Round the world with the potato

“Never trust a person who doesn’t like potatoes.” Raghavan Iyer was joking, but only a bit. The Mumbai-born author, cooking instructor and restaurant consultant had potatoes on his mind, as he should while on a book tour with his new volume. The spectacularly named “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked — and Fried, Too!” is as delightful as its title, an immersion into an obsession with the lowly spud, which he pushes to its creative limits. The author of five books on Indian or Asian cooking — and a James Beard Award winner — has shifted gears in this new publication to focus on an ingredient that finds its place at dinner tables throughout the world. You know the predictable potato drill for Americans: potato soup, potato salad, hash browns in the morning, mashed on the holidays, fries all day. In another author’s hands, these recipes would be limited to the perfect way to prepare the vegetable. 

Iyer offers that, too, of course, but given his mastery of flavors and wizardry with spices, we’re in for a treat. Think Cheesy Tarragon Tots, Water Chestnut Potato Potstickers, Moroccan Potato Stew With Saffron Biscuits. He stuffs chiles rellenos with potatoes, builds “nests” of the shredded vegetable to hold a stir-fry and creates layers for lasagna with slices that sub for pasta. He steams potato-chive buns and bakes a savory version of Danish aebleskivers. The recipes go on to include 75 ways you never dreamed of preparing the world’s favorite vegetable. And still, all those recipes later, in a recent interview not far from his Minneapolis home, he reached for a french fry at a restaurant. “I always need to have a taste,” he said.

Q: Why the obsession?

A: I’ve had a passion for potatoes forever. [In Mumbai] Mother would ask, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ It was always potatoes. Finally she got tired of asking. It was something we had growing up, every day, so it stuck with me. Even before and after this book, I have to have potatoes at least once a day, in one form or another.

Q: How did your family embrace this subject, knowing they would be eating potatoes for a long time?

A: Terry [his partner] rolled his eyes and said, ‘We have to live through this now.’ But it was fun. They [Terry and their son, Robert] jumped right in and tasted everything I made. Because it’s a smaller book, I was able to test recipes so many times over so I was comfortable with the result. Someone asked if me if I was tired of potatoes. I went to the farmers market at Linden Hills, and a farmer had grown four kinds of organic potatoes. I came home with 20 pounds.

Q: What advice do you have for cooking with potatoes?

A: One of the biggest mistakes is to choose the wrong variety of potato for a task. For mashed potatoes, a cook should use russets, which are high in starch, low in moisture and floury, which makes them easily mashed. Salads need waxy potatoes that are low in starch and hold their shape.

Q: What’s your favorite varietal?

A: I love the Peruvian purple, because it’s so beautiful to look at and there are so many things you can do with it. One of my recipes showcases it in a purple potato focaccia. I’m also pleased with some of the fingerlings that are red on the outside and have red flesh. These are especially nice in salads to throw in some color.

I use these red potatoes in a recipe for a mojito potato salad. I’m pleased to see more and more varieties in the marketplace.