Hello and Welcome to the beginning of a Special Event here at Kitchen Catastrophe! Today makes the start of our first THEME month! Yes, through all of September, we’re going to be making our way through Diner Month, where we’ll have recipes for stereotypical “diner” foods, discuss diner lingo, the history of diners, and much more! Today, though, we’re going to ease into it with a post that went through some mildly extensive rewrites in the last 10 minutes. So let’s talk about Homefries, and, by extension, the HISTORY OF THE POTATO AS A FOOD CROP.
How We Got Here
Originally, I was going to have this post be a two-for-one, covering both home fries, by which I mean cubed chunks of fried potato, and hash browns, grated strands of fried potato. You can see I was really giving this my all. Perhaps surprisingly, I ended up not doing that, because I’m EVEN LAZIER than that range of recipes implies.
Somehow, I walked out of the store certain I had bought 6 russet potatoes, to make two sets of breakfast tuber treats. When I went to actually start cooking, I discovered somehow, I now only had 4. Had I never had 6? Had someone used 2 of my potatoes without telling me? We may never know. So I made homefries, and then served it with biscuits and gravy, a phrase that is one of the best for showing the difference between British and American English. To a Brit, a “biscuit” is a small, often sweet baked good, often consumed with tea, comparable to an American “cookie”, and ‘gravy’ refers almost exclusively to brown gravy, a sauce made from meat drippings and roux. In America, a “biscuit” is a savory, flaky baked good, often eaten at breakfast, comparable to a British “scone”, and we have a form of gravy called Country Gravy, which is a sauce made from meat drippings, a roux, and MILK. (It also often includes cooked sausage meat, giving it its other name, sausage gravy)
Seen here. Kind of.
The result is comparable to English “beans on toast”: a salty and protein-rich topping on a warm starch. None of this is relevant to the potatoes, I just always love seeing British reactions to the phrase “biscuit and gravy”, since, to them, it would be like offering an American a breakfast of “cake and salsa”. And, I figured: “hey, I can still do a two-for-one, just do country gravy and Homefries!” I’ll just throw in some quick history on how home fries came to be, how they got their name, bingo bango, we’re on a roll!
Fun fact: do you know what happens when you Google “etymology of home fries”? You get a shit ton of results talking about French fries. You refine the search, and…there’s nothing. There’s ONE paragraph on Wikipedia, explaining that “home fries” are also called “house fries”, or “American Fries” in the UK (Oh, cool. We’re like France now!)
Somewhere, someone heard "We're like France now" and took it as a grave insult.
So, I went “Wait, what the hell is this? HOME FRIES. This isn’t hard, it’s served at like, every restaurant where coffee is a dollar!” And someone else went “Yeah, home fries are the BEST! You get the potatoes, the onions, the peppers!” “Yeah, see! Wait, What? No, those are fucking Potatoes O’Brien! Home fries are just potatoes!” And very quickly, I discovered I was standing on the edge of something remarkably tenuous. It turns out there’s a LOT of variation in what makes different kinds of "fries" and in discovering this, I found some real fun facts about potatoes. So, I said “screw that, the people HAVE TO KNOW!” And thus, today we’re covering Home Fries and the History of the Potato, with a focus on Europe and Frying. Buckle in.
A Potato A Day is a recipe for death in the Famine
Now, I’m certain you’re on the edge of your seat: “OH great, the history of the Potato in Europe! Now I have to sit through centuries of peasant stews and colcannon.” First off, colcannon was a weird recipe to shit talk there. Second, umm, no. See, Potatoes have only barely BEEN in Europe for “Centuries”. They’re a New World crop, coming from South America. I covered this back around St Patty’s Day. This is something that picky history nerds get real pissy about with films and books: if your depiction of medieval Europe has fucking potatoes in it, you’re real damn wrong. Potatoes were still fairly new to Europe when the United States declared Independence.
