Thursday, February 14, 2008

Potatoes Cheer Me Up

Maybe because I’m fighting a cold, potatoes sound great to me today. So I’m reprising part of a column I did years ago for the Cascadia Weekly, back when it was still the Bellingham Weekly.

For me potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. Bland predictability is surely a big part of a spud's appeal: baked, mashed or fried, what you see is what you get. Still, I like to branch out, and Bellingham is a good place to do it. Herewith, some of my favorites:

Greek hashbrowns at the Rhodes Cafe. This is our Sunday morning breakfast favorite. They don't even bring us a menu anymore; I know what I like. Perfect hashbrowns of the chunky, not shredded, variety, topped with lots of lightly sautéed green pepper, olives, tomato, and onion, and sprinkled with feta. A half-portion is huge. Little Cheerful and Tony's do credible hashbrowns, but Rhodes's are the best.

Mashed potato chile relleno at Pepper Sisters. Mashed potatoes can be tricky. Since their smooth blandness--and their ability to soak up butter and gravy--is a big part of their appeal, innovations can easily go wrong. Some garlic is great, but too many additions miss the point. This dish deals with this dilemma by keeping the interest on the outside and leaving the mashed potato filling pretty much alone except for a few red pepper flakes. The chile, which too often is covered by a sliding mask of fluffy, tasteless egg batter, at Pepper Sisters gets coated in a thin layer of crispy cornmeal. That’s a big improvement in my opinion. Then the whole concoction rests on a pretty pink ancho chile cream sauce, just hot enough to enliven the proceedings without overwhelming the potato. Pepper Sisters' signature hominy and beans are the perfect foils for this unassuming dish. Potato and garlic enchiladas are another Pepper Sisters standby, but I like the rellenos better.

Casa Que Pasa's potato burritos are also justly famous, both for their sauce, their size, and their value for dollar.

If cold mashed potatoes are your secret guilty pleasure, you may be cheered to know that there's a recipe, from Peru where the potato story began, that dignifies your midnight snack.. I've seen many versions. This one is from the Territorial Seed Company Garden Cookbook.

Papas a la Huancaina
6 to 8 medium potatoes, peeled (Yellow Finns or Purple Peruvians recommended)
1 cup cottage cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup grated firm goat cheese (you could substitute feta)
enough lettuce leaves to cover 4 plates
1/2 cup chopped parsley
4 sliced hard cooked eggs, optional
black or green olives, optional

Boil potatoes until soft. Remove from heat, mash immediately and add cottage cheese, cumin, and salt. (Especially with firm varieties like Yellow Finn or Purple Peruvian, if you wait till the potatoes cool your mash will be gooey instead of fluffy.) Arrange lettuce leaves on the plates. When potato mixture has cooled to room temperature, divide onto the lettuce. Sprinkle with goat cheese or feta and parsley and garnish with eggs and olives, if used.
Serves 4

Rhodes Cafe, 1046 Lakeway Drive, next to Cost Cutter, 714-9743
Pepper Sisters, 1055 N. State St., 671-3414
Casa Qué Pasa, 1415 Railroad Ave., 738-8226

Locavore note:
Potatoes, by the way, were probably the earliest introduced crop in this region. Tribes accustomed to maintaining prairies for camas harvest adopted the techniques to the potatoes that arrived with early European explorers. Native Americans were harvesting spuds on Whidbey Island by the early 1800s.


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