Holly Ebel: One potato, two potato, more
In the world of vegetables, potatoes probably won’t win any beauty contests like, say, a ripe red tomato might.
What they would walk away with, however, is the popularity prize. Who doesn’t just love potatoes just about any way they’re prepared — mashed, French fried, baked, au gratin?
And let’s not forget hash browns, potato salad and potato soup. They are also a main ingredient in Italian gnocchi, Jewish knishes and latkes as well as German potato pancakes and Irish O’Brien.
Individually, most of us eat 140 pounds of potatoes per year, more than any other vegetable. Potatoes are generally served at one out of every three meals, which seems like a dubious fact until you think about it.
Over the past few decades, there has been something of a potato revolution, with many new varieties developed, grown and coming to markets. In fact, there are more than 200 different kinds, though we don’t see nearly that many. Grocery stores sell the popular russets, round and red-skinned, white all-purpose and the yellow Yukon Gold. You’ll also be able to find packaged fingerlings.
For the more unusual and heritage varieties, you need to go to the farmers markets. Sandy and Lonny Dietz of Whitewater Gardens will have at least seven to eight varieties, including the yellow flesh, as well as blue and red flesh, but likely not until early July.
The vendor who can sell you a wide variety of spuds now is Mark Timm of Fairview Farm. He plants 20 varieties over a 2-acre spread, including Kennebunk, Elba, Yukon Golds, Adirondack Blues (great mashed, he says), and German Butterballs. The Pinto Gold potato has been his big seller. On winter market Saturdays, he brings 10 crates with a variety from which potato lovers can choose. Need help? He can give you advice.
When choosing potatoes, wherever you buy them, it’s important to remember that not all potatoes are created equal. There are differences in the amounts of water and starch which can determine how they behave and perform. They are also one of the healthiest foods you can eat containing Vitamin C, potassium, fiber and a host of other vitamins and minerals. Some go as far as to call them the near perfect food. When buying look for well-formed, firm and smooth ones with no touches of green. That indicates age. Store in a dry, dark place but not the refrigerator since the starch will turn to sugar.
Potatoes were slow to catch on for centuries. Spanish Conquistadors brought them to Europe, where they were mostly used as animal fodder until cooks throughout Europe began using them, as it became known they were easier to grow and a healthy food.
They arrived in the colonies in 1621, and in 1719 Scotch-Irish immigrants established potato patches around New Hampshire.
Potatoes have also been at the center of great tragedy. We know about the devastating potato blight that swept Europe in the 1840s, killing more than a million Irish through starvation and disease.
Today, potatoes are the world’s fourth-largest food crop (behind rice, wheat and corn). The U.S. grows more than 30 billion pounds a year. Virtually every state has a potato crop, with Idaho being the largest producer.
Here is a primer on how to use a few of the most popular varieties:
Russets: The classic baking potato. Their high starch and low moisture content lets them bake up light and dry. Also perfect for mashed potatoes, though they really drink up the cream and butter. Not great for potato salad, as they don’t hold their shape.
New potatoes: Refers to the waxy, low starch type of any kind that are young, small and freshly dug. They are great for boiling, and because they are thin-skinned they don’t need peeling. In fact, Timm says, he never peels any potato because many nutrients are in the skin.
Yukon Golds are the darlings of chefs and potato lovers. Their medium starch level makes them versatile and very flavorful. The Yellow Finn is similar. They can be used in virtually any dish, from mashed to au gratin, with success.
Boiling potatoes are both white and red. These have low starch and high moisture, which allows them to hold together. Good in salads and also roasted. You can bake these, but they are not as fluffy as russets when mashed or baked.
Fingerlings have a funny shape and are narrow. They’re very flavorful and can be roasted or boiled. Sometimes the peel can be bitter, so they can be peeled before roasting or after boiling.