The potato came from the Indians of the South American Andes who had cultivated it for centuries. The Spanish acquired an appreciation for the versatile tuber as they plundered South America and introduced it into Spanish agriculture and cuisine. They also kept massive quantities in their ships for consumption by the sailors. After the crushing of the Spanish Armada by the British in 1588 a good many potatoes were washed ashore in Ireland and the English coast, where they became popular crops and spread into the rest of Europe. The shredding of the Irish Catholic estates into small holdings by the Cromwellian English Protestant’s harsh laws engendered much hatred for Protestants among the Irish. These small holdings could not produce the volume that the large estates could. Also there was constant warfare that destroyed above ground crops. Both these factors encouraged the Irish to begin using the potato as their staple food. Potatoes were enough to feed the populous and allow it to grow beyond what the land would normally have supported.
In the period 1845 – 1849, the potato crop failed repeatedly. It is thought that the potato blight originated in South America. This was what is known as the Great Hunger, or An Drochshaol in Gaelic. Also known as the Great Irish Famine – An Gorta Mór. More than a million Irish died from starvation or starvation related diseases. There were also around a million refugees to other countries, among them the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England. (A boatload of Southerners have Irish blood. Including me). Interestingly enough, Ireland remained a net exporter of food during the famines. This also did not endear the absentee English landowners to the Irish.
This completely devastated the population of Ireland and it took until the 21st Century to recover to normal population density. During the famine, the government of Britain was mostly ineffectual in dealing with the situation. There were many relief organizations which tried to help, including the Quakers. Most of these organizations were Protestant and unfortunately used the relief operations as a vehicle for heavy-handed proselytizing. This also includes the Quakers, although they were probably the least poisonous of the lot. Somehow it should come as no shock that this further inflamed the Irish Catholic loathing of Protestants.
Anyway, on to happier things, like how to cook a really good potato dish. This is the origin of something near and dear to every Southerner. See, we have this thing called a Waffle House. The very first Waffle House was started in 1955 right down the road in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates, on East College Avenue. It has grown to 1500 stores in 25 states. They serve the most coffee, t-bones, eggs, and a whole load of other things of anyone else in the world. Anyway, one of the things that they have on the menu is hash-browns. With all kinds of toppings and fillings. Some are wonderful. Some are disgusting. Some are purely mind-boggling.
Anyway, the original Waffle House hash-brown is actually a Swiss dish called a Rösti. American hash-browns were just chopped potatoes like every other fried chopped potatoes in the world. I don’t know if the Waffle House people knew about Rösti’s or came up with their version on their own, but both are from shredded potatoes, not chopped. Makes a big difference. This started out as a breakfast on the Swiss farms. Just plain boiled, shredded, and fried potatoes. Sometimes the farmers would just dunk the Rösti in their coffee. As the tasty marvel got gussied up, it was elevated to side dish status. BTW – Rösti just means roasted potato cake.
This is a whole lot easier if you have a Kitchen Aid mixer with the shredder attachment. If not, use your food processor with the shredder blade. OK, take your favorite potato and just shred it up. Should look like short, fat strings. Oh, I do leave the skin on. I like potato skins. Lots of flavor and most of the nutrients. Shave yours if you don’t. Russets or any decent baking potato is what’s on the recommended list. I like Yukon Golds as well. The Swiss originally used boiling potatoes, shredded them and then did the frying. Boil the spuds until about ¾ done, preferably the day before. You know the drill: potatoes in a pan with cold water and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes or so, drain and cool. You just want them barely fork tender. Keep them in the fridge and shred (or coarse grate) them just before cooking. Add some salt and pepper and kind of press the thing down in a small, hot frying pan with olive oil and butter. Cook over medium heat to medium low heat for somewhere around 7 to 15 minutes, depending on skillet size. For a 4 people Rösti as a side dish, use a skillet around 9”. For one or two people, a 6” skillet works fine. Get it golden brown, be careful not to burn it. Longer and slower cooking is usually better than hotter and faster. Loosen around the edges, then place an upside down plate over it and invert to drop the whole thing out onto the plate. Add more butter and olive oil, when it is hot ease the Rösti back in and cook until the other side is golden. There you have a basic Rösti.
Now the Swiss usually add some grated onion into the mix before cooking. There is something magical about potatoes, onions, olive oil and butter. Garnish with sour cream and some chives or green onions. This is delicious. You can also do up a batch of sweet whipped cream for a dessert experience.
The Waffle House crew, with customer collusion, has come up with some good old Southern USA variations. They add onion, cheese, chili, ham, peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes in any and all combinations.
The more European flavors would include various herbs, garlic, bacon, veal braised in a good white wine, vegetables, sausages, or apples. Just chop things up and add them to the mix. Whatever seems good. Herb-wise chopped sweet basil, dill, or crushed rosemary come to mind. Do use fresh herbs.
Mostly every culture that has ever seen a potato has come up with some variation on the potato cake. Most of them start with mashed potatoes. I find the taste in the shredded Rösti varieties far superior.
Herself Sez: During the Nativity Fast, you can make these with only canola oil or, on “wine and oil” days, just olive oil. Doesn’t have the robust flavor you get when it’s cooked with a mix of olive oil and butter, but they are still crispy and quite good.
And you can still dip them in your coffee if you want to.