The potato, better known botanically as Solanum tuberosum, is an extremely versatile tuber native to South America. Potatoes have been a staple food in South American cuisine for centuries, and were also widely accepted in Europe after initial suspicion about their toxicity. The suspicion was due to the fact that they are members of the Nightshade family, along with tomatoes. There are numerous preparations for this tuber, ranging from luxurious gratins to easy baked potatoes, and most cooks also have an assortment of varieties to choose from, depending on how well stocked their grocery store is.
The first thing to consider when making a dish with potatoes is what type you will need. There are two categories: mealy and waxy. Mealy potatoes are high in starch, and will tend to break down when they are cooked, making them excellent choices for baking and mashing. Waxy potatoes will retain their shape, and work well in soups, hashes, and as fries. Once you have decided what type you need, you can look at varieties including Russets, Yukon Golds, round reds, fingerlings, and purple. If you aren't sure if a potato is mealy or waxy, drop it into a brine solution; waxy varieties will float.
The most simple way to prepare a potato is to bake it. Make sure to pierce the skin several times to allow air to vent out, and plan on keeping it in a 375° Fahrenheit (191° Celsius) oven for around an hour. After baking, the potato can be eaten plain or served with an assortment of toppings. You can also use baked potatoes to make gnocchi; scoop out the filling and mix equal parts potato and flour in a large bowl with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Roll out the subsequent dough into thin logs, and cut the logs into one inch chunks. Drop the gnocchi into boiling water and cook until they float: usually around two to three minutes, and serve tossed with butter or a sauce of your choice.
Other oven dishes include gratins and scalloped potatoes. Both of these foods involve slicing potatoes into thin pieces and layering them in a dish with milk or cream, butter, cheese, and bread crumbs. You can also try roasting waxy varieties by cutting them into loose chunks and tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Cover the roasting pan and slide it into a 375°F (191°C) oven for 30-40 minutes before pulling it out, uncovering it, and roasting for approximately 10 more minutes.
Mashed potatoes is another classic dish, made by boiling chunks of peeled potato and then mashing them with cream, butter, and salt. You can also use them to make champ, a traditional Irish dish with mashed potatoes and greens such as green onions or kale. Boiled potatoes can also be used in soups, and often appear as a soup base in dishes like potato leek soup and cream of potato soup. To make them for breakfast, many cooks parbroil a large pot full and keep them in the fridge, throwing a handful into a frying pan as needed.
On the stove top, potatoes are usually fried. They can be sliced into strips for French fries, or thin rounds for potato chips. Potatoes can also be grated and used to make hash browns, or mixed with egg, matzo flour, salt, pepper, and onions for pancakes or latkes. In addition, they can be mixed in with Indian style curries, added to breakfast burritos, or used to make potato salad, a classic summertime food.