In praise of potatoes
What better for dark and dreary January days than to walk into a welcoming kitchen and smell a dish of pommes boulangeres or a bubbling, creamy mass of gratin Dauphinois baking away in the oven, each dribbling overflowing juices or lactic droplets on to the oven's floor? There could possibly be a roast in there, too, or a couple of thick steaks ready to grill, but, actually, I would be happy to demolish the spuds on their own.

One of my favourite disgusting indulgences is to eat left-over gratin Dauphinois cold, the following morning. Cold boulangere isn't quite as good, but if there is any left over (there usually isn't), it makes just the greatest base for a potato soup, mixed with some other vegetable such as spinach or leeks, and pureed to a smoothity of sublime voluptuousness with good stock and a little cream.

Talking of soup, a potage puree Parmentier is one of the finest. Antoine Parmentier introduced the potato to his home country of France during the reign of Louis XIV. Having returned from the Seven Years' War, during which he was introduced to potatoes as a prisoner of the Prussians, he apparently presented Marie Antoinette with a bouquet of potato flowers. So impressed was she by them, she decorated her hair with one, assuring Parmentier a name in French gastronomic history books.

It is now perfectly well understood that potatoes make the greatest and most practical soup thickener - and provide a delicious flavour. So why does no one make potato soup as such? We all know of leek and potato or potage bonne femme, or, when cold, the ubiquitous vichysoisse - which, sadly, has become one of the most abused of all soups. But, for me, it is the taste of the potato in there which always gives the most pleasure. Try the potato and parsley soup below, which is as good hot as chilled.

Returning for a moment to the subject of layered-potato dishes, these can also be the vehicle of support to so many other ingredients. I have used flaked salt cod (particularly scrummy), bits of bacon, sliced garlic sausage, anchovies - as in the famous Jannson's Temptation - and, almost best of all, layered up with black truffles and, naturally, garlic and cream. This is just beginning to be the time for these extraordinary tubers. Although expensive - but nowhere near as cripplingly so as the recent poor harvest of the Italian white - a little goes a long way. And they become cheaper, if that is the correct description, by the end of February, and are also, usually, at their most fragrant by then.

If Les Dennis asked: "Out of 100 people surveyed, what is the most popular vegetable eaten in Britain?", the hand that reached the buzzer first would surely answer "Potatoes, Les!" and secure the top answer. Then, of course, they might not. They might easily say fire engines. But, apart from chips, we British have never really been known for interesting ways of cooking potatoes. In India, for example, particularly in areas where meat is not eaten, subtle spicing and the use of indigenous herbs such as fresh fenugreek (methi) and fresh coriander (dhania) transform the humble spud into dishes of distinction.

In this aromatic and spiced vein, I was pleased to come across the following recipe for a wonderful-sounding recipe from one of my favourite books, Traditional Spanish Cooking, by Janet Mendel (Garnet Publishing pounds 14.95). It is such an inspirational book, with a good recipe on almost every page. This particular one is called Patatas Bravas - "Fierce Potatoes", so named after a toro bravo, the fighting bull. Once you read the list of ingredients, the title of the dish becomes clear.

Patatas Bravas, serves 8 as a tapa

Janet Mandel asks for a quantity of home-made tomato sauce in this recipe. It would seem out of place not to give the recipe for this, too, as it looks to be a good one. This recipe makes up part of the ingredients chapter, and is written in a style that suits that part of the text. I rather like it this way, if the truth be known.

For the tomato sauce

Fry a small chopped onion and chopped garlic clove in 3 tbsp of olive oil until softened. Add 2kg of tomatoes, which have been peeled and chopped (dip tomatoes in boiling water and skins slip off easily), fry them on high heat for several minutes. Then add 1 tsp salt, 14 tsp ground cumin, 14 tsp ground black pepper, bay leaf, a sprig of parsley and 100ml white wine, stock or water. Simmer partially covered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Sieve the sauce (my preference), or puree it in a blender. Makes about 750ml of sauce.

