What's In Season: Potatoes
They're More Than an Excuse for Sour Cream
My sweet Irish father was an authentic meat-and-potatoes guy and my mother, a better cook than my dad's unadventuresome palate let her be, cooked potatoes for almost every dinner. He liked them white, boiled, and with butter.
In How To Eat A Peach, author Russ Parsons gives potatoes faint praise, saying they are "the essence of bland stolidity. They adapt to almost any cooking technique you can imagine and are happy being paired with almost any ingredient."
Then there's the carb thing -- I know many, including my dear husband, who avoid them for their starch. But I think this is really short-sighted. If we only use potatoes as a vehicle for hot oil, butter, cheese or sour cream, then of course we should think twice before eating them. But potatoes have lots of nutrients, protein and fiber, and wonderful flavor without simply being a carrier for everything you put with them.
We're not food police here at The City Cook. But in the winter every home cook I know is looking for flavor, nutrition, and satisfying meals. So please give potatoes another chance.
How To Select A Potato
As with most produce, buying a potato isn't a simple thing. So which should we choose? The answer depends upon how you're going to cook them.
The primary variant is how much starch a potato has: the more starch, the fluffier its texture once cooked. Russet potatoes, the ones we call "baking potatoes" and that are featured in ads for Idaho potatoes, have the most starch, making them a good choice for mashing.
Potatoes with less starch, like red bliss, develop a waxier texture when cooked, making them good for salads or soups, dishes in which you want the potato pieces to hold their shape, even when cooked to tenderness.
What about sweet potatoes and yams? Are they really potatoes? According to Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green, "the sweet potato is botanically unrelated to the potato .…" What we commonly call a sweet potato, that dark orange-colored tuber, is in fact a yam. Another variety of yam that can be found in our markets, especially city markets, is the African yam; this is lighter in color, has a blander flavor, and is popular in ethnic cuisines that use spicy sauces and seasonings.
Sweet potatoes are popular not only for their taste but also their nutrients: they're high in vitamin A and beta carotene (thus their color) and while sweet potatoes can be more dense than potatoes, you can usually substitute them for potatoes in most recipes and cooking methods. For example, they can be baked, mashed, cut into pieces and roasted, or sliced thin and baked into chips (I love mashed sweet potatoes that have been mixed with unsalted butter and a pinch of cardamom, adding a fragrant, peppery taste). With their rich flavor, sweet potatoes are also used in place of squash or pumpkin, as in pureed soups or sweet pies.
What's the health score on (non-sweet) potatoes and do they deserve so much scorn? A half-cup has about 68 calories so a potato that is about 2 1/2-inches in diameter has about 120 calories. A 3-to-4-inch baked potato (naked) has about 290 calories. Yes, a potato has carbohydrates, but it also is high in potassium and dietary fiber with a decent amount of protein, calcium, iron and vitamin C -- and zero cholesterol or fat. That is until we start adding butter, milk, grated cheese, or hot oil to turn a sliced potato into frites.
When are potatoes in season? We often think of them as a winter food but I think that's because they store well, regardless of when harvested. Most likely those now in our markets have been in storage since last fall, the potatoes' skins getting thicker as the months pass.
But when summer returns, go to your favorite Greenmarkets and farmers' markets and look for tissue-paper-thin-skinned new potatoes, ones that have just been pulled from the dirt. You'll see names like Ruby Crescents, La Rattes, and Gold Nuggets, in colors that range from pale yellow to soft rose to deep purple. These are the potatoes on which to base a meal, cooking and serving them simply, with a knob of good butter or a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of that expensive salt that someone gave you as a gift and you've been hoarding. This is when you will taste the potato in all its earthy sweetness.
But through most of the year, when faced with the bins of familiar choices, pick a potato based on your recipe:
- Baking: Russets, Sweet Potatoes (i.e., yams)
- Mashing: Russets, Yukon Gold (if you prefer your mashed potatoes chunky and more crushed than puréed, use the Yukon Gold or else an all-purpose potato like a Red Bliss instead of the Russet)
- Boiling/Steaming: Red Bliss, Yukon Gold, Creamers or All-Purpose Whites
- Roasting: Yukon Gold, Red Bliss, fingerlings, local heirlooms
- Frying: Russets or other starchy potatoes
- Salads: Yukon Gold, fingerlings such as the Russian Banana, blue and purple potatoes, Red Bliss, white potatoes
- Thickening Soups: Russets (peel before adding to soups)
Buying and Storing Potatoes
Pre-refrigeration, many homes had something called a "root cellar," where vegetables like potatoes, carrots, cabbages and turnips could be stored from the harvest right through a cold winter. Since city cooks don't have cellars or garages, we're left to using our refrigerators. But refrigerators are cold enough to provoke the conversion of starch to sugar so here's your best bet: despite their apparent shelf life, buy potatoes shortly before you expect to use them. I don't know if the starch-to-sugar conversion changes a potato's calories or nutrients, but it does change the taste.
