Food & Drink: Do stop waffling

Mark Hix cuts to the point: stop eating oven chips and potato faces - it's time to rediscover real spuds you like

THE POOR old potato. It's one of the staples of our diet, but so often we don't give it a second thought, and it certainly doesn't get the credit it deserves. We (well, not me, but some people out there) buy frozen oven chips, waffles, potato smiles and teddies (no!) and eat crisps by the bucket load. But how often do we go back to basics and make simple, boiled new potatoes with butter, or a lovely, fluffy, buttery mash?

We're eating as much potato as ever - anti-starch and low-carb diets haven't made much difference. In Europe, only the Irish and Portuguese eat more than us, beating our average of 500 medium-size spuds each a year. But at the same time, sales of fresh potatoes are down. So, we're eating more and more of these convenience foods - instant mash, hash browns, frozen wedges - which just don't have the character of real potatoes.

Tinned potatoes and instant mash? No thanks. Not when there are so many varieties of potato, each with its own uses. Look out for some of the forgotten varieties and new strains such as Anya, which Sainsbury's have been marketing for a few years. The trouble is, it can be hard to get information from the greengrocer or stallholder, let alone the supermarket, on how to cook them. Most bags seem to have all the same boxes ticked, suggesting you can mash, roast or bake any of them. It's confusing.

My college training involved doing countless things to potatoes. Pommes duchesse was a favourite, a rich smooth mashed-potato mixture that was piped into little walnut whip shapes, brushed with egg and baked. In another version, marquis, the potato was piped into a nest and filled with a cooked tomato mixture. There seemed to be hundreds of variations, and I can still remember most of them to this day, even though I would never bother to cook them now. I'm loyal to the simple classics such as roast potatoes (especially those cooked in goose fat), buttery mash and, of course, chips.

Monday is the start of National Chip Week. Strange that it coincides with Valentine's Day - chips don't strike me as the most romantic food, unless you're sharing a bag at the bus stop. I won't give you a chip recipe because I've done it before. Just remember to buy floury potatoes, blanch them thoroughly in cool fat and re-fry in hot fat. Oven chips have taken the home front, but as with all these freezer-aisle alternatives, they never match the quality of the ones you make yourself.

Bombay aloo

Serves 6-8

This is a simple, dry Indian potato dish that you can serve with something meaty instead of rice or as part of a vegetarian meal with another vegetable dish and some bread. Even for meat-eaters, cooking vegetables with Indian spices is one of the tastiest ways of preparing them.

100g ghee or vegetable oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1/2tsp cumin seeds

2tsp black mustard seeds

1tsp fenugreek seeds

1/2tsp ground turmeric

1tsp garam masala

A good pinch of curry leaves

2 medium-sized red chillies, finely chopped

6 medium-sized baking potatoes, peeled and cut into rough 2-3cm chunks

1tbsp lemon juice

2tbsp chopped coriander

Salt

Melt the ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan and gently cook the onion with the spices and chilli on a low heat with the lid on, stirring occasionally for 3-4 minutes without colouring. Add the potatoes and lemon juice, cover with hot water, add about a teaspoon of salt and simmer for about 10 minutes with the lid on, then remove the lid and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring every so often until the potatoes are just cooked. Stir in the coriander and simmer for a few more minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated.

Tattie scones

Makes 2

These are not scones in the cream-tea sense of the word, but are adapted from the basic scone mixture. Still, they can be eaten with jam for tea, and are delicious with smoked salmon or served instead of fried bread for breakfast. f

500g floury potatoes, cooked and mashed

30g melted butter

1/2tsp salt

1 egg

125g flour, plus a little extra

1tsp baking powder

Lard for greasing

Put the mashed potato in a bowl and mix in the other ingredients to make a stiff dough. If the dough is a bit sticky, add some more flour. Roll the dough on a lightly floured table to a thickness of about 1cm and cut it into saucer-sized rounds. You can re-roll the dough left at the edges and cut out more rounds. Score a cross about 2mm deep over the circle to make 4 quarters. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Grease a griddle, heavy cast-iron pan or baking tray with the lard and bake the scones for about 15 minutes until lightly coloured. They're best eaten warm.

Croquette potatoes

Makes 8-10

A very Seventies potato dish. They seemed to take up a lot of space in the frozen food section in the supermarkets. But why were they always covered in such orange breadcrumbs? Made well (and without colouring) they can be delicious, and I think they deserve a revival. Spanish croquettes are similar - at least they look it - but are made with a thick bechamel sauce with ham and cheese folded in.

Classic croquettes are just mashed potato, which should be made with good floury potatoes such as King Edwards or Cara, and well seasoned. To this base you can add various ingredients, such as cheese and ham, a cheese such as Stilton, or herbs and even chopped up smoked salmon and horseradish. What you flavour them with will determine whether you serve them as a starter or side dish. If you're serving them as a starter it's a good idea to offer something to go with them, such as a mayonnaise-based sauce, a relish or chutney.

500-600g floury potatoes for mashing

2-3tbsp flour

2 small eggs, beaten

50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Vegetable oil for frying

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake the potatoes in their skins until soft, about 1 to 11/2 hours depending on size. Remove from the oven, cut in half and leave to cool for a while. Scoop out the flesh and mash it until smooth. A potato ricer is designed for just this and is an invaluable kitchen gadget, so put it on your shopping list if you haven't got one.

Season the potato and mix well, or add any other ingredients at this stage (about 60-70g of cheese if you're using it - you're aiming for a ratio of about one-third added ingredients to two-thirds potato). Mould the potato into cylinder shapes about 5-6cm long and a little fatter than a wine cork. You can make them larger or smaller.

Have the flour ready in a dish and carefully roll them in it, holding them carefully with your fingers and shaking off any excess. Next roll them in the beaten egg, and finally roll them in the breadcrumbs.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fryer. Fry the croquettes a few pieces at a time for 3-4 minutes until golden and drain on some kitchen paper. Serve immediately.

Potato and herring salad

Serves 4-6

Herrings are rather under-used these days. It could be that diminishing stocks due to migratory changes and overfishing over the centuries have made them a rarity in fishmongers. At this time of year, when there's a gap in the North Sea herring season, you may find Thames herrings in Sainsbury's and select fishmongers. These are herrings caught in the Thames Estuary by a responsibly managed fishery, approved by the Marine Stewardship Council. Their season runs from November until March.

Our tastes have changed too, and oily fish, although very healthy, are not generally regarded as a trendy fish to eat. Strange though, because we wouldn't think twice about eating grilled sardines on holiday in the sun, but we stay well clear of pilchards, which are one and the same fish.

500g waxy new potatoes such as Anya or Charlotte

3 herrings, scaled, filleted, trimmed and cut in half

1tbsp chopped dill

4 spring onion, finely chopped

for the dressing

2tbsp good-quality wine vinegar, such as chardonnay

1/2tbsp Dijon mustard

6tbsp olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the potatoes in their skins in boiling salted water, then drain and leave to cool, but do not refrigerate. Remove the skins by gently scraping with a small knife, cut the potatoes in half and put in a bowl with the spring onions and dill.

Pre-heat the grill, lightly season the herrings and grill them for 4- 5 minutes, skin-side-up, until crisp. Meanwhile make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together, then pour on to the potatoes, season and mix well.

To serve, arrange the potatoes on plates with the herring on top. E

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