A Potato Unlike Any Other


Will Merydith/flickr

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:

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.

You can tell true new potatoes, in part, because the skins are super thin—they can just be rubbed off the spuds much like you could the skin of toasted walnuts. Please note that their shelf life is short—real new potatoes like these don't last all year. In fact, they don't even last a month. As Molly said, you treat 'em like fresh produce, and you cook and eat 'em within a few days of when you buy them. I'm not the nutrition expert but word is that new potatoes have higher nutrient levels than storage potatoes. I'm sure one of you science folks out there can elaborate.

By contrast small (and large) potatoes that have been raised for storage are left in the ground all through the season until the green leaves of the plant die. Basically the plant is then starving for nourishment so it stops growing. In the process the skin thickens and the potato basically cures in the ground. After they're dug they're left out to dry and skins cure up further still. They are also left above ground once they're dug to further cure and dry some before being stored.

Molly's favorite way to cook new potatoes is "'seethed,' where you just put them in a single-ish layer in a pan with a little water and a little butter, simmer covered until just tender, then just boil off some of the liquid to reduce it for a sauce." If you like you can add herbs, salt and pepper, and eat. I tried it with the Irish butter and sure enough it's pretty darned good.

For a bit more texturally interesting experience I've enjoyed 'em hot from the stove top—just a bowl of new potatoes with a little mound of soft butter and a little pile of coarse sea salt on the side. You just break open the potato, push it into the butter, then dip a corner of it in the salt. To back up the goodness of this simple dish, take the word of Peter Foynes, who runs the Cork Butter Museum. "New potatoes and butter with salt," he said, "are the food of the gods." Hard to get better than that.

Another great thing to do with new potatoes is the Canary Islands dish of "wrinkled potatoes." You cook the potatoes in boiling water with a lot of salt, and then serve them with a mojo sauce. The Canaries are one of the great places for potato diversity—I think there are like 100 varieties still regularly grown and served there. (A couple years ago I had some amazing little purple ones at a restaurant in Madrid that had been flown in from the Islands.) I can write more down the road but if you wanted to do these you could serve the potatoes with a red Canary Island mojo, which is what we had, made with olive oil, vinegar, pimenton (paprika), and some chopped fresh garlic. It is very, very good.

I think the key here is that I want to elevate the few weeks a year of the new potato season to the same level of excitement that we all get when we're eating summer tomatoes or spring asparagus. What do you think? Give it a go this week at the market?