Spuds ? la Fran?aise

My favorite springtime potato dishes are European creations that combine the tubers with other vegetables.

potato dish 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
potato dish 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Potatoes are nearly as popular during the Pessah season as they are at Hanukka. You might say it's because some people avoid rice on Pessah and therefore eat more potatoes. But that's not the only reason. Springtime potato dishes are loved in Europe too. There they are often prepared in a special way, different from the rest of the year. Most of the time we tend to think of potato kugels, mashed potatoes, cheese-crusted potato gratins, potato cakes and potato salads. Both fresh new potatoes and large baking potatoes taste good on their own, cooked simply with just a sprinkling of seasoning, but my favorite springtime potato dishes are European creations that combine the spuds with other vegetables, such as leeks, carrots and mushrooms, or with fresh bright green herbs, like parsley, tarragon and thyme. French cooks are masters at coming up with such dishes, many of which are homey specialties with origins in hearty country cooking. Perigord in southwest France, known for its luxurious black truffles and foie gras, also has great potato dishes, like one of sauteed cubed potatoes with sliced wild mushrooms, finished with chopped garlic and parsley. The mushrooms perfume the potatoes and, wrote La Mazille in La Bonne Cuisine du Perigord, with a little goodwill, you have almost the impression of eating a plateful of mushrooms. I especially love what the French call a ragout of first vegetables. In Nice it is made of small new potatoes cooked with pearl onions, baby carrots, fresh peas, halved small artichokes, sliced zucchini, green fava beans and strips of lettuce. The tender vegetables are served in their natural juices, enriched with a little butter, which you add off the heat to keep its flavor pure. In Les Recettes de la Table Nicoise, authors Raymond Armisen and Andre Martin begin the dish with the old-fashioned addition of sauteed strips of salted meat, but the dish is also delicious when meatless. Another potato ragout from southern France pairs the spuds with green olives. In French Farmhouse Cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis, who went to culinary school with me in Paris, prepares this dish by cooking cubed potatoes with onion slices sauteed in olive oil, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, whole cloves, crushed garlic and water. The olives are added when the potatoes are tender. People in the region of Normandy adapt the popular veal stew called blanquette to spuds and prepare potato blanquette with leeks by lightly cooking chopped leeks in butter, then adding a little flour, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Thin slices of potato cook in this leek cream sauce, along with thyme sprigs and bay leaf, simmer, and the stew is topped with chopped fresh chives. In the nearby region of Brittany, where potatoes are a food staple, Simone Morand, author of Gastronomie Bretonne, wrote that potatoes were hardly grown there at all in the 18th century until they were brought to the province by Irish refugees. They became more widely accepted thanks to the efforts of some agronomists, especially the bishop of Leon, who became known as "the potato bishop." People then began cooking them as potatoes a la bretonne, made of sliced potatoes stewed with sauteed baby onions, salted meat, broth, chopped tomato, hard apple cider and a bouquet of fresh herbs. I prepare the following French-style potato dish two ways: The first makes use of heavy cream to turn the spuds into a luscious, special-occasion dish. For the lighter, parve variation that follows, I use vegetable broth and a little olive oil instead of the cream. POTATOES WITH VEGETABLE JULIENNE SAUCE The colorful sauce of carrots, leeks and mushrooms turns simple boiled potatoes into a festive dish. You can cook the julienne (thin strips) of leek, carrot and celery ahead and keep them in the refrigerator. You can leave the potatoes unpeeled; if you want to peel them, you can do so a few hours ahead and keep them in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloring. 1 small or 1⁄2 large leek 1 carrot, peeled 1⁄2 small celery stalk 6 very white large mushroom caps 1⁄4 cup dry white wine 1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar 1 Tbsp. minced shallots or green onions (optional) Salt and freshly ground white pepper 1 cup heavy cream 900 gr. boiling potatoes of uniform size 2 tsp. chopped fresh parsley Trim and discard root and top of leek, leaving white part and about 5 cm. of deep green. Using sharp knife, slit leek lengthwise, starting from center and cutting toward green end (leave small section in center uncut to keep leek in one piece). Rinse leek in cold water, separating pieces to remove all dirt. Cut leek, carrot, and celery into very thin strips (julienne) about 4 cm. long. Slice mushroom caps crosswise into rounds. Cut rounds into thin strips. Add carrot, leek and celery to a saucepan of boiling salted water and boil 3 minutes. Drain well. Combine wine, vinegar, and shallots in a medium-size heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer until reduced to about 2 tablespoons, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add mushroom julienne and pinch of salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Stir in cream, reduce heat to medium, and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender and sauce is thick enough to coat back of a spoon lightly. Remove sauce from heat and set aside. Scrub potatoes; peel if you like. Cut in halves or quarters. Put potatoes in large saucepan, cover with water by about 1 cm., and add some salt. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer about 18 minutes, or until knife pierces center of largest potato easily and potato falls from knife when lifted. Do not overcook or potatoes will fall apart. Drain thoroughly. Just before serving, reheat sauce, stir in vegetable julienne, and bring to simmer. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour sauce over potatoes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings. POTATOES WITH LIGHT VEGETABLE JULIENNE SAUCE In the recipe above, cook the carrot, leek and celery in 11⁄2 cups vegetable broth instead of water. Drain them, reserving the broth. When making the sauce, omit the cream and use 1⁄2 cup of the reserved vegetable broth. After cooking the mushrooms in the sauce, add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Continue as in the recipe, reheating the vegetable julienne gently in the sauce. Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations and of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.