In cooking there are a lot of dishes that appear to be extremely simple but which can actually prove to be very tricky. Amongst those that I'm aware of having this reputation are omelette and fried potatoes.
Take fried potatoes; it's very simple because it's all there in the name of the dish: you take potatoes and you fry them, full stop. What's so difficult about that? Well, it's all a matter of how you do it. If you get it wrong, you end up with what my Uncle Pierre called “purée grillée” (fried purée).*
How can anyone get it wrong? Very easily! You only need to treat it like almost anything else you fry in a pan, and stir the potatoes regularly so that they fry on all sides. This is done with the best of intentions, but alas, if you do this as the potatoes brown and cook – and it's even worse if you have sliced them – they become fragile and break up into smaller and smaller pieces, and you soon have my uncle's famous fried purée.
The aforementioned Uncle Pierre is quite a character, a great self-taught cook who had his own restaurant for many years in the Auvergne. He is larger than life, a great bearded chap with a flamboyant mop of hair, very endearing and a god in the kitchen. Unfortunately, less gifted as a manager than as a cook. I have fond memories of my teenage holidays staying with him, and if I have one regret, it's that I was not as passionate about cooking back then when he was a chef; I'd have been nosing around in his kitchen the whole time…
Whenever Pierre was faced with a young cook looking for a job or training, he liked to ask, “So, what do you know how to do?” (It must be said that Uncle didn't set much score by diplomas and the like) and once the extensive litany of dishes had been reeled off, he would say, “Fine, go on then. Make me some fried potatoes”. Most of the time the youngster, laughing up his sleeve and taking the request as just the whim of an old has-been, would set to work and produce… a fried purée.
I can just imagine my uncle leaving the kitchen with a smile on his face as he went down to the cellar to fetch the appropriate bottle to toast the imminent catastrophe.
This is not just something my uncle did, but a sort of cook's challenge. I once heard Joël Robuchon on television saying that during his time as a chef he often judged discreet omelette or fried potato competitions between cooks.
So, how can you be sure of ending up with proper fried potatoes? Bah – it's actually quite easy: first cover the pan and don't touch it for at least 40 minutes. It's hard to resist, but that's the secret. The more you stir, the more the potatoes break up. Once they're nice and golden brown on the bottom, then – and only then – you can start to turn them over gently to cook on the other side.
This is what Uncle Pierre taught me, and I'll allow myself to add this as well: don't add salt straight away, as this tends to make them stick to the pan, which only makes things more difficult.
For more information and details, see the recipe for fried potatoes
[Translator's note: fried mashed potato (and its variant “bubble and squeak”) is a fine old traditional British dish in its own right, but involves a rather different method. Jean-Hugues has been informed!]
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