Spuds you like

Perfection is peeled new potatoes, boiled in salted water, a touch of mint and a dollop of butter. Can perfection be bettered? Photograph by Jason Lowe

I was wandering around an up-market food emporium in west London recently and was so shocked and depressed by a dish of cooked new potatoes on show in the traiteur display, that I fled upstairs in despair to the associated restaurant earlier than intended, to recover and await the arrival of my host.

Now this may all come over to you as mildly melodramatic behaviour (there were atrocities that had befallen other comestibles too), but when I see potatoes mistreated, especially, in this case, some early and expensive Jersey Royals, it saddens me deeply. For here, not only were the potatoes in question un-peeled, they also looked as if they hadn't even seen a cold running tap before being cooked. Their skins were all wrinkled, which is a sure sign that they were at least three days old, but then who would have wanted to buy any in the first place? Whatever the poor things had been lubricated with, it had sure coated them well, giving the Jersey's that nice "Brylcreem look".

I know what you're thinking. Hoppy's about to drone on yet again about all that scraping and peeling of his new potatoes. Well I can tell you, if you too had had the misfortune to see those shrivelled brown lumps, you would have agreed with me on the spot. No, I think I have now exhausted this particular rant and if it hasn't sunk in yet, then there's no hope for any of you.

So this week, the brief I have given myself, to most generously give to you, is what to do with a nicely scraped new potato, other than just simmer it in salted water with a sprig or two of mint and rub its surfaces with a knob of Lurpak. Mind you, this is always the first thing I do to a clutch of marble-sized, early Jersey's, however the culinary mind is racing.

Fredy Girardet's puree of new potatoes with olive oil, serves 4

It must have been 1985 when I first discovered a recipe for this dish in Fredy Girardet's book Cuisine Spontanee (Robert Laffont, 1982). Coincidentally, around the same time, I had also just eaten a delicious dish of home-salted cod, olive oil potato puree and meat juices at the restaurant of Michel Lorain, alongside the river in the town at Joigny, Burgundy, while travelling back from a holiday in Provence with Terence Conran.

"I'm going to have a go at this dish as soon as I get back to London!" I exclaimed to Terence. "It's just gorgeous!" Little did I know that this fortuitous three-star visitation, combined with an intensive read of the Swiss fellow's repertoire, would generate a new trend with mash, simply from an excitable basement kitchen in the Old Brompton Road. For I do sincerely believe that the olive oil mashed potato (served with grilled fresh cod) we used to then offer at the restaurant Hilaire, heralded its British debut. Wish I'd thought of the idea first. (We soon ditched the home salting of the cod, by the way, as it seemed pointless. All it did was slightly change the texture of the fish. It most certainly bore no resemblance to the real thing: the stiff-as-a-board, deliciously smelly stuff.)

300g new potatoes, scrupulously scraped (larger Jersey mids are ideal)

125ml whipping cream

125ml extra virgin olive oil

salt, freshly ground white pepper and a pinch of cayenne

Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain and, while still hot, pass through the finest disk of a mouli-legumes back into the pan in which you boiled them. Warm together the cream and oil in a small saucepan and gradually beat into the potato puree with a stiff whisk. Season judiciously. A supremely fine accompaniment to grilled fish, grilled shellfish (particularly scallops) or small morsels of tender rabbit.

Warm new potato soup with tomatoes and basil, serves 4

One of my more studious chefs at Bibendum (in other words, he actually enjoyed using good cookery books) came upon this soup in the Greens Cook Book, by Deborah Madison (Bantam, 1987), who was the founder of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco; possibly one of the finest vegetarian restaurants of all time.

The correct way to describe Madison's recipes, however, is to look upon them as simply the freshest vegetable dishes prepared with enormous flair, intelligence and bold reasoning. I feel that every single idea in this book always respects the very best principles of cookery, yet manages to eliminate meat, poultry and fish from them, simply because they were, perhaps, otherwise engaged at the time. The flavour of the following recipe (slightly adapted) says it all.

