A Potato Unlike Any Other

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While tomatoes are getting most of the glamour, I should reiterate that this is also the height of new potato season. It's become of one my key culinary causes to help more people realize how special it is to get to eat a nice bowl of just-cooked new potatoes—I think they're one of the more underrated and for some reason little-celebrated foods, even in this positive era of local, seasonal produce. But they really are a big deal and, I think, a great food. I was going to write a bunch about them but then remembered that I wrote them up a few years back. The info pretty much stands as is. New potatoes are still delicious. And they still get relatively little recognition in a world that's ever more cognizant of fresh local produce. So rather than starting from scratch, the below is excerpted from what I put down in 2007:


MORE ON POTATOES:
Corby Kummer: "New Potatoes"
Anastatia Curley: "Potato Frittata"
Susan Spungen: "Twice-Baked Potatoes"

I was talking to Rodger (chef at the Deli) about these the other day. With a serious eye roll and a high degree of exasperation, he said something along the lines of, "New potatoes are totally misunderstood. People think that every small potato the size of a golf ball is 'new,' but they're not." Well said and, I think, very accurate.

To an experienced potato person, the fact that all small potatoes are NOT new is a given. But to most 21st century Americans, "new," as Rodger pointed out, has come to be considered a size instead of what it ought to be, which is a real-time adjective that refers to the newly dug potatoes that come out of the ground only at the start of the summer season. The problem is that, although size might matter slightly in terms of eating experience, the main draw to new potatoes is how good they taste, which is very different from matured potatoes that have been stored for many months.

How good is good?

Well, two things I can tell you to put this in a personal context:

A. While I do like potatoes a lot, I'm an even bigger pasta and rice person. But since the new potatoes appeared at the market last month, I've been eating them four or five nights a week. They're just so darned good. . . .

B. I realized in the last few weeks of my new potato fest that I've typically, sort of unknowingly, viewed spuds more as a vehicle for something else—olive oil, butter, greens (as in Irish champ), curry, etc. But eating these new potatoes, I actually have forgone putting anything on them other than a bit of salt, or at most a small dab of butter or a few drops of olive oil—new potatoes really just don't need anything much on them. More than that—anything I put on them seems to get in the way of how sweet and delicate they are. It's sort of like eating really great little local cherry tomatoes out of hand, sort of what Alex at the Roadhouse has come to say in explaining the way we approach food here in the Zingerman's Community of Businesses— "find really great ingredients and don't screw 'em up."

What makes the difference between these new potatoes and those small-in-size-but-not-new potatoes we get the rest of the year?

I asked Molly Stevens to explain for me since she wrote a whole book on potatoes and she knows a lot more than I do. "The most important point to make," she wrote back, "is that new potatoes should be treated the way you would any fresh-from-the-market perishable produce. Because of their high water content, they spoil and wilt the same way a fresh tomato or summer squash would. I make the connection between green, spring onions and papery storage onions." Makes sense and it's true. Really working with new potatoes is an entirely different potato experience than we get the other 10 or 11 months of the year.

"New potatoes and butter with salt," he said, "are the food of the gods."

Right now is the peak of the new potato season—when the blossoms are out its time to pick. A few weeks ago—just before the season started—the folks from Tantre Farms were lamenting the fact that there were some vendors at the market selling "new potatoes" which they knew weren't new but rather last year's small storage potatoes. Nothing wrong with year-old potatoes, but they're pretty clearly not new and they don't cook, eat, or taste anything like real new potatoes.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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