Potatoes, Mediterranean-style

Lebanese cooks use olive oil and lemon juice as flavoring of potato dishes, including mashed potatoes, which they season with nutmeg, salt and white pepper.

Potatoes (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Last week we had a wonderful feast at Open Sesame, a Lebanese restaurant in Los Angeles, and of all the dishes we tasted, the one we couldn’t wait to prepare at home was a potato dish. The potato cubes were fried in olive oil, heated with garlic, roasted hot peppers and fresh coriander, and seasoned with lemon juice and salt. When making this dish, some use paprika or cayenne pepper instead of the chopped roasted hot pepper.
Lebanese cooks often use olive oil and lemon juice as the main flavoring of potato dishes, including mashed potatoes, which they season with nutmeg, salt and white pepper. For a rich potato appetizer, cooks dress diced boiled potatoes with tehina sauce flavored with lemon juice and garlic and sprinkle them with parsley. Another potato preparation from Lebanon calls for cooking the spuds in fresh tomato sauce with sautéed onions, salt and pepper and finishing the dish with olive oil. Some add cooked chickpeas to this dish, or flavor it with ground coriander or dried mint.
Such flavors are popular in potato dishes around the Mediterranean. In Greece, writes Rosemary Barron, author of Flavors of Greece, a potato dish “for those who like strong flavors” is garlic potatoes with juniper, made by roasting small new potatoes with whole garlic cloves and juniper berries; the dish is flavored with lemon juice, sea salt, cracked black pepper and chopped fresh oregano and is served as an accompaniment for roast chicken. To make tiny cracked potatoes, Greek cooks crack small potatoes slightly with a mallet before cooking them in a covered skillet with olive oil; the potatoes finish simmering with red wine vinegar, crushed coriander seeds and black pepper and are topped with chopped parsley, capers and grated lemon zest.
“Potatoes are well-loved in all Mediterranean countries,” writes Clifford A.Wright in Mediterranean Vegetables, and notes that since the potato first entered the Mediterranean region by way of Spain, “it is not surprising to find many potato recipes there.” Garlic-parsley potatoes, for example, are served with grilled fish. “Widowed” potatoes, so named because they are cooked without meat, gain flavor from cooking with tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, onion, oregano, paprika, cayenne pepper and parsley.
In Spain, writes Claudia Roden in The Food of Spain, potatoes are said to have first been grown in Malaga, in Andalusia, after a monk brought them from Peru. A specialty of Malaga that has become popular in other parts of Spain is mashed potatoes with olive oil and green onions.
Another Andalusian potato dish calls for combining spuds with fried onions and eggs. To make it, sliced cooked potatoes are added to onions that were cooked in olive oil, and the mixture is sautéed until golden; it is finished with beaten eggs and cooked until the eggs have set. Green peppers or sausages might be added to the pan along with the potatoes.
Spice-loving Spaniards cook their spuds with chorizo, combining the spicy sausage and the potato chunks with sautéed onions, garlic and water, and cooking the mixture until the potatoes are tender. For extra flavor some simmer a whole chili pepper in the dish.
In southern Mediterranean countries, cooks have a variety of spicy dishes in their potato repertoire. Algerians, writes Wright, cook potatoes with garlic sautéed in olive oil, fresh mint and harissa (North African hot pepper paste), and finish the dish with beaten eggs, which cook with the mixture until they are set. In Libya, people start a spicy potato dish by sautéing potato cubes in olive oil until they are golden, and then cook them with a little water and salt. They flavor the potatoes with sautéed onions cooked with semi-hot red pepper, cumin, turmeric, ground coriander, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and ginger, as well as lemon juice and butter.
Moroccans make pancakes from mashed potatoes with garlic, cumin, fresh coriander, parsley and cayenne pepper and sauté them in olive oil, writes Paula Wolfert, author of The Food of Morocco. To make a spicy potato tagine with olives, Wolfert cooks the potatoes with sautéed grated onion, tomato sauce, garlic, cumin, ginger, saffron water, a bay leaf, parsley and fresh coriander. She finishes the dish by baking the potato mixture with preserved lemon and pitted green olives and serves it drizzled with olive oil mixed with harissa.
The golden brown potatoes we ate at Mamounia, a Moroccan restaurant in Anaheim, California, looked like the familiar European-style roasted potatoes. But the Moroccan potatoes tasted different – they had been flavored with olive oil, garlic, cumin and paprika before they went into the oven.
When we prepare potato dishes at home, such Mediterranean flavor combinations are the ones we use most often.
“I love this potato dish, which I first ate in a bar in Seville,” writes Claudia Roden in The Food of Spain. These parve mashed potatoes are very simple to prepare. For the best flavor, use fine quality olive oil.
Makes 6 servings
❖ 700 gr. (1½ lbs.) baking potatoes, peeled and cut in half or quartered
❖ Salt and pepper
❖ 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more if desired
❖ 6 to 8 green onions, chopped
❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Cook the potato pieces in boiling salted water until soft; check by piercing them with a knife.
Drain the potatoes, keeping about ½ cup of the cooking water. Put the potatoes in a bowl and coarsely mash them. Stir in the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and a little of the cooking water – enough to give the potatoes a soft, slightly moist texture. Stir in the green onions and parsley.
Serve at room temperature.
Serve these potatoes warm or at room temperature as an appetizer. If you like, you can substitute a diced fresh or roasted sweet red pepper for the tomatoes. You can also add a chopped roasted hot pepper.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 900 gr. (2 lbs.) boiling potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper
❖ 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
❖ 2 Tbsp. ground cumin
❖ ½ tsp. paprika
❖ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
❖ 1 Tbsp. water
❖ 3 to 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
❖ 3 to 5 Tbsp. finely chopped green or red onion
❖ 1/3 cup chopped fresh coriander
❖ 4 small tomatoes, cut in small dice (optional)
Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover them with water by about 1 cm. (½ in.) and add salt. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat about 25 minutes, or until a knife can pierce the center of the largest potato easily and the potato falls from a knife when lifted.
In a bowl large enough to contain the potatoes, whisk the lemon juice with a pinch of salt and the cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper and water.
Add the olive oil and whisk again. Add freshly ground pepper.
Drain the potatoes and leave them until just cool enough to handle. Peel and cut them in 2.5- cm. (1-in.) dice. Add them to the bowl of olive oil mixture. Add the chopped onions. Fold gently but thoroughly with the dressing. Fold in 3 Tbsp.
chopped coriander. Taste and adjust seasoning. Just before serving, gently fold in the tomatoes. Serve sprinkled with the remaining chopped coriander.
The writer is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.