Buried Treasure

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In light of the recent Budget, Oliver McKinley offers fortnightly recipes to sooth the soul and reinvigorate the pocket. Austerity cooking at its most delicious.

Potatoes make my heart sink. Such crimes are committed in their name. Often I ask if there is anything more soul destroying than a baked potato or the unique monstrosity that is the Potato Wedge?

Where once it had been an exotic luxury fabled as an aphrodisiac its familiarity has bred in me contempt. Nor is this just my personal grievance given how the potato has become an abomination unto those who wrongfully forsake carbs. I can accept that the Baked Potato might be to other’s tastes. I cannot, nor will not, accept that that the Potato Wedge could ever be liked, as many do this current government. Cooked in a surfeit of oil for too short a time on too high a heat with a peculiar mix of seasoning such that the end result is peculiarly hard externally, yet sodden in grease, neither fluffy nor waxy in its core but more often than not raw, flavoured with burnt paprika and mysterious ominous ‘mixed herb’.

What compounds this misery is that through seemingly ever more necessary prudence the potato is forever in the cupboard waiting to pad out a meal, and this wedge is far too often its fate; far better to make them into farls with a little milk and flour, or mash with as much butter as can be spared. Ignorance of the potatoes’ possibilities is no excuse before the judgement of the plate.

Perhaps the best method of all is á la Parmentier. Little dice of potatoes become jewels with crisp shell and fluffy innards which taste both truly sweet and earthy. I should say that I do not like the name. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was the Frenchman credited with the popularisation of the potato in Europe, through such P.R. stunts as guarding a field of potato by day but not by night therefore tempting the poor feudal peasants into consuming the buried treasure; an altogether better publicity stunt than unveiling that eight foot stone monolith carved with vague promises in a carpark in Hastings or holding bitter and seemingly futile referenda. As such his name has been forever associated with the tuber and many preparations. Thus to designate a particular preparation of the potato as Parmentier is, I think, repetitious. Yet this is the name by which it is acknowledged.

First boil a full kettle. Then take however many potatoes you require, one the size of a fist fills a stomach. Not bothering to peel them, for their nutritional benefit is in their skins, chop them into dice somewhere in size between the head of a pin and the nail of a little finger. They all want to be much the same size. Put them in a spacious saucepan and pour over the boiling water, salt and bring to the boil.

When they have come to the boil which will not take long give them but a moment longer, enough time to put the colander over the sink, and drain them. If you were practical you would reserve the water to cook some vegetable to eat as well. Let them dry out a little whilst you heat a stout, deep-sided and stick resistant frying pan. A wok may be sensible. I am deeply suspicious of Teflon and instead hold in highest regard the naked steel pans of the continent. Into this put about a dessertspoon of butter, goose fat would be better (when isn’t it? But we’re not all non-doms), and when it has foamed put in the potatoes. You must immediately work very quickly to ensure that all the little dice are coated in the butter. If not they will never come truly crisp. Turn then the heat to a middling sort and stir nearly continually until they rattle against each other. This should take twenty minutes.

This may sound like a long time over a hot stove, but it fills a need to tinker in cooking. Most cookery is best left well alone and interfered with minimally, as current thinking regarding rail franchising, rather than constantly stirring or prodding. These potatoes respond well to being constantly played with. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a fun evening, and have something or someone to constantly play with, then you could do them in a tray in the oven at 160C and turn them often. Perhaps this is more sensible since you could cook something in the oven alongside it, and with market energy prices falling but utility bills resolutely stagnant that would be sensible.

This is, I think, a much better way of cooking the humble little potato. They are quite delicious smothered in a ripe cheese and perhaps a little ham for supper. Or perhaps they are best with a skirt steak cooked very rare, always, and with three anchovies whizzed together with butter where that calm sweet earthy note of the potato plays with the gamy meat and pungent anti-social anchovy.

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