Most people don't equate potatoes with Italian cooking. And while it is true that potatoes are not as pervasive in Italian cooking as they are in other European cuisines, they are, nonetheless, quite popular all the way from Sicily to the Alps. A favorite Italian contorno di patate is the simple roasted potato.
Did I mention that I love potatoes? This, of course, includes the simple roasted potato. As a cook, one of the reasons I love this dish so much is precisely because it is so simple. As a potato aficionado, I love this dish for its delicious flavors and interesting textural contrasts.
Now, before I delve into the nuts and bolts of the recipe – and there aren't many to delve into – let's talk briefly about potatoes.
Idahoan Luther Burbank developed the most ubiquitous variety of potato, and it bears his name; the Russet Burbank Potato. Most folks, myself included, just call them “russets.” Some call them “Idahoes,” some just refer to them functionally as baking or all-purpose potatoes, the latter being something of a misnomer because they really aren't good for all purposes. Russets are a high-starch, low-moisture potato. This makes them perfect for baking and mashing and other applications where a light, fluffy texture is desired. They also make great French fries. But they don't hold up as well in long-cooking dishes like soups and stews, where they tend to lose their shapes and fall apart. Used for roasting, they hold up well enough, but become rather dry on the inside and they don't brown particularly well on the outside.
The same is true of medium-starch varieties like the Yukon Gold, the Yellow Finn, or the Kennebec. Lower in starch, these varieties are also considered “all-purpose” potatoes, but suffer the same limitations as their starchier cousins when subjected to boiling, roasting, or similar long-cooking techniques.
Low-starch, high-moisture potatoes are best for dishes that call for boiling or roasting. They hold together well and, in the case of roasting, produce a nice, light crust on the outside while maintaining a solid, dense interior that retains all its rich and complex flavors. Red Bliss, new, white rose, and fingerling potatoes are among the varieties that fall into this category.
As to the recipe – well, I mentioned that I have dozens of potato recipes. Up until recently I had six just for basic roasted potatoes, including one written entirely in Italian. These recipes were all variations on the same theme and all were comprised of the same basic ingredients and techniques, including a parboiling step for the potatoes. Then I discovered a recipe perfected by the “Cook's Illustrated” folks at America's Test Kitchen that absolutely wowed me into discarding all the other recipes. The “wow” factor came in the elimination of the parboiling.
Now, there's nothing wrong with parboiling and if you still want to do it, go right ahead. When the finished product comes out of the oven, it will have the desired soft, dense, moist, flavorful interior. But the test kitchen wizards discovered that covering the potatoes with foil for a portion of their roasting time causes them to steam in their own moisture, producing the same delicious results but eliminating one time-consuming step.
So here's my new favorite roasted potato recipe, as found in the pages of “Cook's Illustrated” with a couple of variations on my part. It's so simple, you'll love it, too.
ROASTED POTATOES(Patate Arrosto)
2 pounds Red Bliss or other low-starch potatoes, scrubbed, dried, halved, and cut into 3 /4-inch wedges. (Unless the potatoes are very small, in which case you should just halve them.)3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of dried thyme, to taste
Place the oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425°.
Add the olive oil to a medium to large bowl, add the potatoes and toss to coat. Generously season with salt, pepper, and thyme and toss again to blend.
Place the potatoes, cut sides down, in a single layer on a shallow roasting pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to roast until the sides touching the pan are golden brown, about 10 or 15 minutes more. Gently turn the potatoes so the other cut side is touching the pan and roast another 5 or 10 minutes, or until the cut sides are golden brown and the skin side is lightly wrinkled. (If you are using small halves instead of wedges, just turn them cut side up for the final 5 or 10 minutes.)
Transfer to a serving dish and serve hot or warm.
A nice variation from “Cook's” calls for making a paste from two minced garlic cloves and an eighth-teaspoon of salt, putting the paste in a bowl and tossing the finished potatoes in it before serving.
Another variation involves cooking up and crumbling some bacon, adding some of the bacon drippings to the roasting pan before layering in the potatoes, and then toppping the potatoes with the crumbled bacon, some crushed or finely-minced garlic, some finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano and a little parsley for the final 10 minutes of cooking. It makes for a nice dish with an interesting flavor profile, but it's a little more complicated. And the bacon, garlic, and cheese flavors may not “go” with everything.