60g butter

1.5 litres water

1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 bay leaf

a few sprigs of fresh thyme

750g new potatoes, scraped clean

1tsp salt

500g very ripe tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and chopped

4-5tbsp olive oil

the leaves from a small bunch of basil

red wine vinegar, to taste

Melt the butter in a large pan with a little of the water, and add the onion, bay leaf and thyme. Stew over a low heat for a few minutes, then add the potatoes and salt. Cover, and simmer for five minutes. Pour in the rest of the water and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are completely tender - almost overcooked, if you like. Work this mixture through a mouli-legumes and return to the pan.

In a separate pan, fry the tomatoes with a little seasoning in one tablespoon of the olive oil, cook until their juices have evaporated and they have thickened slightly. Now whisk them together to make a semi-smooth sauce and add to the potato soup. Put the basil leaves, a splash of vinegar and the salt into a mortar and pulverise with the pestle (use a food processor if you really must, but this method will, naturally, splatter everything up the sides of the vessel rather than work it together). Trickle the remaining olive oil into the basil paste, continuing to incorporate it with the pestle to make a loose "vinaigrette".

Finally check the seasoning of the potato and tomato soup before ladling into bowls. Float a spoonful of the basil mixture upon each one. Best served warm, rather than piping hot.

New potatoes, sliced, with garlic, parsley and salt cod, serves 4

Last New Year's Day, and the one before that, I ate a dish of salt cod at the Walnut Tree Inn, near Abergavenny. I know that to eat salt cod in most European countries is a matter of course; a festive dish, on, say, Good Friday or Christmas Eve. But I have always noted that it is a speciality of Franco's for lunch on 1 January. Is then salt cod, il baccala, an Italian tradition for the first day of the New Year? I guess it well might be. I sadly won't be eating it on 1 January, 2000 because Franco Taruschio won't be cooking anything at all, not even for ready money, on that momentous day. Front door locked. Closed. Wise.

The dish in question is as simple a preparation as one could possibly contemplate: thinly sliced waxy potatoes, olive oil, chopped parsley and salt cod, seasoned lightly and baked in the oven until done. I cheekily asked for extra garlic to be added to mine last year, assuming that some would be included in the first place. Apparently, not so. But Franco, being the sweetly accommodating fellow that he surely is, had scattered a generous sprinkle upon my serving.

So here is my interpretation of (clearly) a traditional Italian way with salt cod and sliced potatoes. The potatoes themselves were so very waxy, it made me think that it would work extremely well with the larger mids, once they have become a weekly staple. The addition of the garlic is entirely a matter for you.

600g dried salt cod, soaked for at least 24 hours, in several changes of water

750g large new - or certainly waxy - potatoes, peeled

6-7tbsp olive oil

a little salt and much pepper

2 cloves peeled garlic, chopped (optional)

4tbsp chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Put the soaked cod in a large pan, cover with cold, fresh water and slowly bring to the boil. As soon as the water begins to tremble, just before rolling, switch off the heat, cover and leave for 30 minutes to finish cooking. Slice the potatoes very thinly (preferably on a mandoline) and set aside. Flake the fish from its bones and cartilage on to a plate.

Grease a baking dish with a little of the oil. First, arrange a layer of potatoes in the bottom, season, sprinkle with a little garlic (if you wish) and a tablespoon of the parsley. Sprinkle over some of the cod and moisten with oil. Cover with more potatoes and repeat until everything has been used up, finishing with a neat layer of potatoes on the top. Press everything together with the palm of your hand, so that some of the oil comes to the surface and can be smeared lightly over the potatoes.

Cover the pan and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Now lower the temperature to 300F/150C/gas mark 2 and cook for a further 30 minutes. Finally, remove the lid for a further 30 minutes, so that the potatoes on the surface lightly gild (if you wish for them to be more crisp and golden brown, you can put this finishing touch to them under a hot grill).

Leave to cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving, spooned directly from the dish at the table

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