Potatoes are great. Everyone seems to have a story about them. I can still remember a girl stumbling into a freshman year dorm with 20lbs of them, saying how her food budget was down to $10 and potatoes were the cheapest thing in the grocery store. “No one has been this dependent on cheap potatoes since the Irish Potato Famine!” Another friend of mine is sentimentally attached to the cheese grater he made hash browns with.
There are a ton of varieties, from the large brown russet potatoes, to tiny colorful fingerlings. They can be peeled, chopped, diced, shredded, baked, fried, steamed, boiled, used as a main event or a side; there are few people who simply don't like them. Their versatility, price, and easy storage make them perfect for someone on a budget or in a hurry.
A few notes:
- Storage: potatoes can just be left out at room temperature, but no real harm will come to them in the fridge
- If they start growing little tubey bits, they're still okay for a little while as long as they're firm, but scrape/peel those off before you use them
- They should pretty much always be salted. Not so much that you can taste it, but enough that they release their juices for a fuller, more bodied flavor.
- Yes, the peels are edible, it's just a matter of preference.
The Baked Potato
Ingredient: Russet potato (this is the big brown one. Like Mr. Potato head)
Toppings (none of these are required, and feel free to add anything else that strikes your fancy):
Salt, pepper, butter, cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, minced onion, chives, parsley.
There are 2 ways to make a baked potato: the oven and the microwave. In case you haven't heard the back and forth on which is better, let me catch you up--
“The oven way tastes so much better...”
“But I'm hungry now.”
That pretty much sums up the pros and cons of both. Either way you need to stab the potato 2 or 3 times with a fork, this lets steam escape as it cooks. If the steam gets trapped inside eventually the pressure will build and the potato may burst. You don't want that. Trust me.
Oven method: Bake at 400 degrees (anywhere between 350 and 450 is fine if you're cooking something else at the same time) for 45 mins to an hour. You'll know it's done when you can poke it with a fork and its soft all the way to the center.
Microwave method: microwave for 1-3 mins depending on how strong your microwave is, and how big the potato in question is. You'll know it's done when you can poke it with a fork and its soft all the way to the center.
The easiest way to make these is with an electric mixer, if you have one. That said, you use them very rarely in the kitchen unless you use a lot of baking (that means cooking dessert). There are some that cost around $10, if you really want smooth, whipped mashed potatoes fast, but you could make an entire shepherd's pie with that money, so maybe just mash them the old fashioned way.
I will give you proportions based on 4, average sized russet potatoes, but once you feel comfortable you can change it up. Use some red bliss potatoes, or make sweet potato mash. The idea is still the same, and it's still remarkably cheap.
4 russet potatoes
1/3 - ½ cup milk (whatever fat content you already have)
2-3 Tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
Why are the ingredients not precise?
2 reasons: the exact amount to make consistent mashed potatoes will vary by the size of the potato you use, and because everyone's tastes are a little different.
- Put a pot of water with a pinch or 2 of salt (less than ocean) on the stove to boil. Note: it will boil faster covered
- Peel 4 russet potatoes (you can use a pairing knife, or a peeler), cut them in half so that you have 2 short pieces (make it less of an oval and more of a sphere than it was before) then cut those pieces in half again.
- Put the potato pieces in the boiling water for 20-25 minutes. When you poke them with a fork they should break apart a little.
- Use a slotted spoon to take them out of the water and put them in a bowl. (if you want one less dish to wash, put the potatoes on the plate you're going to eat off, pour out the water from the pot, then put them back into the pot.
- Using a whisk if you have one, and a fork if not, mash the potatoes (I know, the title is kind of a spoiler alert...). There is no fancy or formal technique you need here, just smush them: if you like lumps you can mash them less thoroughly. Once they are nearly as soft as you want them to be, add the milk, butter, and salt/pepper. The butter will melt into the potatoes as long as they're still warm, if not you can melt the butter in the microwave first. The proportions above will work, but you can absolutely start with less, or add more, depending on how you like it-- the advantage to cooking at home is everything can be custom made to your taste!
**Sidenote: to dress them up a bit add 1-2 Tablespoons of minced (cut very fine) parsley, chives, or a combination of the 2. This will add flavor and color, but it's not really worth buying herbs specifically for this. If you will be using them for something else within 3-4 days of when you are making this, feel free to use up the extras.
Shepherd's pie is great. (How great? you ask, well I bothered learning to spell shepherd correctly, I've had so many conversations about it lately, so probably pretty legit.) The single dish has protein, vegetables, and carbs all at once. It takes 30-40 minutes of effort to make, and will make 4-6 servings. If you have 2 baking dishes, and a big enough frying pan you could also make 2 for 5 extra minutes' work, and freeze one. (tip: you can buy disposable metal baking pans pretty cheap, if you want reserves in the freezer but also want to be able to use your pan.) I made this for under $10, depending on the price of meat at your grocery store it will go up or down a little. (tip: when ground beef is on sale it is a good idea to buy a few pounds and freeze them.)
2 lbs ground beef
1 bag frozen veggies (anything cut small)
1 serving mashed potatoes (recipe above)
- Preheat the oven to 375. The quickest way to do this is to start with making the mashed potatoes. While they are boiling you can do the rest. Take the veggies out of the freezer now, too, and leave them on the counter.
- Dice one onion. First cut off the top and bottom. Then stand it up on one of the flat sides you just made, and cut it in half. The peel will be easy to remove, and you'll be left with 2 halves that lie flat (far left.) Slice all the way in one direction, holding it's original shape as best you can (middle), then turn the onion, or entire cutting board 90 degrees, and cut in the other direction (far right.)
- Put a little oil (if you're uncertain, about a cap-full will do nicely) in your frying pan, and turn on a medium low-heat.
- When the oil is runny (about the same consistency as water, if you swirl the pan) add a little minced garlic and the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is shiny. Then add the ground beef, sprinkle some salt and pepper, and stir occasionally till the meat has turned almost entirely from pink to gray. It will continue to cook in the oven, so it doesn't have to be fully cooked here.
- The potatoes will be boiled by now, and you can mash them. Then spread them over the top. The easiest way is to put it all in a big pile in the middle, and use the back of a spoon (or your washed hands) to gently smooth it to the sides. It doesn't have to be perfectly even or flat.
- Bake it for 45-55 minutes, until the potatoes look like they are just starting to get a tan, and there are juices bubbling around the edges. You can turn the heat down (250 or below) and leave it in the oven for a couple hours, like this, if you want to set it up in advance and have it ready at a moment's notice.