With summery salad days decidedly behind us, and crisp, carb-loading nights ahead, home cooks naturally look to the vegetable kingdom; from king edward to royal blue … I am, of course, talking about ’taters!
If you’re a follower of international recipes, you’ll have noticed that the varieties called for in recipes from the likes of Nigel Slater and J. Kenji López-Alt will often be tricky to track down at the shops down under. But that doesn’t mean you should feel any less confident in cooking from their books.
Here’s how to translate international potato varieties.
Low starch (AKA “Waxy”)
These have loosely packed starch cells which bond together when cooked. They’re best when boiled or steamed for salads, soups, and casseroles.
US/UK varieties: Jersey Royals, cornish kings, charlotte, Ayrshire, anya
Australian varieties: “New” potatoes (true “new season” spuds will have such thin skins that they’ll peel off with a fingernail); chat/baby potatoes (smaller versions of the bigger ones that haven’t yet developed their starch levels); purple congo (literally purple – mix with other potatoes for flavour in a potato salad); white star
These have moderate starch levels, so they function as all-purpose potatoes. When in doubt, here’s where you live.
US/UK varieties: yukon gold, desiree, rooster, osprey, kestrel, elfe
Australian varieties: pontiac, coliban, kipfler, sebago, mozart, rodeo, Kestrel, golden delight, toolangi delight
These have densely packed starch cells which disperse when cooked, leading to dry, fluffy results. They’re best as roast potatoes, wedges, chips, fries, mash.
US/UK varieties: russet, burbank, king edward, maris piper, vivaldi
Australian varieties: dutch cream, king edward, carisma, royal blue, russet, burbank
The sticky spud test
But no matter what the spud is called, you might get a slightly different result, depending on its point in the season.
So, your best bet, before you start cooking is to give the sticky spud test a whirl. Cut the potato in half: the stronger it sticks to the flat of your knife, the starchier it is, and the more it’ll break down when cooked.
This test is particularly useful when you can’t find anything beyond “white” or “red”, “brushed” or “washed” at the supermarket. Once you know your spud’s starch content, you can pick the appropriate recipe accordingly.
Dodging dud spuds
“Potatoes bought at supermarkets often have little flavour,” opines Neil Perry, the man behind what may well be Australia’s most celebrated potato puree.
Australia grows a whopping 1.3m tonnes of potato a year, making it by far the country’s largest vegetable crop. About 80% of those potatoes are grown in the sandy soils of South Australia, where the loose soils help to prevent a mottled skin and make for easier washing and bagging, or processing into frozen fries and chips – which is where more than 60% of Australian potatoes end up.
That leaves less than 40% of potatoes fresh for us home cooks to squabble over. Many of these get bagged up with generic titles, because the growers and types vary depending on what’s cropped up when.
Potato grower Rob Cerchiaro of Red Gem based in Victoria describes a “beauty contest” mentality that really hurt the potato industry 20-25 years ago. That’s when washed potatoes were de rigueur.
Diet culture further damaged Australia’s offering, prompting growers to seek out “low-carb” varieties that looked great on paper, with less “dry-matter” (ie starch) but baked as hard as a rock, because (as per the table) it’s a potato’s starch that breaks down into fluff when heat is applied.
“If you want to go for taste and ability to cook, you’ve got to go with more of an all-round potato, leaning towards the higher dry matter, with better taste,” Cerchiaro says.
Richard Hawkes, a sixth-generation potato grower on the Mornington peninsula in Victoria, echoes these sentiments. “Someone comes up with a variety where it’ll sit washed and exposed on the shelves and yet it won’t go green for two weeks … needless to say it doesn’t actually taste that good.”
How to buy better
Having imported the desiree potato into the Australian market in the 80s, the Cerchiaro family have since gone on to crossbreed a red-skinned, yellow-fleshed varietal with better agronomics, known as mozart, which they supply to independent grocers, as well as to bigger players such as Harris Farm and Coles. Cerchiaro says his mozarts, when cooked “taste like they’re already buttered”.
“Cook it in foil, like a jacket potato, and when you cut it open, it’s full of flavour and richness already – you don’t need to add anything more to it.”
He notes that potato tastes are changing for the better. The pandemic pushed more people to seek out alternative avenues for supporting local growers, with online sales and veg box subscriptions sky-rocketing. Last year also saw a return to The Great Unwashed. “Prior to Covid, we’d seen a decline in the brushed potato market, because people saw washed as more convenient,” Cerchiaro says.
“However, in the last 16 months, there’s been a rise in brushed potato sales, because they’re seen as more sustainable. The potato keeps so well – particularly when brushed. Panic-buying meant a huge influx of people buying our product.”
