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First buy your mandoline

"They’re cheap, they’re small and they’re surprisingly useful – plus, thinly slicing anything in quantity is a bit of a faff." Felicity Cloake

Stephanie Alexander found this giant mandoline in those wonderful brocante places in France. They are generally vast sheds bursting at the seams with treasures and junk. Here you will find antique lace and copper pots, crockery and garden pots, and Stephanie found this mandoline. She didn't buy it though because of the usual quandary for us Australians - how to get it home. And as she said, why so huge? What would it have been used for? She wondered whether it was for hotel use. I wonder whether it was used for slicing large meat roasts, or something similar. I mean you wouldn't use if for a potato would you?

I do have one - a much smaller plastic and metal one - from Aldi - where else? But I confess I rarely use it. My gratins don't have super thin slices of potato and I don't make crisps. I also don't make fancy salads, but after having seen the wonders of the potato pavés from yesterday I am thinking that maybe I should branch out.

They come with a bit of baggage though don't they? Horror stories about people slicing their fingers and all that. But actually I reckon you can do that on an ordinary grater anyway. Just be very careful and don't give it to the kids to try. I also found that opinion varied between chefs as well - from favourite gadget to wouldn't use one in a fit:

"My favourite gadget would have to be the humble mandoline. It's a very simple tool, but a versatile one, and I don't know where I'd be without it. It not only saves time, but requires much less effort than agonisingly trying to create uniform slices with a knife. It also gives your dishes that polished, cheffy appearance. Just mind your fingers." Bill Granger

"A mandolin slicer is the piece of kit I really need for this, [a gratin] but I don’t like them, even those with a safety guard to keep blade and fingers well apart." Nigel Slater

The reason for talking about mandolines though is that, having investigated the potato pavé I remembered that I had, tucked away for just such an occasion, a page from an old Coles Magazine which featured this sort of quiche. You can find how to make the crust on the Taste website. It's almost not a recipe really, more of a method, and heads up a few more things you can do with sliced potatoes, such as fancy shaped baked slices and what they call a baked potato twist. And these made me remember other similar rather striking looking things to do with thinly sliced potatoes that I had seen from time to time. The crust above and the cookie cutter slices didn't actually have to be sliced that thin, and if you've been cooking for years you can probably slice a few potatoes fairly thinly anyway. But if you want to do heaps, as in some of the following ideas, or if you want the slices particularly thin then I would be reaching for the mandoline - with suitable care that is.

I also have to say that most of these concoctions, whilst somewhat spectacular in appearance require quite a lot of tricky assembly. I suspect that some of them are not that easy to do, and now that I look at them they really are all very similar. You either stand your slices on end in pretty patterns, or stack them. I can never achieve pretty patterns. I think that takes skill. Donna Hay is big into this by the way. Well she would be. They're very pretty. But Western Star Butter - which has perhaps the most spectacular one? Here's a selection: 5-ingredient crispy sliced roasted potatoes from Sassy Spoon; Garlic roast potato and sage wreath from Western Star Butter; Crispy potato roast from Cakes Cottage (this one has how to do it pictures and is a touch more homely looking); and the rest are from Donna Hay - Crispy leaf potatoes with oregano salt; Roasted potato stacks with pecorino and marjoram and Caramelised onion and potato stacks. And I have to say that even Donna Hay and her team seem to have a bit of trouble getting these last ones to look brilliant - they look a bit soggy.

And I should say that if you can slice and cook a potato like this then you can obviously do the same with other root vegetables from pumpkin and sweet potato to carrots, parsnips and beetroot.

Then there's the hasselback potato, which I have to say I thought of as an unpeeled potato, sliced vertically, but not all the way through and not that thinly, but having looked at thinly sliced potatoes on the net I kept on being shown a few pretty special looking hasselback potatoes, but before I show you those, have a look at Jamie cooking the fairly basic kind, including a pretty nifty trick on how to slice the potatoes without cutting right through. I think this is what I like about his videos, there is always some tiny little trick that he shows you. He does parsnips and carrots too.

The fancier ones came from: Yotam Ottolenghi, who cooked his in a cheese, garlicky sauce, and Felicity Cloake, who, of course explored all the options, and ended up with these rather gorgeous looking 'perfect' Hasselback potatoes.

Mind you Felicity Cloake does say that they are:

"one of those dishes that tend to look better than they taste: painstakingly chiselled fans of gloriously golden carbohydrate perfect for the Instagram age, yet sadly soggy on the fork"

She also quotes one Ed Smith who's says:

“disappointingly, some so-called hasselback potatoes turn out to be little more than roast new potatoes with a few cuts in them” Ed Smith

Not according to Jamie, who was, of course, extremely enthusiastic, and whose two smaller kids satisfyingly asked for more when he was going to take the plate away to feed the crew.

But then to my mind potatoes are delicious whatever you do with them. It's an interesting point about Instagram though isn't it? Is appearance all that matters these days? Maybe if we all lose our sense of taste through Corona virus it will be. I know I've asked the question before, but I do know that I am easily sucked in by a gorgeously styled and photographed dish. And in posh restaurants appearance is king is it not? An on that point it was interesting to come across Anthony Bourdain saying that:

"The indispensable object in most chefs' shtick is the simple plastic squeeze bottle, essentially the same objects you see at hot-dog stands loaded with mustard. Mask a bottom of a plate with, say, an emulsified butter sauce, then run a couple of concentric rings of darker sauce - demi-glace, or roast pepper purée - around the plate. Now drag a toothpick through the rings or lines."

My Mercer's meal tonight has a similar bit of presentation magic. Put a dollop of a kind of purée (in this case carrot and ginger) on the plate and drag a spoon through it in a kind of curve. Then place your food on top. Well I'll try, but I guarantee it won't look as good as all those chefs make it look.

Maybe we should all have a go at something fancy from time to time. That's what my David's special meals attempt to be but not always with great success. And dinner parties too. I wonder if we shall ever have them again?


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