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Thursday, July 23, 2015 12:01 am

Here’s what’s new about new potatoes

PHOTO BY SCOTT BAUER, USDA ARS/WIKIMEDIA.ORG

 

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 summer is in full swing. “Have you tried these?” a woman standing next to me at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market recently asked as she looked at the basket of ping pong-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.

Any variety of freshly dug potato will have exceptional texture and flavor. But I should note that that the best French fries are made with starchy potatoes, such as russets, that are old to the point that they’ve begun to lose their firmness, contrary to a current commercial for frozen fries that intimate they’re made from potatoes fresh from the field.

Potatoes have been grown for millennia; they originated in southern Peru approximately 8,000 years ago. They are a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, which includes flowering plants as well as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, goji berries and ground-cherries. There are approximately 5,000 varieties of potatoes, not all of which are edible – those only number around 1,000. But until recently, outside of South America, only a few varieties were grown in both commercial and home gardens. A classic illustration of the value of biodiversity is the contrast of what happened in Ireland from 1845-1852 and in Peru during the same time period. The Irish refer to those years as the Great Famine, a period of starvation, disease and, ultimately, massive migration, particularly to America. The famine was due to a potato blight, which destroyed the single most important food source for the Irish poor. Unfortunately they almost exclusively grew a single variety, the Irish Lumper. When the same blight found its way to Peru, it had little deleterious effect, because only a few of Peru’s numerous potato strains were affected.

Wonderful as any new potatoes are, heirloom variety new potatoes are the ne plus ultra of potatoes, and they are becoming increasingly available at farmers markets and stands. Heirloom varieties are even in grocery stores, although most are probably not strictly “new,” as in freshly dug. They come in a range of textures and flavors; some varieties are particularly good for specific preparations, such as potato salad or roasting. Fingerlings look like fat knobby fingers. Heirloom potatoes offer a rainbow of colors – yellow, pink, blue, purple – many with intriguing names: Rose Finn Apple, Banana, All Blue, Purple Viking and Magic Molly, to name a few.

When steaming, boiling or roasting new potatoes – or any potato for that matter, 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 on our first visit. 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, then manager of the Sangamo Club, had also been trying to recreate 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, lots of fresh garlic, and parsley! 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  

  • 1 pound waxy boiling potatoes, preferably new potatoes; fingerlings are especially good
  • 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, or more or less to taste.
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley, preferably flat-leafed, divided

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.  

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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