Perfect potato recipes for side dishes and the main event

My Irish childhood was filled with potatoes, and I know every which way to cook these comforting staples

saffron braised potatoes
Credit: Haarala Hamilton

The Irish have strong feelings about potatoes, feelings that can be complicated. When I first came to England, I was subjected to the odd joke about how many of them the Irish ate. I resented this, but also recognised that it was true (though you don’t want your cultural identity reduced to ‘potato eater’).

I grew up in Northern Ireland, and there wasn’t a day when we didn’t have potatoes. In fact, we often ate them twice a day. They weren’t always a side dish either: the stew my grandmother made with beef shin, potatoes and greens; champ, a buttery mash made with chopped spring onions simmered in milk; and Irish stew were eaten regularly. Potatoes, big snowy boulders, were necessary with mince and carrots or braised beef, as they soaked up the meat juices.

We had them in chicken soup too. You crushed the potato with the back of your spoon and, if there was any, got a bit of the cream from the top of the milk drizzled on it too. Potato bread, or ‘fadge’, was – and is – an important part of an Ulster fry. For fadge, mashed potato is mixed with flour, egg and baking powder, shaped into a circle, quartered and fried.

We knew when particular varieties, or potatoes from specific areas of Northern Ireland, had arrived at the greengrocer: Carlingford or Cara; spuds from Armagh or Comber. My mum was the keeper of potato knowledge. I learnt from her to cook them in their skins. You knew they were ready when you saw the skins starting to lift. Then you drained them, returned them to the pan, crumpled a clean tea towel over them, put the lid on, set the pan on a very low heat and let the potatoes ‘dry out’ for five minutes. This made better mash.

Take this staple side dish to the next level Credit: Haarala Hamilton and Valerie Berry

I found it odd the first time I travelled away from home, to France, to find that potatoes were rarely on the table. I always felt something was missing. I had to get used to the idea that bread, in France, served the same role as the potato in Ireland. It was the soaker-upper of cooking juices, the food with which you cleaned your plate.

The Irish are not the only potato eaters, though. The Germans, Russians, Scandinavians and Poles revere them too, even though they were at first viewed with suspicion almost everywhere. In Russia the poor wouldn’t grow them until after the Potato Mutiny of 1842 – the culmination of many small ‘potato rebellions’ – when Tsar Nicholas I decreed that it be done. Now Russians refer to potatoes as ‘vtoroi khleb’, or ‘second bread’.

Following a recipe in Darra Goldstein’s A Taste of Russia, I recently made a potato gratin – the potatoes mashed, mixed with eggs and sour cream, and baked until the top was golden and souffléd.

The pain surrounding the potato was the knowledge that the lack of them had led to the Great Hunger, the Irish famine, and that the Irish and the potato had been yoked together in ways that weren’t flattering. It took a while for the British to accept potatoes. Stephen Switzer, garden designer and seedsman to the aristocracy, tried, in 1733, to promote them as glamorous by bluntly stating, ‘That which was heretofore reckon’d a food fit only for Irishmen, and clowns, is now become the diet of the most luxuriously polite.’

I silently bless potatoes at this time of year. I went to school in a farming area, and if you came from a family that grew potatoes you were allowed to miss school in the autumn to help with picking. It seemed right that harvesting, for a few days at least, took precedence over education; that the potato – even though it had been a source of anguish – was important, a constant and, in the late 1970s, comfortingly there.