175 ml of the tomato sauce (you can freeze the remainder)

2 tbsp olive oil, or home-made olive-oil mayonnaise (this would make a richer sauce)

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tbsp wine or sherry vinegar

1 tsp paprika

14 tsp ground cumin

14 tsp dried oregano

cayenne or dried chilli flakes, to taste


500g potatoes, peeled

olive oil for frying

Combine the tomato sauce, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, paprika, cumin, oregano and enough cayenne or chilli flakes, to make the sauce "fierce". Add salt if necessary.

Cut the potatoes into 3cm cubes. Fry them in deep hot oil (a good inch or so in a heavy frying pan sounds about right) until browned and tender when pierced with a skewer. Drain them on absorbent paper and sprinkle with salt. Serve the potatoes hot with the sauce spooned over, or in a separate bowl for dipping.

This is surely the perfect thing to eat after a night down the pub; although frying potatoes in hot olive oil might not be the advisable thing to do in your cups.

Oven chips? I have to say here that this dish reminds me fondly of something they serve at Ed's Easy Diner, in London's King's Road. It is a delicious bowl of thick-cut chips, drowned by a big ladle of chilli con carne and sour cream on top. I can taste it now...

Potato and parsley soup, serves 4

25g butter or, even better, bacon fat

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

900ml light chicken stock

400g floury potatoes (the sort that collapse when you boil them), peeled and cut into chunks


freshly ground white pepper

1 bay leaf

110g flat-leaf parsley, stalks and all, rough chopped

150ml single cream

Melt the chosen fat in a pan and stew the onion until soft. Pour in the stock and add the potatoes, seasoning and bay. Bring up to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum that forms on the surface. Cook slowly for about 25 minutes, until the potatoes are breaking up. Remove the bay leaf and stir in the parsley. Simmer for a further five minutes and then liquidise whilst still hot (never process potato-based soups when cold, as the soup will turn glutinous), until very smooth. Pass through a sieve into a clean pan and add the cream. Re-heat and pour into hot bowls. Serve with butter croutons, that have been fried together with a scrap of garlic and salt.

Pommes boulangeres, serves 4

550g medium-sized, semi-waxy potatoes (red-skinned Desiree or Pentland Javelin are both good here), peeled

25g softened butter

250g onions, peeled and thinly sliced

350ml good stock or any sort

salt and pepper

2 bay leaves

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Slice the potatoes on a mandolin, or use the slicing attachment on a food processor. Generously grease an oval gratin dish with half the butter and cover with a shallow layer of about one-third of the potatoes, willy-nilly, but keep flat (save the better-looking slices for the top layer). Strew with half the onions and lightly season. Cover these with another third of the potatoes, the two bay leaves, and the rest of the onions. Season once more. Carefully finish the final top layer with the best slices of potato, overlapping in concentric circles or whatever look pleases you most. Pour over the stock, dot with the remaining butter and cover with foil. Bake for 40 minutes, covered and then for a further 30 minutes with the foil removed. Flash under a hot grill if you do not think the surface is characteristically burnished enough.

Gratin of potatoes with fresh black truffles, serves 2

A treat for serving with two small roast partridges, for that candlelit supper you keep meaning to have.

1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed

275ml whipping cream

salt and pepper

275g medium-sized potatoes (see pommes boulangeres for varieties), peeled and thinly sliced

a little softened butter

1 small black truffle, well scrubbed and thinly sliced (a potato peeler does this job well)

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Put the garlic, cream and a little seasoning into a small saucepan and gently bring to a simmer. Reduce by about a quarter and strain through a sieve into a bowl. Put on one side. Grease the base of a small oval gratin dish with the butter and lay in half of the potatoes, neatly overlapping. Cover with the truffle slices, pour over half the garlic-seasoned cream and then finish with the remaining potatoes, overlapping so they look pretty. Spoon over the rest of the cream and allow to settle for a minute or two. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for a further 20 minutes, until pale golden and tender right through when prodded with a fork. Allow the heat to wane for five minutes or so before eating