Smashed Mashed Boiled and Baked and Fried Too!
By Raghavan Iyer
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Raghavan Iyer: I'm Raghavan Iyer and my latest book is "Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked--and Fried, Too!.", a celebration of potatoes and 75 irresistible recipes.
Suzy Chase: It's the holidays and you were included in a beautiful Thanksgiving spread entitled The American Thanksgiving in then New York Times. What brought you to the United States from Mumbai at the age of, was it 16?
Raghavan Iyer: It felt like it but I was 21. I came to get my second degree. My first was in chemistry from Bombay University and then my second degree which was from Michigan State University. I graduated with a degree in hotel restaurant management as well.
Suzy Chase: Now, can you give us a short history of the potato?
Raghavan Iyer: It's a short history that actually goes back to 10,000 BC and it's a tuber that was native to South America. It was actually around the Inca civilization 1500 BE when you really started to see the full potential of the agricultural impact of potatoes. From there it eventually spread to Europe and then came back to North American and then traveled out east again. I think in every country that it touched it truly became a very strong force. That's the reason why it is now the fourth largest crop in the world.
Suzy Chase: You've addressed all the continents except Antarctica. To me the most exotic recipe is your tea-infused potato dish from China. Describe this recipe.
Raghavan Iyer: Yeah, I've always love working with tea and I think tea-smoked duck for instance is one of the most popular dishes in China. I wanted to do something very similar with potatoes but I think the first time when I was testing it I tested it with just a very strong tea-smoked potatoes in a wok and the flavors were extremely intense. I wanted to mellow that out a little bit but still use the concept of working with tea, which is so big in China and in many parts of the world as well. I ended up actually seeping or cooking the potatoes in tea water. I think that provided just that pleasant hint of bitterness to that and that seeped all the way through into these small red new potatoes. And then I basically just dressed it with a combination of butter and fresh ginger with Chinese spice spice powder. I also incorporated some cayenne pepper and lemon with scallions. It brought in the flavors from that part of the country and it also created something very new and interesting. That was my rendition of tea-infused potatoes.
Suzy Chase: I grew up in Kansan and my mom made a baked potato almost every night of the week. To me potatoes are the most comforting, homey food. How popular are potatoes in, let's say, India and outside of the United States?
Raghavan Iyer: Very popular. In fact, two of the countries that produce the world's largest amount of potatoes are India and China. It came to India around early 16th century and truly it took root. It was one of those vegetables that Indians embraced with great gusto. I kid you not Suzy when I say to this day there's no meal in India that is complete without the inclusion of potatoes. It's a very, very big part of our culture. I still try to honor that tradition as well.
Suzy Chase: Do we have to use certain types of potatoes for certain dishes or are the varieties interchangeable?
Raghavan Iyer: They're not interchangeable. Every recipe and every technique in particular in a recipe usually will determine which is the appropriate potato for that. I've sort of broken the book down into two major categories, floury potatoes and waxy potatoes. Your floury potatoes are potatoes that have high amounts of starch and low amounts of moisture. They lend themselves well to baking and to making mashed potatoes as well. When you look at the world of waxy potatoes, which are your boiling potatoes, they have very high moisture and low starch. They are very good for maintaining their shape and their size as they boil, and so they're great for making potato salad. They're also great for pan frying, for instance, because you can keep the shape in tact. Every potato does have a particular use depending on what it is that you're trying to do.
Suzy Chase: I, like a lot of people, have always thought that potatoes were lackluster nutritionally.
Raghavan Iyer: Yeah, it's one of those vegetables that actually is very sound nutritionally and a potato by itself is actually a very high source of complex carbohydrates and it is what you need for your body to break it down into energy. It also has a very high source of vegetable protein and it is one of those things that also has a high amount of vitamin C and potassium and magnesium as well. Very, very big source of nutrition. Of course, what you add to the potatoes is what you are going to end up making it unhealthy, cream and fat and everything else I think will make it very unapproachable in terms of a solid nutritional background. But by itself it has no fat and I think it lends itself well if you're looking for a healthy diet.
