Whether boiled, baked, fried, steamed, roasted or mashed, potatoes are a useful vegetable. And although chefs are continually creating new recipes and ways to use this starchy tuber, foodservice operators know that the old standard dishes are difficult to replace.
Tried and true: “We use all kinds of potatoes in the usual traditional ways,” says Mary Tyson, food and nutrition services director at St. Petersburg (Fla.) General Hospital. “We use instant, fresh, canned, small whole and sliced. Everybody loves potatoes—french fries, hash browns, red potatoes with onions and peppers, scalloped potatoes. They are definitely a healthy option. The potato itself is very healthy, but you have to watch how you cook it and what you put on it.”
Even in colleges, where students insist on diversity, the standards are still in demand when it comes to potatoes. Robert Landolphi, manager of culinary development at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, recalls students “rebelling” one time when Dining Services decided to discontinue serving regular mashed potatoes. Still, he adds, “College food has to be served all different ways. The kids like spice and flavor. One interesting dish we make is potato shell taco pie. We make mashed potatoes with taco seasoning, spray a hotel pan, and layer the potatoes, seasoned sautéed beef, onions and cheese. We bake it for about a half hour and it comes out like a version of shepherd’s pie but with the potatoes on the bottom. It’s a real comfort food and the students love it.”
At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, potatoes prepared for patient meals and those made for cafeteria service can receive two completely different treatments.
“We use a lot of potatoes, not many different kinds, but for our regular mashed potatoes for patients we add no salt and no butter to address the high blood pressure and cholesterol situation,” says Executive Chef Gabriel Gomez. “We’ll do whole baby potatoes, steamed or baked white potatoes for special diets. We keep it bland, some herbs, maybe with olive oil.”
In the cafeteria, Gomez offers roasted russet potatoes with fresh garlic and olive oil. He also serves roasted garlic mashed potatoes and uses a lot of bacon to complement his dishes.
“We make potato casseroles where we slice the potatoes and repeat layers of mozzarella cheese and a creamy butter sauce, fanning the potatoes on each layer,” he says. “We also find places for potatoes in soups, like potato leek soup, and salads. For special events we make potato pancakes.”
Convenience rules: In higher volume settings, convenience products such as tater tots and pre-shredded hash browns often help make production run more smoothly. But operators don’t shy away from fresh.
“Depending on the application, because we’re a high-volume operation, the use of convenience items is essential for things like hash browns and tots,” notes Greg Fried, executive chef at W.P. Forbes Hospital in Monroeville, Pa., “but our mashed potatoes and soups are always made fresh. We do a lot of different mashed varieties, like garlic, bacon and sour cream, cheddar, even wasabi.”
Fried says he keeps powdered instant potatoes on hand but only for emergencies. For special events, Fried will sometimes make fresh potato chips, even though they are labor-intensive.
“We slice them on the slicer, hold them in water, put them in the fryer and flip them like baseball cards,” he says. “We use a light salt seasoning, but you can use any spice profile. It’s a lot of work, but they’re good; they’re worth it.”
In elementary and secondary schools, however, convenience is very important. For example, in the Wayzata School District in Minneapolis, Culinary Express Supervisor Mary Anderson says her department uses a frozen mash that goes over extremely well.
“We use a garlic mash and a skin-on mash, all frozen, that are very popular,” she says. “We also do fresh-diced oven-roasted red potato with olive oil and rosemary.”
Wayzata features potato bars with the usual toppings and oven fries for a healthier option.
“We combine fresh potatoes, sweet potato chunks, onions and parsnips into what we call a parsnip oven-roasted mix,” she says. “Baked at a really high temperature, like 450°F, it comes out crispy and delicious.”
Potato bars remain popular in a variety of settings, including school foodservice departments like River Road ISD in Amarillo, Texas, where Kim Terry is the foodservice director. Terry says her staff offers a very popular baked potato bar with toppings that include cheese, ham, chili, sour cream and butter.
“To go with meatloaf or Salisbury steak, we make potatoes au gratin,” she adds. “Consistency is key, especially when you have different campuses. We use a mix for the au gratin. It’s convenient and consistent and it’s still meat and potatoes.”