And their association with the French started around their as well! Real quick summary: in the mid 1500’s, the Spanish, while just ransacking South America, found some bitter little plants they called “truffles”. On the way home, they beat up a native on a RANDOM ISLAND THEY WERE PASSING (seriously, they found them in Colombia, and asked someone in HAITI. , who told them they were “batatas”, which they then fucked up into “patata”, and eventually became “potato”. They planted that shit in Spain and Italy, where it proceed to not fucking grow, because THAT’S NOT THE RIGHT CLIMATE, and it still sucked to eat. Over a couple hundred years, people eventually worked it out, and made them bigger and less bitter. And when I say “worked it out”, I mean ‘Decided these weren’t causing leprosy, and/or a forgotten accident by God”, because those were both literal things people believed for a time. (See, the Bible doesn’t MENTION potatoes. So are they clean, unclean? We don’t know!)
"We may never know. I was busy telling people they couldn't eat owls. Or maybe ostriches. They were the same word back then."
The leprosy thing was an official ruling by French Parliament in 1748: stop growing potatoes, they’re fucking killing everybody! Except, well, this dude showed up. This dude was Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, and as you can probably guess by him having a full three names, he killed a President. Wait, no, shit, the other one: He’s a real big deal in Food circles. Weird overlap.
Parmentier was a French Army Medical Officer, who happened to lose a battle some time around 1758, and have to spend some time in a prison camp in Prussia. Prussia, at the time, occupied Belgium. And Belgium had recently started doing a weird thing with potatoes: they were cutting them thin, and frying them in oil, to substitute for fish during the winter. In his Prussian Camp, Parmentier was forced to grow and eat potatoes, and went, “Hey, not only are these not giving me Leprosy, they’re pretty damn good!”
Parmentier would go on to be, as they said back in the day “The cat’s pajamas”. After leaving the army, he became SUPER into Potatoes, inventing potato bread. But his best stunt was he grew a huge patch of potatoes, and hired armed guards to stop people from stealing them. He then told the guards: “If anyone bribes you, take the money, and let them in”, and refused to post said guards at night, so everyone started stealing his oh-so-valuable potatoes. The dude Tom Sawyer’ed France into loving potatoes! He held fancy dinners with people like Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, called “The Father of Modern Chemistry”. He sent bouquets of potato blossoms to the King and Queen. He later became the Director of Health Services under Napoleon, instituted the first mandatory Smallpox vaccine, invented the way to extract sugar from beets, headed the first research into modern refrigeration, and generally may have been a food-obsessed time Traveler.
"Yes, and it is all thanks to my good amis, the Wyld Stallyns! Party on, Dudes!"
Thomas Jefferson, while President in 1802, would go on to have the White House chef prepare “Potatoes in the French style” (namely “potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings.”) for a state dinner. “French Fries” had arrived.
Home is Where your Heart (Attack) is
So, that’s the history of French fries, so Home fries has to be pretty easy to figure out, right? No. Because that’s where the trail ends. From that point, every collapses or explodes. England starts distinguishing between “fries” (small, very crunchy) and “chips” (larger, more potatoey). Everything becomes “_______ Fried Potatoes”. But eventually, I think I’ve got it: there’s a dish called “cottage fries”. Looks like typically wide slices of potatoes, but sometimes chunks, fried. HAHA! I have it. England makes “cottage fries”, and America turns it into “home fries”. Easy money!
"Home fries", as a phrase, first starts appearing somewhere around the 1951. "Cottage Fries" appeared around... the 1960’s. Damn it, I had the order of infection backwards. In the end, there was only one explanation that I found that really made any sense, and it has to do, of course, with French fries.
I wish I could quit you.
See, French Fries are, as Thomas Jefferson himself noted, 215 years ago, deep-fried. That’s…not an easy thing to do in one’s home. It’s arguably a little riskier now than in Jefferson’s day, when the oil would have been hung in a heavy pot over a fire, a position fairly difficult to knock over or unbalance. And, since laws regarding waste disposal were laxer back then, you could just throw the pot of oil into the street when you were done. Nowadays, French Fries are hard to make at home. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fried potatoes, oh no. Just fry them shallowly. Toss a small bit of oil in a skillet, and cook until the outsides are crunchy. Boom, fries in your home. Sure, they may not look the same, but hey, you wanna try tossing and stirring a skillet full of French fry strips, and see how long they hold up? Sacrifices have to be made. And the Home Fry is the result.
