Spuds you like: Get creative with potatoes

Comforting potato recipes are perfect for cold winter's nights, says Mark Hix.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

We are in a gastro age where the provenance of our food is now the first item on our shopping list. We don't just go out and "buy a piece of beef" any more - we want to know how long it has been hung for, what breed it is, what it tastes like, where it was reared and how to cook it. Hopefully, this will mean those two-quid chickens - raised in questionable conditions - are going to become a thing of the past, and maybe the real thing will eventually grace our tables as it did many years ago, when it was considered a special treat. I remember my Gran used to refer to potatoes by name and she used to know exactly which kind could be turned into deliciously fluffy Sunday roast potatoes. (I'm not sure she knew where the beef come from, though; by the time it was cooked it would have been pretty irrelevant.)

When you're cooking potatoes you need to know your onions, so to speak. For example, waxy potatoes, such as Belle de Fontenay, Ratte, Pink Fir and Nicola are good for roasting, as there is less "liquid" content to them and they crisp up more easily; while floury ones like King Edwards, Desiree and Maris Piper are better for mashing.

If you're really into your spud varieties and you want to learn more, have a look at Carroll's Heritage Potatoes. Run by Anthony and Lucy Carroll, it's full of great news about interesting seasonal varieties you may have never heard of, some dating back to the 1800s with names such as Dunbar Rover, Edzell blue and Shetland black. For more details contact 01890 883060; www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk.

Gnocchi with creamed butternut squash and sage

Serves 4

Gnocchi isn't as difficult to make as you may think - but make sure that you buy floury potatoes, or you'll end up with a gooey mess.

1 small butternut squash (or half a larger one), weighing about 500g peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
1tbsp pumpkin seeds
8-10 leaves of sage, shredded
3tbsp olive oil
A couple good knobs of butter

For the gnocchi

600-700g large floury potatoes, baked in their skins, peeled and mashed
1 large egg yolk
125g potato flour
1tbsp olive oil
Salt, freshly ground white pepper
A good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

To serve

70g freshly grated Parmesan

First, make the gnocchi. Gently mix all the ingredients together and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Roll the mix into balls about the size of a 10 pence piece, then with a fork flatten them slightly and leave to rest while you are making the squash purée.

Cook the squash in boiling salted water for 10-12 minutes until soft, drain and return to the pan on a low heat to let excess water evaporate then blend until smooth in a liquidiser or food processor. Season and keep warm.

Bring a large pan of boiling salted water to the boil and cook the gnocchi for 3 minutes, then carefully drain and toss in the butter. Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the pumpkin seeds and sage and cook for a minute on a low heat until the seeds begin to colour.

To serve, spoon the purée on to warmed bowls or plates, arrange the gnocchi on top and spoon over the oil and seeds. Serve the Parmesan separately.

Meat and potato pie

Serves 4

When sifting through entries for my readers' recipe competition, Margaret Rowden from Bath reminded me about a great northern dish: meat and potato pie. Although traditionally made with beef, it could be made with mutton or even game. Try to buy a single cut for braising, as many butchers just sell braising steak, which can be a mixture of cuts that take various cooking times. You'll look forward to coming home to this on a cold winter's night.

2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2tbsp vegetable oil
600g braising steak, flank, shin or cheek, cut into rough 2cm chunks
A sprig of thyme
2 litres beef stock
600g potatoes, peeled and cut into rough 2cm chunks
1 medium egg, beaten

For the pastry

225g self-raising flour
1tsp salt
85g shredded beef suet
60g butter, chilled and coarsely grated
1 medium egg, beaten

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed frying pan, season and fry the meat on a high heat, stirring occasionally. In another pan gently cook the onions and thyme in a little more oil for 3-4 minutes until soft, then add the meat and stock, season, bring to the boil and simmer with a lid on for 1 1/2 hours. Add the potatoes and cook for a further 15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Make the pastry: mix the flour and salt with the suet and grated butter. Mix in about 150ml of water to form a smooth dough and knead for a minute. Roll the pastry on a floured table to about 1cm thick and cut out to about 2cm larger all the way round than the pie dish you are using. Add the meat to the dish or dishes you are using, then brush the edges of the pastry with a little of the beaten egg and lay the pastry on top of your pie, pressing the egg-washed sides against the rim of the dish. Cut a small slit in the top of each pie to allow steam to escape, and brush with beaten egg. Leave to rest in a cool place for 30 minutes.

Cook for 40-50 minutes until golden.

Sweet potato, squid and caper salad

Serves 4

Don't be scared of sweet potatoes. They may not seek like the obvious choice to pop into your shopping basket, but try taking some home and experimenting, and you'll find that they can be used in just as many recipes as our normal potatoes can. Most shops will stock just the orange variety, but you can often find the white variety in west Indian and some Asian supermarkets. The orange ones tend to be a bit sweeter and they also add a bit of colour to the plate.

3-4 sweet potatoes, boiled in their skins and cooled down
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
4-5tbsp olive oil
300g squid, cleaned and tentacles reserved
2tbsp capers, rinsed
2tbsp chopped parsley
A few leaves of rocket
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into rough 1cm cubes. Gently cook the red onion in a tablespoon of the olive oil for a couple of minutes then turn up the heat, add the sweet potato and a little more oil, season and cook for 4-5 minutes, turning the potatoes as they are cooking until they are beginning to colour. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat and keep warm. Heat a ribbed griddle pan, or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Lightly score the squid in a criss-cross fashion, season, lightly oil and cook on a high heat for a couple of minutes on each side, giving the tentacles a bit longer.

To serve, lay a few leaves of rocket on to serving plates, cut the squid into bite-sized slices and scatter over the leaves with the potatoes. Mix the capers and lemon juice with the rest of the oil and drizzle over the salad.

Potato, cabbage and bacon soup

Serves 4-6

I love making soups like this because the essence of the soup is its pure ingredients. Blended soups can be a bit one-dimensional unless you give them an interesting little twist.

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
100g smoked streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into thick, rough 1cm cubes
1tsp cumin seeds
A good knob of butter
2 litres chicken stock, or a good quality stock cube dissolved in that amount of water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10-12 small waxy potatoes like Anya, Ratte or Charlotte, peeled and thinly sliced
6-8 leaves of Savoy, or pointed hispi cabbage, or green cabbage, cut into rough 1cm chunks
2tbsp coarsely chopped parsley

In a large saucepan, gently cook the onion, bacon and cumin in the butter for 4-5 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Add the cabbage and potatoes and simmer for 10-12 minutes, then add the parsley. Simmer for a couple more minutes and serve.

Mark Hix's new book, 'British Regional Food', is published by Quadrille, £25. To order the book at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897.