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story.lead_photo.caption Rosemary Roasted Potatoes. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Some people look down their noses at the humble potato.

But when the chips are down, what other vegetable will always be there for you? Others stay rooted where they are, half-baked. Potatoes will leap out of the frying pan and into the fire for you, leaving their tots behind.

When you say spud, you've said it all. The common taters agree: the eyes have it. Potatoes are the root that made Idaho famous. How famous? You can watch all their videos on YouTuber.

The time has come to elevate the potato to its rightful place in the American pantry, to honor its nobility and grace. Potatoes, this spud's for you.

OK, that's enough of that. But the point is pertinent. Though it is often overlooked, the hard-working potato is the most popular vegetable in the United States. And when prepared properly, they can be the absolute highlight of a meal.

I made five different kinds of potatoes, and I am here to tell you that each one was amazing. I can't even pick a favorite; they were simply all that good.

I started with the easiest and most familiar, French fries. It seemed like the American thing to do.

As a food writer, I am required by law to state that homemade fries are better than any you can get at a restaurant. But here's the thing: Homemade fries are better than any you can get at a restaurant.

They are better because you can do the same trick restaurants do to make them breathtakingly crisp on the outside and creamy and soft and lovely on the inside.

Simply fry the potatoes for a few minutes at a relatively low temperature, which cooks them all the way through. Then, when you are ready to serve them, cook them again for a shorter time at a higher temperature.

This second frying leaves the exterior nicely browned and crisp, while keeping the inside tender and sweet. It's French fry perfection.

Next, I made what I'm calling Potato Puffs (their real name, Cream Puff Potato Fritters, strikes me as a little excessive). If you try them, you may find yourself wanting to throw a party just so you can serve them.

Unfortunately, they are a little hard to make, or at least time-consuming. I wouldn't recommend the recipe to beginners. So if you are not at least a moderately experienced cook, it might be time to become friends with someone who is, and then ask them to make Potato Puffs.

The dish is actually two recipes in one. The first is for mashed potatoes, which are straightforward enough. The second is for pte choux, the dough that makes pastries with a big air hole in the middle — eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and the like (more on that next week).

You mix the mashed potato into the pte choux dough, and then fry it in hot oil. The result are puffy little doughnut holes that taste a bit like mashed potatoes, and they are undeniably addictive. Apparently, they are a regular feature at some small restaurants in France. I want to go to those restaurants.

Just as impressive at a dinner party as the Potato Puffs was the next dish I made, Pommes Anna. This is one of those side dishes that I pull out when I want to show off without having to do too much work.

Pommes Anna is made by cooking a few layers of sliced potatoes and butter. The butter helps the layers of sliced potatoes to adhere to each other so that, when the whole thing is removed from the skillet, you have something that resembles a crustless potato pie. And because it is prepared like an upside-down cake, with the gorgeously browned bottom layer served on top, the presentation is stunning.

Still, the best part of Pommes Anna is the taste. It is potatoes swimming in butter, with salt. The only thing that could make it better is if the butter is browned first, which creates a deliciously nutty flavor that puts the dish over the top.

I wanted to put potatoes to everyday use, too, so I cooked them in one of my favorite ways, Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes. It's one of my weeknight potato preparations.

What makes this simple method stand out is the roasting. In the dry, hot heat of the oven, the chunks of potato puff out a little. They become ethereally soft in the middle, with a golden-brown crust on the outside.

Actually, that wouldn't be bad as is, but these potatoes are extra-wonderful because of a few simple ingredients that add so much to the overall dish. With olive oil, chopped rosemary, a few crushed red pepper flakes and the all-important salt, you can make it on Wednesday but it tastes like Sunday.

As much as we love potatoes in this country, they may like them even more in Spain. So I decided to make a Spanish dish, Patatas a la Riojana. This classic dish from the north of the country is a potato stew with a delectable, spicy sauce —but you can make it mild if you prefer.

Several factors go into making this stew so hearty and satisfying. First of all, of course, are the potatoes, which are the textbook definition of hearty and satisfying in any language. A substantial amount of paprika is also important, providing the right Spanish piquancy to the mélange of flavors.

If you're not making a vegetarian version, sausage also comes into play — either a Spanish-style chorizo or a garlicky kielbasa will do. And surprisingly, the starch from the potatoes themselves adds immensely to the texture. It mixes with water that you add to the pot to create a thick and fragrant sauce that coats the potatoes and makes you feel good about life in general.

Each of these dishes is better than the last. Once again, they prove that when you say spud, you've said it all.

Crispy French Fries

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 Russet (Idaho) potatoes

Oil for frying

Salt

1. Peel potatoes and cut into long strips -inch wide and -inch high. Heat oil in a Dutch oven to 320 degrees. Carefully place some of the potatoes in the oil — do this in several batches to assure they are not crowded and that oil temperature does not fall too far below 320 degrees. Cook until just barely beginning to turn brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with remaining batches.

2. Raise oil temperature to 375 degrees. In batches, carefully place some of the fries in the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels, and salt generously while still hot. Repeat with remaining batches. Serve hot.

