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Thursday, June 22, 2006 01:40 am

A passion for potatoes

Don’t take America’s favorite vegetable for granted

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Have you ever eaten new potatoes — potatoes with skins so thin they scrub off easily with a vegetable brush, with flesh so lusciously creamy, it’s almost decadent? You might be surprised to learn that potatoes labeled “new” in the supermarket usually aren’t. Real new potatoes should be recently dug — anything more than a few days to a week old doesn’t qualify. New potatoes have recently made their annual reappearance, a sure sign of the beginning of summer. “Have you tried these?” a woman standing next to me at last week’s farmers’ market asked as she looked at the basket of pingpong-ball-sized Yukon Golds in front of us. “I swear, they’re so good it’d be worth the trip downtown even if there wasn’t anything else here!”
Potatoes worth a special effort? You bet. Potatoes are mostly taken for granted — a substrate for anything from gravy to catsup. They’re America’s favorite vegetable, mainly in the form of not-very-good french fries. As fast and convenience foods have taken over, instant mashed potatoes and frozen french fries have become the norm for many. Their blandness may be unobjectionable, but, as the saying goes, there’s no there there. Because potatoes are the ultimate comfort food, good restaurants now often showcase freshly made mashed or smashed potatoes and properly made skin-on French fries, knowing that customers will swoon when they experience the real thing. New potatoes are the ne plus ultra of potatoes. When cooking, they should all be roughly the same size so that they cook evenly; this may mean that some are cut and others left whole. Steaming is best, because no flavor or nutrition is lost, as it is in boiling. Serve them simply, with a little butter and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, plus a little parsley, if you like — or you can melt the butter in a skillet and toss the cooked potatoes until they’re browned on the outside. Then there’s garlic potato salad. A traditional staple of Spanish tapas bars, I first had garlic potato salad at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba in Chicago. Tapas are small dishes that began when the proprietors of Spanish bars would give their patrons slices of bread to put on top (tapa) of their glasses to keep the flies away. Eventually they began to offer toppings for the bread to attract customers (presumably by that time they’d found other ways to control the flies!). The original bar snacks, tapas evolved into an entire subset of Spanish cuisine. Although some are still served on slices of bread, the genre has expanded to encompass an incredibly varied range of dishes. Café Ba-Ba-Reeba, which opened in 1985, was the first tapas restaurant in the Midwest and is still going strong. The garlic potato salad was one of the best things we had. I wanted to make it myself as soon as I tasted it, but, simple as the dish seemed, I couldn’t get it quite right. Soon after, I discovered that David Radwine, manager of the Sangamo Club, had also been trying to make it, with the same lack of success. Comparing notes, we made sporadic attempts to reproduce it over the next few years. We tried sour cream, yogurt, and different kinds of homemade mayonnaise and combinations thereof, to no avail. Finally Emilio Gervilla came to Springfield as guest chef for the annual Hope School Benefit. The original chef at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba, Gervilla had since gone on to open several successful tapas restaurants on his own in Chicago and the suburbs. As my husband and I walked into the benefit, David came up to us: “You’ll never guess the dressing for the potato salad!” He was right. I never would have guessed — it was just Hellman’s mayonnaise! Emilio’s garlic potato salad is wonderful with ordinary boiling potatoes and regular garlic, but making it with new potatoes and fresh first-of-the-season garlic transforms it into something sublime. 
Garlic potato salad
Ingredients 1 pound waxy boiling potatoes, preferably new potatoes 3/4 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise, plus more if needed 1 tablespoon garlic, mashed to a fine paste with 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt Freshly ground pepper to taste 1/4 cup minced parsley, preferably flat-leafed, divided
Instructions Boil or steam the potatoes (steaming preferred) just until tender. If you are boiling them, cut them into bite-size pieces after cooking; if steaming them, cut them into bite-size pieces before steaming. Let cool completely at least to room temperature or refrigerate before proceeding. Mix the mayonnaise, garlic, pepper, and half of the parsley in a bowl. Add the potatoes and gently mix until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Check the seasoning. Serve chilled or at room temperature, sprinkled with the remaining parsley.
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