Gulf Coast Cooking

Celebrate the humble potato this St. Patrick's Day

No one would blame you for associating potatoes with Ireland -- and what better time for such associations as the week leading up to St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

So in the spirit of the season we offer the spud, which has been popular in Ireland since it arrived there in 1589.

Subsequently the Great Potato Famine that took place between 1845 and 1852, brought thousands of Irish families to American shores and changed the makeup of American culture for generations to come.

It is also a lesson on never becoming dependent on one food source. It is not, however, necessary to become dependent on the spud to enjoy the huge variety of delicious recipes, many with Irish roots.

The potato came to us from Peru, where it was domesticated at least 10,000 years ago. Today it is popular around the world, and, believe it or not, at least one third of the crop is now grown in China. There are thousands of varieties, but the main groups include russets, reds, whites, yellows and purples.

Each have their own characteristics and one is not valued over the others in all applications.

Perhaps we Americans most commonly see the potato used as a french fry. Next on the list is mashed potatoes, and few would complain when served a plate of piping hot mashers, topped with a golden pool of melted butter.

The Irish turned this simple recipe into colcannon, a lovely dish that combines kale and mashers. The simple potato also can make a mean soup, another staple for our Irish friends. The French took this idea and added leek and cream to make vichyssoise. The variations of what a good tuber can be turned into makes a long list indeed.

The potato is a versatile food source, it is delicious and nutritious and, when not loaded with cheese and butter, not overly high in calories. The average potato, if there is such a thing, has just 160 calories. It is almost a diet food.

TRADITIONAL COLCANNON

A dish so good a poem was written about it. If you can't find kale or would prefer another green instead, feel free to do so. Cabbage, turnip greens and collard greens would work just fine here.

6-8 large russet potatoes

1 bunch kale

1 cup cream

1 stick best quality butter

1/4 cup chopped green onions

Salt and pepper

Peel the potatoes and quarter, place in salted water and boil until tender. Drain the water and with the potatoes still in the pan, place back on the heat to dry. Remove and set aside. Simmer the kale in a little water until done, drain, add1/4 of the butter and set aside. Add the cream, green onions, and1/4 of the butter to a deep pot and heat just to melt the butter. Add the potatoes and with a masher incorporate the potatoes into the milk. Combine the kale and mashed potatoes. Make a well on top and add the rest of the butter.

POTATO PANCAKES

This is one of those recipes that just lends itself to leftovers. Add whole corn, bacon, chopped jalapenos, cheese, chopped greens of almost any sort, or red bell pepper. If you want to make something really unique, add chopped shrimp and bacon.

2 cups left over mashed potatoes

1/3 cup flour

A splash of cream or milk

Salt and pepper

Butter

Combine the milk and flour with the potatoes, taste and season as necessary. Form into equal size balls, then smash to form thin rounds. Pat the edges to make them even and round. Fry in butter until golden brown. These pancakes are best eaten warm.

POTATO SOUP

This can be a meal of great comfort on a cold or depressed, and rainy day.

3 sliced potatoes

1/4 cup chopped celery

2 sliced onions

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

1-2 crushed cloves garlic

2 cups chicken stock

Salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Melt the butter in a large pot, add the onions, celery and garlic, season liberally with salt and pepper and cook over a low heat, not browning the vegetables, until soft. Add the potatoes, milk and stock and simmer until thick. Add the cheese, whisk and incorporate.

CORNED BEEF HASH

Make no mistake, this is not a traditional Irish meal. It's heredity is Irish American, but its popularity as a hearty meal remains strong. It is amazing to think of all the food cultures that have migrated to the United States and the fusion has created some of our most popular dishes. Substitute sweet potatoes if you want to make this dish with Southern dash.

2 diced potatoes (or sweet potatoes)

1/2 cup chopped onion

1-2 cups corned beef

1-2 pinches salt

2-3 pinches paprika

Optional fried eggs for garnish and chopped jalapeño

Rinse the potatoes, then add to a large pot of simmering, salted water. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until just tender. Do not overcook them or you will have mashed potatoes. Drain and set aside. Sauté the onion in a little butter for 5-6 minutes, then combine with potatoes. Season with salt and paprika, then add the corned beef, mix well. Melt butter in a large sauté pan and add the potato mixture. Cook over medium to medium high until it becomes crispy. Turn and repeat. Garnish with fried eggs if you like.

Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.

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