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Hashing it out

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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"Leftovers" is not the most appetizing term around, but there are a few dishes that make leftovers transcendent. Who hasn't roasted a chicken with chicken salad in mind or cooked an extra cup of rice with visions of fried rice for breakfast?

Into the pantheon of transcendent leftover dishes, let me propose the mundane-sounding potato hash. It solves, for one more night at least, the age-old question of what to do with leftover meat or poultry. 

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To make great hash, however, you need to understand the two styles of hash, and you need to restrain yourself from cracking a bunch of Cheech and Chong jokes. Cracking a couple of eggs, as you'll see, is fine.

"Hash is one of those dishes that to taste is to know how to make," writes John Thorne in his book Serious Pig, and he's almost right. Throw potatoes, protein, and fat in a hot pan, be patient, and there will be hash. But you need to take a few steps to ensure that the hash in your pan matches the hash in your head.

Before we proceed, note that there are two kinds of hash: wet and dry. 

Wet hash may have a browned crust on it, but it's there more for flavor and appearance than actual crunch. It's okay to pour cream into a wet hash, and it's okay if the result isn't crispy at all. 

One of the best wet hashes I ever ate was for breakfast at a now-defunct Seattle restaurant called 727 Pine; it consisted of chunks of duck confit and fingerling potatoes in a rich brown sauce. It was as much stew as hash, but that is not a criticism.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A plate of dry duck-confit hash with cilantro and a fried egg on top."]

Dry hash is home fries with extras. Crispy is the whole point of a dry hash, so you have to be careful not to put too much liquid into the pan. Dry hash doesn't cohere; it falls apart into individual potato and meat chunks and bits of browned onion. 

If I may stereotype, dry hash is the hash of choice for children. It is also my hash of choice, and the kind I'm talking about in this column.

Here are the components of a good dry potato hash.

h3. The pan

Big, heavy, well-seasoned cast-iron. If you have a large griddle that heats evenly, by all means use it.

h3. The potatoes

High-starch (russets) or medium-starch (Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, and others). Russets make the crispiest hash, but Yukon Golds are less likely to fall apart when you stir them. 

The best hash is made from leftover cooked potatoes, but how often do you actually have leftover cooked potatoes? If you don't, dice a raw potato and boil the chunks in salted water for five minutes. Drain and continue. 

And though part of me is embarrassed to admit this, frozen potatoes make really good hash.

h3. The protein

Corned-beef hash is classic for a reason, but any kind of leftover meat, fish, or poultry can make a good hash. Duck-leg hash is my favorite, and I also frequently make chicken, salmon, and bacon hashes. Smoked fish is great. Even tofu makes good hash, if you marinate it for flavor. 

I have never actually made octopus hash, but considering how well octopus takes to being seared, I want to try it. Somehow, I never seem to have leftover octopus. 

For dry hash, the protein goes into the pan after the potatoes are nearly done, and it is possible to overdo it on the protein: this is a flavored potato dish, not a big pile of meat.

h3. The aromatics

I like a bit of minced onion, added to the pan at the same time as the protein, but this is purely optional. If you like garlic, add some minced garlic for the last minute of cooking; otherwise it will burn. 

Other vegetables are good in wet hash, but interfere with the crispiest dry hash. And a shower of fresh herbs just before serving is an excellent idea.

h3. The eggs

No matter what kind of hash you've made, poached eggs are the traditional topping. However, I often cheat and, once I've removed the hash from the pan, cook a couple of sunny-side-up or over-easy eggs and serve those on top. Runny egg yolks mingling with buttery potatoes is hard to beat. 

If you've given your hash a Mexican or Southwestern flavor, sour cream is also not a bad topping, either instead of or in addition to eggs.

There: leftovers transformed, munchies satisfied. Oops, I wasn't going to say that.

p(green). Editor's note: This piece was subsequently featured in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 9, 2009.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


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