From Jeff Cox
Organic Food Guy
Kenwood, Sonoma County
Potatoes have kept whole cultures alive. Not only the Incas, who first cultivated the tuber, but (after potatoes reached Europe in the 16th century) also many countries in the northern parts of Europe. Potatoes were a staple of the Irish, at least until a bacterial blight decimated the Emerald Isle’s crops in the mid- to late-1840s, causing starvation and necessitating emigration.
The word potato comes from the Carib Indian word batata, which actually referred to the sweet potato. The Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the New World pronounced it patata and used it also to refer to the white potato because of its similar appearance. Eventually the word became papas in Spanish. Like other New World crops, such as peppers and tobacco, potatoes soon conquered Europe and then the world. The Italians first thought of potatoes as a kind of truffle, because they both grow under the ground, and called them tartufo bianco, or white truffle. That became taratufflo, which the Germans heard as kartoffel. The Russians heard the German name and gave it a Slavic twist by calling them kartochki.
The Organic Factor
The flavor and texture—even the color—of the same variety of potato can change dramatically depending on where it’s grown and the soils and climate in that place. But no matter where they’re grown, few foods are better than potatoes pulled fresh from dark, crumbly organic soil and cooked within minutes. They have an earthy, comforting flavor, probably from delicate esters and other flavor compounds that disappear in storage. They also have a smooth, rich texture, perhaps due to the contrast with conventionally grown potatoes whose cell division has been chemically altered. If you can’t grow potatoes where you live, by all means seek out real organic spuds at the farmers’ markets or organic supermarket. You’ll also be more likely to find some of the superior if somewhat unusual varieties at farmers’ markets.
Because we get the full benefit of potato nutrients only when we leave the skins on, it’s extremely important that we eat only organic potatoes, which don’t have to be peeled. Two toxic chemicals are sprayed on much of the nation’s $2.5 billion conventional potato crop each year, both in the field and in storage, to inhibit sprouting; and anyone who cooks with conventional potatoes would be wise to peel them to remove the bulk of the chemical residue. Maleic hydrazide is applied a few weeks before harvest. It inhibits cell division in the tubers but not cell expansion—therefore, besides stopping the formation of sprouts on the potatoes, it also produces tubers with large, watery cells. So the buyer gets less taste along with his chemical-treated potato. A second chemical, chlorpropham, is applied to potatoes when they are being stored, before they go to market.
That’s just the sprout inhibitors. Other chemicals are used in the processing of potatoes for potato chips, instant potatoes, and other potato products. I am reassured about the benefits of organic food every time I cook organic potatoes skins and all.
While the bulk of the potato tuber is made up of starches—energy-packed complex carbohydrates—most of a spud’s generous stores of nutrients are in a thin layer just under the fibrous skins. Just 7 ounces of baked potato, with skin, gives you 4.7 grams of protein. While that’s not a huge amount, it is usable, as potatoes are higher in lysine than the other top starches of the world—wheat, corn, and rice. Those 7 ounces also provide 50 percent of our Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin B6, 30 percent of vitamin C, from 15 percent (females) to 30 percent (males) of our daily iron needs, 20 percent of magnesium, 5 percent of folic acid, and 42 percent of our potassium.
It used to be that potatoes were generic, and either brown or red skinned. The reds were sometimes called “new potatoes,” but that was a misnomer—they were simply a smaller variety, while new potatoes really are new, or immature. Red potatoes have a flesh that’s classified as waxy, while the big Idaho bakers in the stores are starchy. Waxy potatoes take to boiling better than the starchy types that tend to become too soft and watery. For that reason, I prefer red potatoes for mashed potatoes, while starchy potatoes are best for baked potatoes. Either type makes good french fries.
