A hundred and twenty years ago Luther Burbank lent his name to a high-starch potato, the russet Burbank, which is widely known as the Idaho although significant crops are also grown in Washington and Maine. Ever since, Burbank’s variety–big, durable, and utilitarian-has retained a virtual monopoly in the high-starch potato kingdom. I think that Idahos taste best rubbed with olive oil and baked in a 450* oven for at least an hour and fifteen minutes, so that the skin becomes nearly as dark and brittle as the crust of hearth-baked bread, and most of the moisture escapes, leaving the flesh light and crumbly. Strongly as I advocate microwave ovens, they do not do a creditable job of baking potatoes–the flesh can be leaden, and what’s the point if you can’t get a crusty skin? They are acceptable, though, for cooking Idahos to be mashed. (Cook them on paper towels to absorb moisture, following the timings in either of Barbara Kafka’s two microwave books.) The savings in time can make the difference between having potatoes for dinner and not.
Large Diversity of Potatoes
NO SMALL grower is trying to dethrone the mighty Burbank with some rare russet. Although a number of the revived varieties have floury flesh good for mashing, none that I found offers as thick a skin when baked. The action today is instead in low-starch potatoes, the firm, “waxy” kind that don’t fall apart when sliced. A number of revived varieties, mostly from South America, the birthplace of the potato, have real flavor. They take the duty out of the little boiled potatoes that are requisite with fish, which too often are watery albino pellets from a can.
Rare varieties of potatoes are coming into fashion partly because chefs always compete to serve the newest and most exotic food, and lately “exotic” means anything grown by a small farmer–preferably organically and preferably something associated with the food of the poor. Nutritionists and the politically correct insist that we take up rustic cuisines, which were of course determined not by connoisseurship and nutritional calculations but by geography and poverty. Michael Roberts, in his new What’s for Dinner?, a funny and inventive collection of Maine course recipes, to be published this winter, calls these dictatorial forces the “food police.” They tell us to base our meals on carbohydrates, not meat.
Also, there has been great attention this year to the foods of the New World which changed the Old. It took Europeans two centuries to overcome their suspicion that potatoes were a poison (they are related to deadly nightshade, as are tomatoes, eggplant, and tobacco), a suspicion aggravated by the absence of the potato in the Bible. Once they did, they discovered that potatoes, which contain very high-quality protein (among the best not from an animal product, better even than soybeans) and significant amounts of vitamin C and minerals as well as filling, energizing carbohydrates, were a subsistence food capable of nourishing families over the winter. Indeed, they can take the place of meat as a main course, if you include a bit of yogurt, say, and salad greens or broccoli. Potatoes grow in virtually all kinds of climates, and are much more productive per acre than grains.
Potatoes and Its Path in the World
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries potatoes allowed the European population to increase by a third. Ireland adopted potatoes earlier than the rest of Europe, because they were safe underground from the ravages of frequent invasions. Also, they were easier to grow in its soil than wheat. The Irish population almost tripled from 1754 to 1846. But dependence on potatoes could be dangerous: when a fungal blight resulted in the famine of 1845-1848, at least a million Irishmen died, and at least a million immigrated to America. Potatoes made wars easier to wage, because they can travel long distances without spoiling. (Good reading on how potatoes changed the world includes The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith, on the Irish famine, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe Salaman, and Seeds of Change, by Henry Hobhouse.) Today the Russians and the Chinese are the world’s leading potato growers.
Potatoes are being promoted as a way to feed and help develop the Third World as they once did Europe. Researchers are working on disease-resistant varieties, because potatoes are susceptible to hundreds of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Much of the research is the scary genetic kind that has recently alarmed chefs and other purists, in which genes from, for example, a moth that produces antibiotics that combat bacteria that threaten potatoes are introduced into potatoes.
A potato is a tuber, a swollen stem that is like a root in that it lives underground and stores food and water, but unlike roots in that new shoots grow from buds, or eyes, anywhere on it. Potatoes are usually grown not from seeds (seeds rarely produce genetic duplicates of the original potato) but from cut-up tubers that contain at least two eyes; “seed potatoes” are simply potatoes that have been specially bred and are certified disease-free. Researchers are developing accurate, disease-resistant seeds that will vastly reduce growing costs.
Long-term Names of Potato
THE GENERIC name for the tastiest, in my opinion, of the revived varieties is “fingerling,” borrowed from a term for young or small fish. In fact, the potatoes are roughly the shape of fingers, long and tapered, picked mature at anywhere from two to eight inches in length and half an inch to two inches in diameter. Fingerlings are low- to medium-starch potatoes. Most have a smooth texture akin to that of “waxy” boiling potatoes and even more closely akin to that of sweet potatoes. Good fingerlings are voluptuous on the tongue, almost like well-marbled beef filet. Many have yellow or orange-yellow flesh, which leads people to describe them as buttery even though only a very few actually taste anything like butter.
A widely available yellow-fleshed potato, although it is not technically a fingerling, is the yellow Finn, which a number of supermarkets carry. It combines some of the earthy, sweet, and creamy flavors that mark the best fingerlings, and is good steamed or, because it is higher in starch than most fingerlings, roasted in chunks. Steaming over simmering salted water is by far the best way to cook fingerlings and similar low-starch potatoes, because the flavor and texture show to their best advantage, and it’s brief–a matter of twenty minutes for most fingerlings, or until the flesh yields to a sharp knife.
