In the spirit of Lag Ba’omer

It’s all about picnics and potatoes.

Mojito potato-pomegranate salad (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Mojito potato-pomegranate salad
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The holiday of Lag Ba’omer, which is coming soon, is associated in our minds with potatoes. Whether we enjoyed eating fire-roasted potatoes around a bonfire with family members and friends, or celebrated Lag Ba’omer at picnics in the park or at outdoor parties, potatoes have always been part of the picture.
In her book A Taste of Tradition, my mentor and publisher Ruth Sirkis wrote, “The bonfires on Lag Ba’omer mark the beginning of the outdoor cooking season.” Roasting potatoes evenly in a bonfire is not easy to do. Sirkis rubs her potatoes with oil, wraps them with foil, and bakes them on a barbecue or in the oven.
Technically, “wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil to ‘bake’ them is really not baking, but steaming,” wrote Raghavan Iyer in his latest cookbook, which is devoted to potatoes, Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked – and Fried, Too! Iyer bakes potatoes directly on an oven rack.
For Lag Ba’omer picnics, the potatoes are often prepared as salad. Since the days are quite warm at this time of year, it’s a good idea to make a mayonnaise-free potato salad, such as Iyer’s colorful, refreshing mojito potato salad with pomegranate seeds. We enjoyed this dish at his recent book presentation, and later we made it at home and added greens – spinach, lettuce and mallow. (See recipe.) For a party, Iyer’s potato lasagna is a good choice, as it is delicious, easy to serve and vegetarian. To make it, Iyer bakes very thin slices of potatoes in layers with ricotta cheese, a sauce of roasted tomatoes, a medley of vegetables, and lasagna sheets. (See recipe.) You can also use potatoes to make tasty appetizers, such as Iyer’s cheesy tarragon tots, which have crisp crusts and rich, tender centers. (See recipe.) In fact, it’s so hard to stop eating them that maybe, instead of playing the role of a starter, they should be served after the main course, as a savory, after-dinner treat.
The writer is the author of
Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Mojito potato-pomegranate salad
Waxy potatoes have a high moisture and low starch content, which makes them cohesive so they do not fall apart when they are boiled, wrote Raghavan Iyer. Thus they are ideal for potato salads.
He created this potato salad, which he recommends for outdoor celebrations, using the flavors of the popular Cuban cocktail, the mojito. He notes that you can substitute 1 or 2 tablespoons of fruity extra-virgin olive oil for the rum.
To make the salad with greens, see the note following the recipe.
Serves 6
■ 450 gr. assorted fingerling potatoes (a mix of purple, red and white)
■ 1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
■ ½ cup fresh mint leaves
■ 1 Tbsp. unrefined granulated sugar
■ 2 tsp. coarsely cracked black peppercorns
■ 1 tsp. coarse sea salt
■ ¼ cup white rum
■ ½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds
Fill a small saucepan halfway with water and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, scrub potatoes, under running water. Cut them into 2.5- cm. pieces and add to the boiling water.
Lower heat to medium and cook potatoes at a brisk simmer, uncovered, until tender when pierced with a fork or knife but still firm, 10 to 12 minutes.
While potatoes cook, pile limes, mint, sugar, peppercorns and salt in a deep mortar. Pound with pestle to release the juices from the limes and the essential oils from the mint. Remove and discard lime shells, or squeeze limes and briefly pulse the herbaceous mix in a food processor. Stir in the rum.
As soon as potatoes are tender, drain them in a colander and rinse under cold running water to cool them a bit; leave them a little warm to the touch, as they will absorb the flavors much better.
Transfer potatoes to a bowl. Scrape lime mixture over them. Add pomegranate seeds and stir. Let salad stand for an hour or so to allow flavors to meld. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Potato and pomegranate salad with greens Combine chopped greens, such as a mixture of spinach, lettuce and mallow (Hebrew: hubeiza). For the dressing, combine 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with 2 to 3 tablespoons lime and/or lemon juice and salt and pepper, to taste. Add enough to the greens to moisten them.
Top with the cooked potatoes and moisten them with more of the dressing.
Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, chopped chives and fresh mint.
Potato lasagna
“A good lasagna is satisfying, but a great one is lusty,” wrote Iyer. He recommends baking the lasagna in a clear, glass pan. You can bake the lasagna in advance, freeze it and reheat it.
Serves 8
For the sauce:
■ 1.8 kg. small tomatoes, such as grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
■ Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
■ 1 tsp. coarse sea salt
■ 1 tsp. coarsely cracked black peppercorns
For the ricotta:
■ 2 cups ricotta cheese
■ Zest of 1 large lemon
■ 2 large eggs, slightly beaten
■ 1 cup finely chopped basil
■ 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
■ ½ tsp. coarse sea salt
For the vegetable medley:
■ 680 gr. yellow or all-purpose potatoes
■ 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
■ 1 medium-size onion, finely chopped
■ 1 large sweet red pepper, finely chopped
■ 8 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
■ 225 gr. baby spinach, stems and ribs discarded, thoroughly rinsed and dried
■ 1 tsp. coarsely cracked black peppercorns
■ ½ tsp. coarse sea salt
For assembling:
■ 350 gr. fresh lasagna sheets (see note below)
■ 350 gr. shredded Italian cheese blend, or mixture of shredded Italian cheeses such as provolone, mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano.