Nowadays you an find many other kinds of potatoes in various shapes like thumbs, fingers, and crescents, and in colors from red to pink to yellow to purple and violet. The Peruvian Purple potato is a starch type that arrived in America in the 1970s and caused everyone to ooh and aah—it’s now one of the 200-plus varieties grown in the United States. I love the French or German fingerlings, with their dense, waxy, rich flesh, and luscious flavor. I like to cut them on the diagonal into thirds, fry them in a heavy skillet in a little olive oil, just until they start to brown (about 8 minutes over medium heat), add a chopped onion, salt, and fresh ground black pepper and finish them for 20 minutes in a 350°F oven. They are perfect boiling with their skins on and then slicing cold into salads, especially the tangy German-style ones. They make great mashed potatoes. You see a lot of the varieties called Yukon Gold and Yellow Finn in stores these days. These are intermediate between the waxy and starchy types, and Yukon Golds have a sweeter flavor and sap that caramelizes easily when pan-fried.
Potato crops come in from summer through fall. Winter potatoes are either taken from storage or are grown in mild climates.
What to look for
When choosing potatoes, first of all make sure there’s no green showing through or just under the skin. When potatoes are exposed to light, even artificial light, they produce a green substance called solanine. It’s a poisonous alkaloid and should never be eaten. You can peel it away, but better, don’t buy green potatoes.
See that your spuds (the word spud is a corruption of the word spade, which you use to dig the tubers) are free of black, rough, scabby spots. They should have no soft spots or cuts in the skin, no discolored spots, no moldy pits, and they should be firm, even hard. The presence of dried soil on organic potatoes is actually a good sign, since soil shows that the tubers haven’t been washed, which exposes them to mold and rot spores and to bacteria. You can always brush them clean at home.
In the old days, farmhouses had root cellars where potatoes for the winter were stored. The root cellar was dark, the air was mildly moist, and the temperature a natural year-round 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Those conditions remain ideal for potatoes; but since most of us don’t have root cellars, it’s enough that we store potatoes in the dark at room temperature. If you put them in the fridge, the cold causes the tubers’ starches to change into sugars, giving them a weirdly sweet, off flavor.
Potatoes are champions at enhancing and holding the flavors of other foods. Cooked with celery root or turnips or garlic and mashed with cream, butter, and salt, they are exalted. Potatoes with bacon or with onions or leeks are irresistible combinations.
Keep an eye out for new potatoes
Real new potatoes are harvested from the plant’s trailing underground roots while the plant is still growing. They tend to be small and their skins are thin and flaky. They are prized for their fine, delicate flavor, so if you find them—usually when the first early summer crop is still weeks from harvest and again when the second crop in September is still weeks from harvest—nab them. I’ve never seen them sold anywhere but farmers’ markets and roadside stands, but they may start appearing in specialty markets.
Organic Fingerling Potato and Chanterelle Gratin Recipe
Here’s a wonderful update on the potato gratin, a confabulation of flavors that’s intense, luscious, and full of sinful fat.
1½ tablespoons organic butter, plus extra for the pan
5 ounces blue cheese, at room temperature
2½ cups organic half-and-half
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound chanterelle mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 pounds German or French Fingerling organic potatoes, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.
2. Put the cheese and ½ cup of the half-and-half in a bowl and mash them into a coarse paste with salt and the pepper. Add the remaining 2 cups of half-and-half and mix thoroughly.
3. In a heavy pot, melt the 1½ tablespoons butter over medium high heat. Add the chanterelles and thyme. Sauté until the mushrooms are tender and the liquid is mostly reduced, about 7 to 9 minutes.
4. Place half of the potatoes in the buttered baking pan. Ladle ¾ cup of the cheese sauce over the top. Top with all the mushroom mixture, then with another ¾ cup of the cheese sauce. Place the remaining potatoes on top and cover them with the remaining cheese sauce. Cover the baking pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for 30 minutes more, until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Organic Potato Soufflé
This is an old German recipe that shows off the taste of good potatoes. Make sure all your ingredients are fresh, young, starchy potatoes like White Rose or russet.
1 pound organic baking potatoes, peeled
4 organic eggs, separated
2 tablespoons organic butter
½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated Gruyére cheese
1. Fill a large pot with water and add the potatoes. Bring to a boil, salt lightly, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Drain well.
2. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Mash the potatoes with the egg yolks, butter, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold into the potato mixture. Pour into a buttered shallow 9 x 9-inch baking dish and sprinkle the top with the cheese. Bake for 12 minutes.