Here are some other suggestions:
- Choose potatoes that are firm and have a nicely formed shape because this will make the potatoes easier to peel and cut into uniform shapes. Choose baking potatoes that are relatively uniform in shape so that they will bake evenly.
- Avoid potatoes with sprouts or green spots. Sprouts suggest that the potato has been stored in a warm place and thus may not have the best flavor. Green spots are a sign of chlorophyll, produced when potatoes are exposed to heat or light after they've been harvested. Chlorophyll may also suggest the presence of glycoalkaloid, a toxin that potatoes produce naturally to defend against pests. Although most glycoalkaloids are in the skin and easily peeled off, and even if you ingested small amounts you won't get sick, it's a sign that the potato may not have been handled or stored well, so unless it's the last potato at your market, give it a pass. (Russ Parsons says in How to Eat a Peach that these toxins can in fact add to a potato's flavor; I'll leave that as his opinion).
- Look for potatoes that are locally grown. There is a huge difference in flavor between a local, recently dug-up potato and one that's been in storage for months after traveling 2,500 miles.
- "New" potatoes are ones that have been recently harvested. The clear sign is the thinness of their skin. When very new, a potato's skin is so thin you can just rub it off with a finger and at Greenmarkets you'll see just-dug potatoes with skins that are even flaking off. As potatoes are stored, their skin naturally thickens.
Handling and Cooking Potatoes
When you peel or cut a potato, its flesh oxidizes and quickly discolors, turning a little pink, then brown, and finally an unappetizing gray. This is only aesthetics; there's no change in taste or anything else. You can avoid this by having a bowl of cool water ready and slip the peeled/cut potatoes into the water until you're ready to cook them (they can sit for hours like this at room temperature). If you're making something that needs shredded potatoes, like latkes, putting all the little potato pieces in water won't work. So instead just try to avoid shredding them too far in advance and know that any discoloration will disappear once the potatoes are cooked.
If you are lucky enough to have locally grown potatoes, resist doing anything fancy with them. Scrub them clean and simmer or steam until tender. Depending on their size, this usually takes about 15 minutes. When boiling potatoes, start them in cold (salted) water instead of adding them to already boiling water because this lets the potato cook more evenly; otherwise you could have ones that are still a bit hard in the center but falling apart at the edges.
Another tip: simmer your potatoes until just barely tender, drain and place the colander in the sink with a cover on top and let them sit for about 15 minutes. This lets the potatoes finish cooking by steaming, giving the potatoes a nicer texture and less of that messy over-cooked debris that can easily happen when cooking potatoes in lots of hot water.
Other ways to cook potatoes include roasted on a sheet pan in a 400° F oven for about 25 minutes (the time will depend upon how big the pieces are). Before cooking, peel, cut into one to two-inch pieces, drizzle with a little olive oil, add some salt and pepper and maybe some rosemary, then during the roasting give the pan a couple of shakes to let the potatoes turn and brown on all sides. If they stick, just give them a nudge with a spatula.
Then there's mashed (I'm a classicist and like them made simply with only a splash of milk or half-and-half and a generous dab of butter), sliced thin into chips and oven-baked as a snack, in soup, or potato pancakes.
Baked potatoes are also simple: wash the potatoes first, just put directly on the oven rack or a sheet pan in a 400° F oven and cook for about 45 minutes (time will vary with the size) until the potatoes give a little when you gently squeeze them (use a towel or potholder to protect your fingers). No oil or no wrapping in foil. Just the potato and the heat. Some say you should first prick the skins with a fork, but I've been baking potatoes for decades and have never had one explode in my oven. I'm also not a fan of microwaving potatoes because it changes the texture and isn't that soft texture contrasting the dry skin so much of what we love about baked potatoes?
For a big selection of ways to enjoy this wonderful tuber, a quick search at Smitten Kitchen produces a big and varied selection of recipes.
And then there are salads. I love the no-mayonnaise classic French potato salad. In this dish, just-cooked potatoes are drizzled with a vinaigrette while the potatoes are still warm and then dusted with a snip of chives. Potato gratins are also very popular but my resistance to them is that they are mostly a vehicle for lots of cream and grated cheese so you can't even taste the potatoes.
At MarthaStewart.com you can search for potato salad and get nearly 20 takes on the classic summer favorite. Take a look at the variety of ways you can combine cooked potatoes with other ingredients (some with no mayonnaise in sight) and then think about these salads served slightly warm or at room temperature, either as a first course for a dinner party or a side for supper. Likewise if you have a subscription to The New York Times cooking site, they have a terrific variety of salads, including some excellent ones made with sweet potatoes.
We'll leave for another time the stories about how the potato brought the Irish to America.