When You Wish for Steak Tartare
With that hysterical history out of the way, let’s get to the actual recipe, and how I screwed it up. Because, again, this recipe is basically “fry potatoes”, so of course I somehow botched it. Because I become less competent the simpler the task is.
First, though, a shout-out to my source: the recipe I used for this one comes from Chef John of Food Wishes, a blog and Youtube channel. Chef John is a California chef with a penchant for cayenne, and a fun almost sing-song presentation. That, and all his videos are like 4-8 minutes long. He’s really nailing the Youtube food vid format.
Now, the common knowledge of home fries, consulting multiple sources, is fairly simple: you gotta cook them before you cook them. Namely, before you fry the potatoes, you gotta do something else, in order to get the proper inner texture.
That something else looks ominous without explanation.
America’s Test Kitchen says parboil them, some places steam them, but Chef John said “Why not just toss them in a microwave for a couple minutes?”, a question I was duty bound to answer with “Yeah, okay”. As we noted at the start, laziness is effectively my raison d’etre.
But first, you do have to do some work, namely, you gotta peel all three potatoes, and then cut them into quarters. Just cut the potato in half, and then half the halves. My potatoes were pretty big, so I made half-quarters. Really quick, before we move on, remember how in cartoons and TV for decades “peeling potatoes” was the default punishment whenever a military recruit screwed up? Turns out it hasn’t been a punishment duty since like, the 70’s. In Russia, it was never a punishment duty, instead being a reward: yeah, peeling potatoes might be boring, but it’s almost certainly easier, and the kitchen warmer, than whatever you were SUPPOSED to be doing.
Speaking of, wasn't I supposed to be doing something?
Toss all those quarters on a plate (I had to stack a few of mine) and microwave around 4 minutes. Just enough time to get them barely done. Then, you let them cool down, and this is where I made several mistakes, in rather rapid order. First: I just tossed the cooked quarters in a tub into the fridge. Because I actually started these Thursday night, and then we decided to have them Friday morning, so I was HOURS ahead of schedule. And chilling the potatoes is a fine idea: supposedly, the colder the potatoes, the better the crust! Except you’re supposed to cut the quarters DOWN first, a fact I forgot until literally 1 AM. I was in bed, and thought “Wait, if I’m doing this for crust, shouldn’t I have more potato exposed?”
Then, as I mentioned, I just tossed the potatoes in the fridge. No cover. Which meant they were open to the air. And cut potatoes open to the air have a signature move: immediately turn brown and black. This is a harmless reaction: the brown potatoes won’t hurt you in any way, they’re just visually unappealing. (Just like me! HaHA! …FUCK.) To stop more browning, however, I decided to cover the potatoes with water, to prevent the reaction.
Spud a dub dub, just relaxing in the tub
This did the job I wanted just fine. However, It ALSO meant the potatoes were super wet when it came time to cook them, turning a “15 minutes to dark brown” process into “after 25 minutes, I gave up”. Well, “gave up” isn’t the best phrase, as I had functional home fries. My mother had actually declared them done 5-6 minutes before I said “eh, good enough.” I just felt I could have gone longer, and gotten better fries.
But you know what? Other than doubling the cooking time, they turned out perfectly fine! Crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, a perfect little home fry. You toss them with a couple spices to add some flavor (and, in the case of paprika, a little more color so they look more “done”.), and serve them up hot. And you’ve got a fried little breakfast treat fit for an 1802 White House dinner!
THURSDAY: THE HISTORY OF THE DINER!
NEXT MONDAY: MAKE YOUR STEAK LIKE CHICKEN, AND YOUR GRAVY LIKE A PIG. CHICKEN FRIED STEAK AND COUTRY GRAVY!
3 Russet potatoes, halved and then quartered
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt & pepper
¼ tsp Garlic powder
¼ tsp Paprika.
(really, just play the spices by ear.)
1. Microwave the potato quarters on a plate for about 4 minutes. Let cool, and cut into 6 pieces. Let cool completely, potentially chilling briefly.
2. Heat butter and olive oil over medium high heat until butter begins to brown. Add potatoes, and cook without stirring for 4 minutes to form a strong initial crust. While cooking, add spices. After 4 minutes, toss potatoes, and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until crispy and to your desired outer doneness. Serve hot.