Suzy Chase: You have handy tater tips with every recipe. If we want to make hash browns, what's your tater tip for shredding potatoes?
Raghavan Iyer: The best way to do it is you can either use a mandolin if you've got one or even a food processor or a box grater works actually really well as well. The large-holed side actually would be perfect for that. You shred the potatoes and you immediately have to put them in cold water so that you will prevent the potato from turning brown and gray. Plus also, all the surface starch sort of sinks to the bottom and then you can drain the potato, give it a good rinse and blot it dry with some paper towels. And you season them lightly with just salt and pepper or whatever else you want you want to put into it. And the you heat your oil in the skillet and you spread the shredded potatoes into the oil and you put a lid on it. Don't do anything to it, but just let it brown, and the underside becomes nice and crispy and because it's covered the steam rises from within and you sort of get a more of an al dente quality on the top side. And then you flip it over and then you repeat the other side as well. And then you take it out and you get the perfect hash brown, crispy on the outside and it's creamy and tender on the inside. I guess hearing myself talk I'm making myself hungry.
Suzy Chase: You only flip it once? I usually keep flipping it. I guess just flip it once.
Raghavan Iyer: No. Yeah, just flip it once. And so you get the underside, flip it and then brown the second side and you're done.
Suzy Chase: What is your secret to the ultimate mashed potatoes?
Raghavan Iyer: Oh, the ultimate mashed potato I think calls for the ultimate potato which is the workhorse of potatoes and in my book it is the Russet Burbank, your garden-variety potato that is everywhere. Usually I peel the potato because I like the texture of it, especially for mashed potatoes I like it peeled. I peel it and I cut it into large cubes and I boil it in water, salting, no salting, it's your preference but I usually don't salt it. And then you boil it until it's just tender so when you stick a fork and it just barely starts to fall apart. I drain it and then I return it back to that same pan on the low heat and dry the potato surface, the cubes, out.
While that's happening then I actually have a separate pot going of my hot liquid. I usually do a combination of heavy cream and cream cheese actually with butter and some really coarsely ground black peppercorns and a good type of salt. You could throw in herbs in there at that point in time as well. And then once my potato cubes are dried out I actually put them into a ricer, which is really your key. It's a utensil you can actually find just about anywhere you can find kitchen smallwares. You push the cubes right through the ricer into a serving bowl. You get these strands which look like rice kernels and they're light and they're fluffy and they're perfect.
It's then when you start to take your liquid, which is now nice and warm, and I pour that over the potatoes and I fold it in and I throw in some chives on top. I fold it in just until the liquid gets incorporated into the potatoes. It's very much like folding egg whites to get your meringue, and you don't want to overdo it. You want to do it just until it's done. At that point in time you stick a fork in and you're feeling like you're eating puffs of cloud with this really strong, nice potato flavor to it. The richness of the cream cheese and the butter comes through. That to me is the ultimate mashed potato. It's all about the right potato and the right texture.
Suzy Chase: That sounds amazing. It seems like the cream cheese and the ricer are your two secrets. It's out now.
Raghavan Iyer: Now everybody knows [crosstalk 00:11:26]. I guess I will change one kitchen at a time. That is so very true. But truly it's one of those very ... That's why I think a good mashed potato gives you such a feeling of comfort and warmth and I think it's magical.
Suzy Chase: Over the weekend I made your recipe for twice-baked potatoes with bacon on page 134. My grandma used to make this every Christmas and this recipe seemed to be one of your introductions to the Midwestern cuisine and your partner's parents. Describe how they store their potatoes for long Minnesota winters.