Neil Perry believes the most important thing is to know where your potato is grown. “Here in Sydney, we use The Gourmet Potato, from Wentworth Hill. All of his potatoes are grown in nutrient-rich, regenerated soils; this is sustainable farming at its best. They are being constantly harvested so are fresh and dense.”
Hawkes agrees. “Buying from people who know their product or have interactions with the people who grow the product – if that’s a farmgate, farmers’ market or green-grocer is best.”
At Hawkes’ Farmgate in Boneo, people buy 5kg and 10kg of potatoes in reinforced paper bags, the varieties dependent on what’s seasonally available. “I just work with growers who have the same mindset, which is that it’s all about the product, and making sure that the product quality is maintained. There’re three other people that work with me in Vic, and then a few in Queensland and New South Wales.”
Hawkes says people “get used to” buying his spuds sight unseen. “We pack them twice a week, so we know what’s going in the bags … [Customers] don’t need to see what’s in there, because they’ve had a good experience already.”
“There’s a direct line to the person who’s growing it, so if the customer has a question and you can’t answer it, then we’ll get their number and give them a call back. It all comes back to connection.”
Neil Perry’s potato puree
Known for his exacting precision, Perry gives his suggestions for a creamy potato puree. “The reality is, it’s all about the flavour of the potato and the butter. Then the most important thing for a great puree is cooking the potatoes in the skin, peeling them hot, pushing through a ricer – not mashing.”
“Then you add warm milk, season with sea salt, stir in butter of high quality, cube by cube. White pepper next and then taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. For home, serve at this point. If we’re at the restaurant, we push it through a sieve again.”
He concludes: “When you eat a real, fresh potato, then you really see the joy they bring.”
Alice Zaslavsky’s mushroom-stuffed potato zrazy
The best way to describe zrazy (pronounced ZRAH-zii) is as an all-in-one rissole. It’s a genius combination of everything you’d pop on your plate for lunch or dinner, stuffed into a pan-fried, oblong-shaped parcel: mashed potatoes, crisp-crusted on the outside, filled with anything from sautéed cabbage to minced meat or, in this case, a mushroom duxelles (an intensely flavoured mushroom and onion mix).
This dish is Jewish-Lithuanian in origin, making its way across the Eastern bloc in hastily packed suitcases, until it was practically everywhere across the Soviet Union.
The name zrazy is plural – with a single one called a zraza. It supposedly refers to something getting “chopped up”, although growing up, I always assumed it referred to za raz (pronounced ZAH-rahz), which in Russian means “all-at-once” – exactly the way it was stuffed … into my mouth.
The sauce is Georgia’s answer to tomato salsa, made the traditional way before food processors came on the scene – using a box grater, with the very untraditional addition of harissa.
For the zrazy
2 cups (500g) cold mashed potato
1 egg yolk, beaten
⅔ cup (100g) plain gluten-free flour
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
For the duxelles
100g unsalted butter
400g mixed mushrooms, (preferably fresh shiitake and buttons), finely chopped
2 brown onions, finely chopped
1 tsp salt flakes
For the satsibeli
2 medium-sized tomatoes
½ white onion, peeled
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup coriander, stems and leaves finely chopped
2 tsp sherry vinegar
2 tsp harissa paste
½ tsp salt flakes
½ tsp caster sugar
1 tsp ground fenugreek
For the duxelles, melt the butter in a wide-based frying pan. Add the mushrooms and onion, sprinkle with the salt and cook them down in the butter over low heat for one hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is dark brown, dry and fragrant. Leave to cool, preferably overnight in the fridge.
When you’re ready to cook, combine the mashed potato with the egg yolk, flour and pepper in a bowl, then form into 10 equal-sized balls. Flatten into palm-sized discs, stuff with two teaspoons or so of the duxelles mixture, then fold the mash over to cover and shape into rissoles. Have a small bowl of water nearby to keep your palms damp and stop the mixture sticking to your hands.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Working in batches, fry three to four zrazy at a time over medium heat for about four minutes on each side, until golden and crispy all over. Allow to rest for a minute or so before serving.
For the satsibeli, grate the tomatoes, onion and garlic on the fine teeth of a box grater, then combine with the rest of the ingredients. Taste the mixture and adjust to your liking; it should be garlicky, sweet-sour and punch you a little bit in the nose.
The zrazy can be stored in the fridge for up to four days and served at room temperature with the satsibeli, or refried for a few minutes on each side over medium heat to warm through, if you’d prefer.
Alice Zaslavsky is culinary correspondent for ABC News Breakfast and ABC Radio nationally, and author of the ABIA award-winning cookbook In Praise of Veg
The potato zrazy recipe is an extract from In Praise of Veg, published by Murdoch Books and available now