Per serving (based on 4): 281 calories; 16g fat; 2g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4g protein; 33g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 2g fiber; 9mg sodium; 24mg calcium

— Traditional recipe

Potato Puffs

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, about 6 ounces each, washed

Salt

cup milk

8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

cup all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

About 3 cups canola oil, for deep frying

1. Put the potatoes in a pot with cold water to cover, add teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Boil gently for 40 minutes, until very tender; be sure the potatoes are always covered with water during cooking. Drain the potatoes.

2. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, cut into chunks and push through a food mill or ricer.

3. Combine the milk, teaspoon salt, the pepper and the butter in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once, working the mixture with a wooden spoon until it forms a ball. Return to the stove and cook for 30 seconds over low heat, stirring the mixture, which will become a shiny, homogenous mass. Transfer to a bowl and let cool for 5 minutes.

4. Add the eggs to the dough one at a time, beating well with a whisk after each addition, then stir in the potatoes (you could also put the dough in a food processor and, with the motor running, add the eggs; process for 15 to 20 seconds, then combine in a bowl with the mashed potatoes).

5. Preheat oven to 160 degrees.

6. Heat 1 to 2 inches of oil in a deep 10- to 12-inch skillet to 350 degrees. Spoon 1 tablespoon of the dough at a time into the oil, pushing it out of the spoon with your finger; cook 10 to 15 pieces at a time. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, turning the puffs in the oil to brown them evenly on all sides.

7. As soon as the first batch is done, remove with a slotted spoon to a tray lined with paper towels. Keep hot in oven while you cook the remaining puffs. Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve. Puffs will lose their crispness if they sit too long.

Per serving (based on 6): 645 calories; 62g fat; 8g saturated fat; 77mg cholesterol; 5g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 2g fiber; 425mg sodium; 47mg calcium

Recipe from "Essential Pepin" by Jacques Pepin

Pommes Anna

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds waxy potatoes, peeled

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoons fine sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Using a sharp knife or mandoline, slice the potatoes 8 inch thick. (Do not rinse or soak the slices; the starch is what binds the layers.)

3. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and cook, swirling the pan, to get it to the brown butter stage: First, the butter will boil in large bubbles. Soon, the bubbles will get smaller and the butter will turn light brown and smell nutty. At this point, take off the heat immediately and pour into a bowl. (If you overcook the butter, the solids will burn and form black, acrid-tasting flakes. Throw it out and start again.)

4. Generously grease the bottom of a shallow 10-inch ovenproof cast-iron pan with some of the brown butter. Cover the bottom of the pan with one-third of the potato slices, arranging them in a slightly overlapping, circular pattern. Brush with of the remaining butter and sprinkle with teaspoon of the salt. Make two more layers using the remaining potatoes, butter and salt.

5. Set on the stove over medium heat and cook, without disturbing, to initiate browning on the bottom, 10 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, transfer to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the potatoes are cooked through (a knife should pierce through easily) and the top is browned and crusty, 20 to 30 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes on the counter.

6. Run a spatula around the edges and underneath to loosen and flip carefully onto a serving plate so the golden bottom faces up. If any of the potatoes are stuck to the bottom of the pan, scrape them off and return them to where they belong. (If you don't feel up for the flipping, it is fine to serve the potatoes directly from the pan.) Slice into wedges and serve.

Per serving (based on 4): 323 calories; 15g fat; 9g saturated fat; 38mg cholesterol; 5g protein; 45g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 7g fiber; 919mg sodium; 30mg calcium

Recipe from foodrepublic.com, by Clotilde Dusoulier

Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 pound red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

teaspoon salt, or to taste

Pinch of crushed red pepper

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Combine potatoes, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper flakes in a mixing bowl. Toss to coat well.

3. Spread the potatoes in a single, even layer on a baking sheet. Roast, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and lightly golden, 20 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 4): 147 calories; 7g fat; 1g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2g protein; 20g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 3g fiber; 312mg sodium; 28mg calcium

Recipe from "White Dog Café Cookbook" by Judy Wicks and Kevin Von Klause

Patatas la Riojana (Spicy Potato Stew)

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

cup chopped onion

cup olive oil

3 pounds potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced

6 ounces Spanish-style paprika-flavored chorizo or garlicky kielbasa, cut into -inch slices

1 green bell pepper, thickly slices, optional

cup flatleaf parsley, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

3 dried New Mexico or Anaheim chilies, soaked in water

teaspoon hot paprika or 8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt

1. In a deep kettle that will hold all the ingredients, sauté the onion in the oil over medium-high heat until it starts to soften but is not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and continue cooking, stirring to mix well. Add the optional sausage, stirring, and when the potatoes are just beginning to brown along their edges, about 10 minutes, add a cup of water. Cook 5 minutes; the potatoes will absorb much of the water.

2. Add a second cup of water when the first has been pretty well absorbed, together with the green pepper, parsley and sweet paprika.

3. Remove the chilies from the soaking liquid and discard the seeds and membranes. With a spoon edge, scrape away the inner red pulp. Discard the skins and ad the pulp to the potatoes, stirring to mix well. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

4. Add the hot paprika or cayenne and stir carefully to mix without breaking up the potatoes. Taste and add salt if desired. The potatoes should be fork-tender with just a little rich red sauce to spoon over their tops. Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 6): 393 calories; 21g fat; 6g saturated fat; 25mg cholesterol; 12g protein; 42g carbohydrate; 5g sugar; 7g fiber; 419mg sodium; 41mg calcium

Slightly adapted from "The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook" by Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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