Niki Segnit keeps a sack of potatoes in her car. Or at least she did when she wrote The Flavour Thesaurus. She explains that, while her flat was pokey, her car boot was dark and larder-cool, and therefore 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 her running out of her front door and on to the dark street, possibly in slippers, opening the boot and rummaging in a sack to get an apron full of potatoes for mash.
Segnit’s story reminds me of mine: of being sent to get potatoes from the thick paper sack that was always somewhere shadowy, and of how sticking my arm into the black hole was a nauseating thrill. After all, potatoes are alive until you peel them.
I feel rich and safe when we have a sack of potatoes. My old neighbour Vera believed they were best left unpeeled and boiled whole; that way, they don’t get waterlogged. If you need them peeled, that’s easily done once they are cool enough to handle. Or avoid peeling them altogether by simply pressing them through a potato ricer, which does the separating for you, and also gives you an aerated mash.
Vera also believed in cooking too many potatoes, so you are set up for the next day, too. (Also that leftover bread should be broken into pieces, baked in a low oven until brittle, wrapped in a cloth and bashed to crumbs with a rolling pin. I am not very good at remembering to do this, so am glad the local bakery sells bags of crumbs.)
You need both potatoes and crumbs for this week’s recipe, which is rather like a Neapolitan gattò – that is, mashed potato enriched 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 Italy’s instep, Basilicata, has a tender layer of cooked onion, tomato and, if you want, olives and/or capers, which perk things up.
While this doesn’t need anything on the side, buttered peas or spring greens are always welcome, and if you want something more substantial, add some bacon or sausages, too, and a salad after. Don’t forget you are also set up for the next day and to keep leftover crumbs in the fridge or freezer, and potatoes in a dark place … or a car boot.
Potato, onion and tomato bake
Like gattò or lasagne, a short rest before serving is a good idea here. The flavours settle and the potato firms up a bit, meaning it can be served in what I think of as soft slices.
Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr
Salt and black pepper
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan
Milk (but only if necessary)
2 onions, peeled and cut into half moons
400g tomatoes, roughly chopped
Black olives or capers (optional)
In a large pan, cover the potatoes with cold water, add salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook until tender to the point of a knife, then drain and leave to cool a little. Pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill into a large bowl (or peel and mash them in a large bowl), then add the butter, egg yolk, cheese and season – the consistency should be soft, rather than stiff. If it is stiff, add a little milk, but cautiously; it shouldn’t be sloppy.
In a frying pan, fry the onion in olive oil until it starts to soften, then add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring, until everything is soft and tasty. Add the olives and capers, if you are using them.
Butter a large ovenproof dish, then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Press half the potato mixture into the base of the dish. Spread over the onion and tomato mixture. Cover with the rest of the potato, then top lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is golden and crusty.