Niki Segnit has a bag of potatoes in her car. Or at least she did when she wrote The Taste Thesaurus† She explains that although her flat was small, her trunk was dark and cool in the pantry, making it ideal for storing both potatoes and onions. It is typical of Segnit to tell such a vivid story, impossible for the reader not to imagine running out of her front door into the dark street, possibly in slippers, opening the trunk and rummaging in a sack to fetch an apron full of potatoes for mash.
Segnit’s story reminds me of mine: I was sent to get potatoes from the thick paper bag that was always in the shade, and how sticking my arm into the black hole was a sickening sensation. After all, potatoes live until you peel them.
I feel rich and safe when we have a sack of potatoes. My old neighbor Vera thought they were best cooked unpeeled and whole; that way they don’t get soggy. If you want to have them peeled, it’s easy to do once they’ve cooled down enough to handle. Or avoid peeling them altogether by simply pressing them through a potato press, which does the separating for you and also gives you an airy mash.
Vera also believed in cooking too many potatoes, so you’re ready for the next day too. (That leftover bread also needs to be broken into pieces, baked in a low oven until crisp, wrapped in cloth and beaten into crumbs with a rolling pin. I’m not very good at remembering to do this, so I’m happy that the local bakery sells bags of crumbs.)
You’ll need both potatoes and crumbs for this week’s recipe, which resembles a Neapolitan gattò – that is, mashed potatoes spiked with eggs, butter, and grated cheese, then sandwiched around a filling and finished with breadcrumbs. While the Neapolitan filling is cheese? †provola or scamorza) and salami, this version, from the instep of Italy, Basilicatahas a tender layer of cooked onion, tomato and, if desired, olives and/or capers that brighten up the whole.
While this doesn’t require anything extra, buttered peas or spring vegetables are always welcome, and if you want something a little more hearty, add some bacon or sausage and a salad afterward. Don’t forget that you are also ready for the next day and to keep crumbs in the fridge or freezer, and potatoes in a dark place…or a trunk.
Baking potato, onion and tomato
As with gattò or lasagna, a short rest before serving is a good idea. The flavors settle and the potato stiffens a bit, meaning it can be served in what I consider to be soft slices.
Preparation 15 minutes
Cook 1 hour
1.2 kg potatoes
Salt and black pepper
50 g butter
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan
Milk (but only if necessary)
2 onionspeeled and cut into half moons
400 g tomatoescoarsely chopped
black olives or capers (optional)
In a large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water, add salt and bring to a boil. Bring to a boil, cook until the tip of a knife is tender, drain and let cool slightly. Run the potatoes through a rice machine or grinder into a large bowl (or peel and mash in a large bowl), then add the butter, egg yolk, cheese and season to taste – consistency should be soft rather than stiff. When stiff, add a little milk, but gently; it shouldn’t be messy.
In a frying pan, sauté the onion in olive oil until it starts to soften, then add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until soft and delicious. Add the olives and capers, if using.
Butter a large baking dish and dust with fine breadcrumbs. Press half of the potato mixture into the bottom of the dish. Spread over the onion-tomato mixture. Cover with the rest of the potato and sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake at 180C (160C Fan)/350F/Gas 4 for 30-40 minutes, or until top is golden brown and crispy.