Nigel Slater on potatoes

The contemporary diet is one of extremes. Vietnamese hot-and-sour vegetable soup one day, cauliflower cheese the next; today nigiri sushi with pickled ginger, tomorrow rice pudding with a blob of plum jam. And yesterday afternoon's cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea will be all the sweeter for being followed by a supper of chicken vindaloo and its ensuing ring of fire. Pushing our tastebuds to the limit is what makes our eating - and cooking - interesting.

There cannot be much wrong with a diet that can run the gamut from custard tart to kick-ass chilli sauce. In fact, I see everything right with the ability to savour extremes. The only diet that does not appeal is the humdrum, the ordinary, meat-and-two-veg cooking that is the equivalent of dressing permanently in beige. Food that goes without remark. Cooking for those who couldn't care less what they eat, just so long as it is hot and on time. To eat well, we need to be open-minded as well as open-mouthed.

Quack diets for the rich and famous aside, most of us like to take in our daily dose of carbohydrate. No food group is quite so receptive to the extremes of seasoning as the pasta, noodles, rice and beans that our eclectic diet now includes. Pasta is just as welcome as part of a gently flavoured lasagne as it is slathered in a fierce arrabbiata sauce. Rice may come as a soporific risotto or as a bolster for a mouth-popping prawn curry, and beans seem just as suited to the sweet tomato sauce of commerce as to be hidden in an explosively hot Deep Southern spicy bean bake. Yet none of them is quite so amenable as our beloved potato.

A love for the spud is something ingrained in our collective culinary psyche, an essential part of our national dish, our favourite street food, our Christmas feast. No national celebration is complete without the tattie, be it baked in embers of the Guy Fawkes pyre or scrubbed and delicately buttered to toast the first of the wild salmon. It is the first food we turn to for warmth and comfort, the food we find most difficult to spurn on a weight-loss diet. I suppose it must say something for the spud that when I excitedly, briefly, met my idol Marianne Faithfull at a party, we spent the whole time discussing the Irish potato famine. This guy sure knows how to party.

Whether it is steamed over Evian water or interred under a bubbling blanket of tear-jerking chilli sauce, the potato never fails to satisfy. Whether we are in the mood for chips and beer or toying with the light-as-air balloons known as pommes soufflé, we will probably be just as happy. The potato is the ultimate good-time food, good naturedly taking any mood we care to throw at it.

Feel the need for a sinus-clearing curry? Dying for a spoonful of sleepy, buttery mash? Then look no further than Solanum tuberosum . You can take this vegetable in whatever direction you desire. This week, with the cold winter rain still pattering on the kitchen skylights, I set my compass for comfort cooking. There are times, like now, when it is cold enough to wear a fleece indoors as well as out, when bland is a good thing. By bland I mean creamy and starchy and as unchallenging as a Mills & Boon novel.

The floury winter potatoes - Maris Piper, King Edward, Golden Wonder and their ilk - are all better at soaking up copious quantities of cream or stock than the waxy summer varieties. There is a god. There is also something about a starchy root sodden with salty stock or garlic-enriched double cream that is as comforting as a cashmere hot-water bottle cover. The gambit here is to lightly boil the potatoes first. They seem more inclined to sponge up the liquid that way. You know how roast potatoes are always more moist in the middle if you boil them before you add them to the fat round the roast - well, likewise any potato that is to be baked with chicken stock or cream. Try it. Whether or not it works for you, it is certain to cut down the baking time - important to anyone who has ever waited in vain for their pommes Dauphinoise to tenderise.

If a balmy dish of tubers is not what you had in mind, then take the other extreme. Take your daily dose of carbs salt-crusted with ginger, chilli and mustard seed then add stark contrast with a slick of sharp, natural yogurt. Bland or mind-blowing, hot enough to make your eyes water and your tongue swell or as smooth as a dish of whipped cream, the potato is up for anything. Just what we need for these extreme times.

Potato and celeriac tart

If there is one thing better than slices of potato cooked slowly with garlic and cream, it is when they also come wrapped in a pastry crust. Extreme comfort cooking, this. I put it on the table with a bowl of salad - oak-leaf lettuce, trendy red trevisse and hot watercress tossed in a mustard dressing. A lively salad with which everyone mopped up the garlicky cream left on their plates.

5 medium to large potatoes
1 large head of celeriac
425g puff pastry
2 large cloves of garlic
2 or 3 bay leaves
2 eggs
400ml double cream
100ml full cream milk
nutmeg

You will also need a large, heavy frying pan or a baking tin - about 30cm in diameter.

Bring a large, deep pan of water to the boil. Peel the potatoes and the celeriac and slice no thicker than a pound coin, add them to the boiling water, then salt and turn down to a simmer. After 5 minutes or so, they will be tender but far from falling apart. Drain them carefully and set aside.

Roll half of the pastry to fit your baking tin or frying pan. It needs to come all the way up the sides. Lightly oil or butter the pan, then place the pastry in the bottom and push it gently up the sides. It is important that there are no holes in the pastry, otherwise the cream will leak.

Set the oven at 200 C/gas mark 6. Peel and slice the garlic. Layer the potatoes and celeriac on top of the pastry, tucking in the slices of garlic and the bay leaves as you go. Beat the eggs with a fork, then stir in the cream and milk and season with salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg, then pour it over the potatoes.

Cut the second piece of pastry to fit the top of the pie, wet the edges with beaten egg, milk or water, then lay the pastry on top of the potatoes and squeeze the edges firmly together.

Cut two small holes in the top to let out the steam, brush the top with a little beaten egg or milk, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is golden brown.

Spiced roast potatoes

I usually make these little cubes of spiced, crisp potatoes to go with cold roast meat for a Monday supper. I make a cooling spinach salad to go with it, too. Serves 4 as a side dish.

2 large potatoes (about 600g)
2 tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
1 onion
2 fat cloves of garlic
1 or 2 small, hot red chillis, depending on your heat threshold
a 3cm-long knob of ginger
1 tsp black mustard seeds
scant tsp ground turmeric
the juice of half a small lemon
natural yogurt to serve

Put a medium-sized pan of water on to boil. This is a rustic recipe and there is no need to peel the potatoes, but you can if you wish. Cut them into thick slices then into large dice - about 1cm - then boil them for 7 or 8 minutes in the boiling water. When they are almost tender, drain them.

While the potatoes are boiling, peel and finely chop the onion and garlic, deseed and chop the chilli, and skin and finely shred the ginger.

Set the oven at 200 C/gas mark 6. Warm the oil in a baking dish or shallow enamelled casserole over a moderate heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chopped chilli and leave to cook, gently, so that the onion softens but does not brown. Add the mustard seed and the turmeric, then the drained potatoes. Toss gently (with a wooden spoon, so as not to mash the potatoes), then squeeze over the lemon juice and add a grinding of freshly ground pepper and a generous seasoning of salt. Bake for about 35 minutes until they are golden brown and crisp around the edges.

When they come from the oven, spoon over a little yogurt - 3 or 4 tbsp should be enough - and serve.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.