Raghavan Iyer: This is sort of my opening experience as to how potatoes really should be stored. They lived in a farming community in Southwestern Minnesota and I remember the first time I went to their place, which was wintertime, and Terry's mother asked me to go out to the garage and get the potatoes. I thought, "Well, it is winter, why would they have potatoes in the garage?" In the garage, in the closet, there was a cardboard box of potatoes that were covered with a gunny sack. It was muddy and dirty and I thought, "Oh, that's a little interesting." I grabbed a handful that she needed and I walked back in and I scrubbed it. Of course, then you've got the beautiful potato underneath it. That was my first exposure to how they should be preserved because that's the best way to do it. If you have access to fresh stock potatoes with the mud still around it, that's how you store it in a cool, dark spot. That's what I recommend if it's possible.
Suzy Chase: With the twice-baked potato recipe why should we coat the potatoes in salt before baking? I've never done that before.
Raghavan Iyer: It was a technique that I thought would work really well because oftentimes people make the mistake of when they are baking potatoes they actually wrap it in foil and they put them in the oven.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Raghavan Iyer: That's not baking, that's actually steaming it because the foil provides a cover and the steam gets entrapped in there and the potato, to me, is really quite [inaudible 00:13:51]. When I scrub the potato and I poke holes in it so that that will prevent it from bursting in the oven, while it's still wet I coat it with salt. It's like when you're making salt-crusted salmon, for instance, or anything in the oven that is salt-crusted, the salt provides sort of a layer of crispiness which I think is really wonderful. But also it draws out the moisture from within which makes the baked potato really shine.
Once it's done, and you put them directly on the rack and then once it's done you get these salt-crusted potato out and you lop off the top side and you scoop out the inside and you see the creaminess and the perfect temperature and texture of the potato at that time. That lends itself really well to being scooped out and turned into twice-baked potato. A lot of times I see people actually when they eat twice-baked potato they just eat the inside and I'm thinking, "Oh my, it's the outside that is equally addictive.", because you've got the salts clinging to that and you've got the crustiness and you've got that beautiful flavor. I love eating skin as well. All of it I think is perfectly edible.
Suzy Chase: You know you had us lop off the top, well I ate four tops before. It was so good.
Raghavan Iyer: I know. Again, that's the beauty of that salt crust. It's a perfect snack and it's not like there's a lot of salt. It's just enough to coat it. I think that's just right in bringing out the flavors of that baked potato. Yeah, it's a technique that I tried and it worked beautifully well.
Suzy Chase: What can we do with the gorgeous leftover filling?
Raghavan Iyer: The filling itself it's got all that beautiful cream and peppers. One of the things I talk about in the recipe actually is when you have fresh figs in season is to cut them in half and then pipe a bit of the filling on each half and baking it so you get this baked figs with this phenomenal filling. The other option I talk about is also just take the filling and then roll them in panko breadcrumbs and then pan frying it until it's crispy on both sides. That's another easy way to do it as well.
Suzy Chase: What do you have coming up for 2017 and where can we find you on the web?
Raghavan Iyer: On the web I am accessible through my website which is raghavaniyer.com. That's R-A-G-H-A-V-A-N-I-Y-E-R.com. I'm also very active on Facebook, which is raghavan.iyer and Twitter @660curries and also on Instagram as @raghavaniyer. As far as what's coming up in 2016, I am in the start of 20 city book tour, a national book tour, and so I will be coming into many of the cities across the US and also Vancouver. I still continue to teach a lot and I will be teaching at a lot of places around town and around the country. Also I do a fair amount of [inaudible 00:17:30] work and consulting for large corporations. It seems like a busy year coming up and I am working on a couple of private tours to India. That would be the tail end of 2017, 2018. Lots of good things happening. Plus of course I have to start thinking about writing another book.
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh, yeah. Definitely. Well, now with this book we are all obsessed with the potato. Thank you so much Raghavan for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Raghavan Iyer: Oh Suzy, my pleasure. It's been really a joy talking with you. The cold winter day outside is now more bearable I think with warm thoughts of potatoes.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, definitely. Thank you.
Raghavan Iyer: Thank you again.