Position a rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 190°C. Line a large baking pan with parchment paper.
Sauce: Place tomatoes in a large bowl and add enough olive oil to coat them.
Sprinkle salt and peppercorns and toss.
Spread tomatoes in the baking pan.
Roast, stirring occasionally, until their skins shrivel and they are brown, 45 to 50 minutes.
Remove tomatoes. Reduce oven temperature to 180°C. Transfer tomatoes to blender and puree until smooth, scraping down as needed.
Ricotta: Place ricotta in a medium bowl and stir in lemon zest, eggs, basil, pepper flakes, and salt.
Vegetable medley: Scrub potatoes well under cold running water. Fill a medium bowl with cold water. Slice into 3-mm.-thick planks with a chef’s knife or mandolin. Submerge them in bowl of cold water to prevent graying and to remove excess surface starch.
Leave in water while you prepare other vegetables.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once oil appears to shimmer, add onion, sweet pepper and garlic and stir-fry until onion and pepper are light brown around the edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Add half the spinach leaves and cover; steam will wilt them in 2 to 3 minutes. Pile in remaining leaves and cover pan to wilt them, 2 or 3 more minutes. Sprinkle in peppercorns and salt and stir well.
Drain potatoes in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Shake colander to remove excess water.
Assembling: Spray inside of a 33-by- 23-cm. baking pan with cooking spray. Pour in enough sauce to thinly coat the bottom. Place one-third of the pasta sheets (110 gr.) to cover bottom. Spread half the ricotta over the sheets. Arrange a layer of half the potatoes on ricotta; it’s OK to overlap them a little, but not much. Add half the vegetable medley. Pour and spread more of the sauce, then sprinkle on ¹⁄3 of the cheese. Place another third of the lasagna sheets on top and repeat the layering, using up all the ricotta, potatoes and vegetables, and half the remaining sauce and cheese. Place the last lasagna sheets over this, then the rest of the sauce.
Cover pan with foil. Place on a cookie sheet in case of spills during baking.
Bake lasagna until sides look bubbly and center of lasagna, when pierced with a knife, reveals a hot, bubbly interior, 1 to 1¼ hours.
Sprinkle remaining shredded cheese on top and return uncovered pan to oven. Let cheese melt, about 2 minutes.
For a deeper brown color, you can broil it.
Transfer pan to a wire rack and allow lasagna to cool and set a bit, about 15 minutes. Slice into portions and serve warm.
Note: Iyer uses fresh lasagna sheets that don’t need to be precooked before baking. If you are using dried lasagna sheets, cook them according to the package directions before using them in the recipe.
Cheesy tarragon tots
These potato nuggets are Iyer’s homemade version of a popular American snack, Tater Tots.
They should be fried just before you serve them, so you can enjoy them while they are hot and crispy.
Serves 4
■ 450 gr. baking potatoes
■ Canola oil, for deep frying
■ 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
■ 112 gr. white cheddar cheese
■ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves
■ 1 Tbsp. potato starch
■ ½ tsp. coarse sea or kosher salt Fill a bowl with cold water. Peel potatoes and rinse under cold running water. Cut into 5-cm. pieces. Submerge them in bowl of water to rinse off surface starch and prevent them from turning gray.
While potatoes soak, pour oil to a depth of 5 to 7.5 cm. into a wok, Dutch oven, or medium-size saucepan.
Heat the oil over medium heat until a candy or deep-frying thermometer inserted into the oil (without touching the pan bottom) registers 163°C. Lay out a clean cotton kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels on counter, for drying potatoes. Set a wire rack on a cookie sheet, for draining the partially cooked potatoes of excess oil.
Drain potatoes in a colander and rinse them a bit under cold running water. Shake colander once or twice to rid potatoes of excess water. Transfer them to the kitchen towel and dry well.
Divide potatoes into 2 equal portions.
Drop a portion gently into the oil; the temperature will dip down by 17°C or so. Allow potatoes to poach at that temperature just until pale brown and a bit soft, about 5 minutes. Lift them out immediately with slotted spoon and drain on the rack. Let oil return to 163°C and repeat with remaining potatoes.
Once they have all drained, transfer potatoes to a clean, dry, medium-size bowl. Let cool for 10 minutes, or freeze for 5 minutes.
Transfer potatoes to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Scrape them back into the same bowl. Add onion and cheese to food processor and pulse them to a texture similar to that of the potatoes. Add them to potatoes.
Add tarragon, potato starch and salt and mix well.
Lay a large sheet of wax paper or parchment paper on counter. Take a heaping teaspoon of the bumpy potato “dough” and shape into a mini football about 2.5 cm. long or into a disc, compressing it as you shape it. Set it on wax paper. Repeat with remaining dough. (At this point you can freeze them. You can fry them without thawing them first.) Reheat oil over medium heat until a candy or deep-frying thermometer registers 190°C. Line a cookie sheet with several layers of paper towels.
When oil is ready, gently slide in a handful of the tots; do not crowd pan.
Fry, flipping them occasionally with a slotted spoon, until they are caramel brown and crisp all over, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove with spoon and place on the paper towels to drain. Repeat with rest; you may need to adjust heat to maintain the oil’s temperature. Serve hot.