Healthy options: Although high in carbohydrates, potatoes are still loaded with nutrients, which make them favored on healthful menus.
“We make a nice roasted potato, redskin or sweet, seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, freshly minced rosemary, kosher salt and cracked black pepper,” says Tim Fetter, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services at Highmark in Pittsburgh. “On our healthy catering menu, we offer new potatoes or white chef potatoes with no-fry options. We call them our home fries. We blanch them, season with salt, pepper and paprika and finish them in the oven. The paprika gives them the color we’re looking for. The potato is obviously resilient and a popular item in our neck of the woods. When in season, we shop locally to support the economy.”
As the emphasis on healthful eating has grown, potatoes have been supplanted in some operations by brown rice and other exotic grains. At Stanford Hospital and Clinics in California, Executive Chef Beni Velazquez says a shift to organic might help bring potatoes back in favor.
“We are in the process of turning our hospital into offering completely organic, local and sustainable, the first hospital to do this,” says Velazquez. “We use organic bakers and red bliss. For mashed, we order from a local creamery for organic heavy cream and butter and we use sea salt.
“Right now, brown rice is kicking butt,” he notes. “We’re going into organic potatoes in hopes that the interest will increase.”
Along with roasted red bliss potatoes, seasoned with olive oil, sea salt, fresh basil and oregano, Velazquez serves an au gratin dish with sustainable cheeses and fresh organic herbs.
“We also do veggie lasagna with a potato crust,” he says. “We grate raw potatoes and add bread crumbs, herbs, cheese and heavy cream. You pour that mixture over the top of layered vegetables and bake it, giving it a nice crust on top. The cheese and the starch of the potatoes get into the veggies, making the whole thing firm so that you can cut it into squares.”
Chef Ahmed Shazly, dining room manager at San Diego State University, has created a tofu potato hash.
“I sauté some shallots, garlic and onions and caramelize them,” he says. “Then I steam and cool some diced russet potatoes with the skins on. I cut fresh spinach and basil chiffon. Then I dice tofu, dust with corn starch and deep-fry it. I add salt, pepper and fresh coriander and sauté it all together with the herbs, the tofu and the potatoes.” Shazly says he uses the hash as a breakfast side or as a light vegetarian dish.
Getting creative: David McHugh, executive chef for San Diego State University Dining Services, adds that potatoes are being featured on campus in much more than hash. “We have been doing several different things with potatoes lately,” says McHugh. “We feature a mashtini bar that includes whipped potatoes with Irish butter, Yukon gold potatoes, redskin potatoes with tarragon and Peruvian purple potatoes. The high-end potato action station has been a great success.”
Toppings at the station include caramelized shallots; wild mushroom ragoût with shiitake, porcini and crimini and Cognac; poached lemon shrimp; thick hickory maple slab
bacon; and aged white Vermont cheddar. Bo Cleveland, executive chef at Middlebury College in Vermont, is another chef exploring new potato varieties
“We’ve recently discovered some purple organic potatoes, which usually never retain their color, but these were spectacular,” Cleveland says. “We also started making samosas. It’s a snack from India with a curried potato filling and a pastry shell exterior to deep-fry fry. We bake ours with a little olive oil brushed on to keep it lighter.”
At Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Chef Spencer Tan says he has taken a shine to Okinawan potatoes, which are purple and a little sweeter than other types of potatoes.
“They are very popular,” says Tan. “I like to mash them. Sometimes I mix purple and yellow for a nice color. It’s very healthy with antioxidants, a lot of fiber and B vitamins.”
For VIP guests, Tan offers a signature item using a russet potato for its color.
“I call it the potato pear croquette,” he says. “I mash the potatoes with Parmesan cheese, milk and butter and make pear shapes. After coating them with flour, egg and bread crumbs, I deep-fry them. When they’re done I stand them up and put a bay leaf and a clove on top to make it look like the stem. The people say, ‘Oh, wow, it’s a pear.’ No, it’s a potato.’”