I prefer steamed fingerlings peeled, since the peel adds little to their flavor and do not have a pleasing texture. This might not be the nutritional heresy it seems. Meredith Sayles Hughes, who operates a potato and food museum in New Mexico with her husband, E. Thomas Hughes, quotes Nell Mondy, a biochemist at Cornell University, as warning that toxic compounds build up in potato skin, which guards against pathogens. The skin does contain fiber, but many of the vaunted nutrients are in the layer just below it, which is why it’s better to peel potatoes after they have been cooked: only the papery outer peel comes off. Scabs on potato skin, by the way, are harmless, but any green portion and all shoots should be trimmed.
Popular types of Potatoes
The Yukon Gold, another yellow fleshed potato, has also been widely distributed. I don’t like it as much as the yellow Finn; it’s an unremarkable boiling potato with none of the buttery taste claimed for it, and I would rather have a superior white boiling potato, such as the Rose Fir, from California. But Lydie Marshall, the French-born New York cooking teacher and author of the invaluable new A Passion for Potatoes, finds Yukon Golds more flavorful than white potatoes, and says that they have become her all-purpose potato.
Seed merchants have gone overboard in cultivating old varieties of colored potatoes, perhaps on the theory that if blue cornmeal sells as blue tortilla chips, purple potatoes can make arresting potato chips. They do. Potato chips rely on visual appeal, since the flavor comes from fat and salt. But I think that most purple potatoes cooked normally are terrible, with a negligible, watery flavor and an unpleasantly mealy consistency. Red and even remand-white-striped potatoes are also pretty silly, with one exception, which bears the precious name of Cherries Jubilee. These potatoes have the shape of big cherry tomatoes and flesh that is vermilion streaked with white; they have a sweet, full flavor and a more floury texture than fingerlings.
Purple and blue potatoes are not worth going out of your way for, but some potatoes are worth ordering by mail, because if stored in a dark, cool place (ideally 40-50[deg]) they will keep for months. The best source I’ve found is Mountain Sweet Berry Farms, in Cooks Falls, New York (telephone 607-498-4666), where Richard Bishop and Franca Tantillo grow many kinds of heirloom potatoes. They sell them at the Union Square farmer’s market, in New York City, and report that just before Thanksgiving last year they sold two thousand pounds of potatoes in one day. Bishop and Tantillo give their soil heavy doses of minerals and use no pesticides; for whatever reason, their potatoes have superior flavor.
Another farmer who will ship you potatoes is Chris Holmes, of New Penny Farm, Presque Isle, Maine (207768-7551). Besides a few fingerlings he grows old New England varieties like Katahdin, Green Mountain, and Irish Cobbler, a high-starch potato. Like those from Mountain Sweet Berry Farms, his potatoes have not been sprayed, and they have a purer and stronger flavor.
One potato I counsel avoiding is Cowhorn (not a fingerling), named for its shape. It tastes like plain dirt rather than simply having the earthy overtone that is welcome. Peanut, a fingerling also named for its shape, seemed dull to me, and I detected none of the nuttiness that others apparently taste, probably swayed by the name.
My favorite fingerling is Ozette-long and thin, with an irregular tan skin. It tastes hearty and earthy; the way a potato should, and has a firm but melting texture. Almost as good is the red-skinned Ruby Crescent, Bishop and Tantillo’s best-selling fingerling, which has caught on among New York’s most fashionable chefs. Some gourmets go so far as to compare it to the Ratte, the most esteemed French variety. (As is so often the case with foods we envy the French–apples, bread flour, and coffee comes to mind–we have more and better potatoes than they do and we shouldn’t go mooning after theirs.) The flavor is sweet but sharp, like that of a wild leek, and you could legitimately call the yellow flesh buttery. I am also very much liked Banana (named for its shape and yellow flesh, not for its taste) a fingerling whose texture is a cross between floury and firm.
Steamed Cooking Method
STEAMED fingerlings are wonderful in salads. I was delighted with a simple one I tried, starting with two pounds of steamed, peeled, and sliced potatoes, moistening the warm slices with three tablespoons of vinegar, and then tossing them with a cup of diced celery and two tablespoons of chopped scallions. For the dressing I whirled in a food processor a quarter cup of buttermilk and one cup of from age blanch (a tangy, fat-free cheese that comes in containers like yogurt; if you can’t find it, use a cup of plain yogurt and no buttermilk), two tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and a third of a cup of chopped green herbs–I included marjoram, thyme, and a few celery leaves.
Lydie Marshall gives a recipe for a salad with three pounds of potatoes, a quarter cup of minced chives, a cup of mayonnaise, salt, pepper, two cups of thinly sliced peeled cucumber, and a cup of thinly sliced red onion: she tosses the warm potato slices with two thirds of the cup of mayonnaise, the chives, salt, and pepper, and the cucumber slices with a quarter cup of mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. Then she layers the potatoes, the cucumbers, and the onions, tossed with the bit of mayonnaise remaining, in a glass bowl.
Both these salads improve after a day or two, and if they become too thick as the potatoes absorb moisture, you can thin them with buttermilk or mayonnaise. Walnut oil also goes very well with potatoes.
Barbara Kafka serves new potatoes braised in just butter (up to a half stick of butter or a quarter cup of olive oil to two pounds of potatoes), the pot kept tightly covered over medium heat and briskly shaken every few minutes to turn the potatoes. The potatoes will release enough liquid to make steam. This method, which the French call A l`etvee, from a word for “sweatbox,” will produce incomparable results with truly new potatoes, which are not a variety but any kind of immature potato, with skins so tender you can rub them off and a high sugar content–as in freshly picked peas and sweet corn, not all the sugar has turned to starch. New potatoes are usually available only in late summer. But any potatoes the size of big pebbles cooked this way will be succulent and richly moist, like round home fries; Kafka gives directions in The Opinionated Palate, her recent book of entertaining and provocative essays. The method lends credence to Lydie Marshall’s cry that potatoes are a vegetable, not a starch.