ricotta cheese, garlic, and parsley in a medium bowl. Season with black pepper.

Slice the potatoes thinly (a mandoline is helpful here). Place another tablespoon of olive oil and salt into a bowl and stir in the potato slices, making sure they are all coated with oil.

Roll out the chilled dough to 1/4-inch thick and trim any uneven edges until you get a circle about 14 inches across.

Place the dough circle on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread the cooled onions evenly over the dough, leaving a 3-inch outer border. Spoon the cheese mix over the onions and fold up the edges of the dough, tucking and pleating as you go — it doesn’t matter if it looks a bit rustic.

Arrange the oiled potato slices over the visible cheese mix, overlapping slightly (the crostata will expand, and the potato slices will curl a little with cooking, so you don’t want to leave big gaps), and brush some of the previously reserved egg white, thinned with a splash of cold water, evenly over the crust.

Bake the crostata 40–45 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the potatoes are cooked through. Remove from the oven and cool slightly on the baking sheet before serving. Chop the leaves from the second sprig of sage and sprinkle over the finished crostata. This is quite rich, so I like to serve it with just a simple green salad.

Traditional British Fish Pie

Like its cousin, the shepherd’s pie, a British fish pie is a comforting, homely affair of savory stew, topped with a billowy quilt of cheese-gilded mashed potato — though made with fish cooked in a creamy sauce. I’ve encountered the shepherd’s pie from time to time in the U.S., but I’ve never seen fish pie here, which is a tremendous pity given the stellar quality of our local seafood.

In Britain, the pie is saved from blandness by the inclusion of smoked haddock. Since the haddock never seems to have swum to these shores., I instead substituted a piece of smoked salmon and added a few juicy shrimp for extra pink prettiness. But don’t be afraid to experiment; just remember to include a mix of more delicate firm white fish with the more flavorsome varieties. Some sort of green vegetable is a good way to add extra interest. Brits often include some frozen peas or a handful of spinach, but if you can get it, the lemony tang of chopped sorrel cuts through the rich sauce.

Serves: 6 | Active time: 20 minutes + 35 minutes additional cooking time

For the potato topping

  • 2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (or similar), peeled
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons half and half


For the pie

  • 8 ounces Northwest-style hot smoked salmon
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 5 leafy sprigs parsley, separated into leaves and stalks
  • 10 ounces firm-fleshed white fish, boned and skinned (this is a good place to experiment with cheaper varieties)
  • 5 ounces medium prawns, shells removed
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup white wine (optional)
  • 2 anchovies, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 large handful sorrel, finely-shredded (or substitute baby spinach)
  • 1 large handful baby spinach
  • Salt and pepper
  • Butter to grease the pan
  • 2 tablespoons grated Gruyere
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
  • 2 tablespoon stale white breadcrumbs (optional)


Recipe

Cut the potatoes into similar-sized pieces. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the potato chunks. Boil 15–20 minutes until soft but still firm (alternatively, you can use a steamer).

When fully cooked, drain thoroughly and then mash, using a potato masher or potato ricer. Return the potatoes to the warm pan, stir in the butter and half and half, and set aside.

Pre-heat oven to 400°F.

Place the smoked salmon in an ovenproof baking dish and cover with milk. Add the bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley stalks, reserving the leaves. Bake 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the white fish into 2-inch pieces and place in a bowl with the shelled prawns, discarding any skin and making sure there are no bones.

Remove smoked salmon from the oven and strain, reserving the infused milk and discarding the aromatics. Discard any skin, break the poached salmon into small pieces, and add it to the other fish in the bowl. Finely chop the reserved parsley leaves.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour with a wooden spoon and keep stirring the roux for a minute or two, being careful not to let it brown. Then add the poaching milk a little at a time, whisking the mix constantly — using a whisk will ensure the sauce has no lumps. Bring sauce to the boil and simmer for about five minutes until it thickens and can coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the cream, white wine and anchovies, if using, and turn the sauce down to a gentle simmer. Add parsley leaves, sorrel, if using, and spinach, and season to taste with salt and pepper, remembering that the smoked salmon will be quite salty.

When the leaves have wilted into the sauce, remove from heat and pour over the fish, stirring gently until coated.

Butter a 9-inch oval oven-proof baking dish.

Spoon the fish mixture into the buttered dish

Spoon the previously made mashed potato over the fish, taking care to form an even layer with no obvious gaps. Ridge or swirl the top of the mash with a fork and sprinkle on the cheeses and breadcrumbs, if using.

Bake at the top of the oven 30–40 minutes until golden brown. This is lovely served with any green vegetable.

Sausages, Tomatoes, Peppers, and Potatoes in Padella

Potatoes are not used much in Italian cooking – to the Italians, potatoes are just another vegetable, not a staple. So, when this British girl was sent, as a teenager, to spend the summer with her Italian relatives, she soon started missing potatoes a lot. Like, really a lot. In response, my aunt cooked one of the few potato dishes in her repertoire: waxy sliced potatoes gently sautéed in olive oil and brightened with the piquant flavors of garlic and peppers. My aunt served her dish as an accompaniment to meats, but I’ve added chunks of Italian sausage to the main dish to create an easily scalable one-skillet meal.

Serves: 2–3 | Active time: 20 minutes + 35 minutes additional cooking time

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound potatoes, washed but not peeled
  •  4 well-made pork or Italian-style sausages
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
  • 2 fat cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 1/2 cups halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups red or orange bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, stripped from their stems
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Recipe

Cut potatoes into 1/4-inch slices, about 2 cups.

Cut sausages into 2-inch chunks. In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil until hot, but not smoking, and add sausage pieces, stirring until browned and golden, 5–7 minutes. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan and gently sauté shallots in the sausage juices until soft and golden, 3–5 minutes. Turn the heat to high, and when the pan is very hot and smoking, add the crushed garlic and halved cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes should sizzle and start to soften on impact. Turn the heat to medium, add one final tablespoon of olive oil, and fry the tomato and onion mix until the tomatoes start yielding their juices, 2–3 minutes. Add sliced potatoes and salt, cover the pan, and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes, turning potatoes occasionally. Add a tablespoon of hot water if the tomato sauce starts to stick. Add the sliced peppers, wine, oregano, and reserved sausages, and cook gently with the lid removed until the potatoes and peppers are cooked through and the sauce has thickened, 10–15 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.


A food photographer who can write, Paola loves to tell food stories, capturing the flavors of a place or season through her photographs, writing and recipes. Find more of her work on paolathomas.com.

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