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! (Workman, $16.95, 250 pages) is as delightful as its title, an immersion into Iyer’s 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.

Baked Potatoes with White Beans and Bearnaise

Serves 4.

Note: Use pasteurized eggs because these are not cooked in the sauce. For a more seasonal variation of the green vegetable used here (asparagus), try broccoli or green beans. From “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked —and Fried, Too!” by Raghavan Iyer.

For the potatoes:

Coarse sea or kosher salt

4 large russet potatoes (each about 1 pound)

1/2 cup clarified butter or 8 tablespoons

(1 stick) whole unsalted butter (see directions below)

1 cup finely chopped onion

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 (15-oz.) can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Tips from 8 oz. fresh asparagus, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces (see note)

2 tsp. coriander seeds, ground

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

For the béarnaise sauce:

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

2 pasteurized egg yolks, slightly beaten (see note)

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh tarragon

1 tsp. coarsely cracked black pepper

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread a thick layer of salt on a large plate.

Scrub the potatoes well under running water. While they are still wet, pierce them in multiple spots with a fork to enable them to vent steam as they bake. Cake each damp potato all over with the salt, forming a white-speckled blanket. Place the potatoes directly on the oven rack and bake until tender, about 1 hour.

As potatoes bake, melt 2 tablespoons clarified butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Once it appears to shimmer, stir-fry onion and garlic until they become light brown around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the beans, asparagus, coriander, red pepper flakes and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and stir.

Lower heat to medium-low, cover pan and allow the asparagus to steam, stirring occasionally, until tender but still firm, 5 to 7 minutes. Keep the cover on after you have turned off the burner so the filling stays warm.

To make the bearnaise, bring the vinegar, wine and shallots to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Boil mixture, uncovered, stirring occasionally until liquid is reduced by half, 5 to 7 minutes. Allow reduction to cool (it should be just warm to the touch but not hot), 2 to 4 minutes. Pour this into a blender jar and add the egg yolks. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons clarified butter. With the blender running on low speed, slowly drizzle in the hot butter. This creates the emulsion needed to make a smooth sauce. Pour and scrape the sauce into a small bowl. Fold in the tarragon and the peppercorns. Keep the sauce near the stove so it stays warm.

Once potatoes are tender, transfer to a cutting board and allow to cool enough to handle. Slice off a 1/4-inch-thick piece from top along the length of each potato. (They’re for nibbling — the cook’s bonus as you finish the dish!)

With a teaspoon, scoop out as much of insides as you can and stir them into the asparagus and beans. Leave a thin layer of flesh on the bottom of each potato and try not to bore a hole through the skin (leave about a 1/4-inch-thick layer of potato around the inside of the skin to avoid any possibility of leaks.)

Fill each potato with as much filling as you can (mound it, if necessary, to use it all), pour the bearnaise sauce over each and serve immediately. The caked-on salt on the surface provides a delectable layer, rounding out the whole experience in one well-balanced mouthful at a time.

To clarify butter: Melt unsalted butter over low heat and allow milk solids to separate and sink to the bottom. Strain through cheesecloth or fine-mesh sieve. Discard the milk solids.