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One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, More...

Elizabeth Schneider / September 1994

An unusual panoply that goes beyond the basics.

Ten years ago, I assembled a group of food professionals to evaluate major potato varieties in the United States. We slogged our way through eleven types each prepared five ways—a total of 55 tastes apiece. Description glowed: "smoothly rounded," "pinkly beautiful," "warm fawn color," "satiny skin." Flavor notes read: "hint of potato," "nothing but starch," "dismal, dull, damp." Our response was unanimous: Bring back old-fashioned potato flavor!

At last, this may be happening. While not yet in the mainstream, flavorful potatoes are now available through specialty distributors, farmers markets, and mail order. Many are heirlooms, some are improved versions of familiar varieties. Most are fairly small and "irregular" in shape. They have distinct characteristics and names. Consequently, once you've enjoyed a Ruby Crescent or Yellow Finn, you can ask for it again, rather than root around an ambiguous terrain of "round reds" or "long whites"—terms with little culinary meaning.

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
The term "new potatoes," on the other hand, does have significance, which is regularly ignored. I see red nearly every time I order them—because that's what arrives instead: small red potatoes. Size, color, and shape do not signify newness. "A new potato is one that has tender skin and has just been harvested from a plant with still-green foliage, unlike mature potatoes, which are harvested when the vine yellows and dies," explains Jim Gerritsen, owner of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine. They can be the first crop of any potato variety. Some are small, but more often than not they are the same size as mature, stored potatoes. The very small percentage of true new potatoes may appear several times during the year, depending upon the location. (I'd like to see a change to "fresh-harvest" or "first-crop" potatoes to make the distinction, rather than an opposition to "old potatoes.")

Once stored, a potato is no longer new—no matter how small, what color, or how thin-skinned. Almost all potatoes are "cured," that is, held in a humid environment about two weeks at 50˚F to 60˚F to heal cuts and bruises and toughen the skin. The temperature is then lowered gradually to suitable storage conditions at which potatoes may remain up to nine months without appreciable loss (according to growers). Improperly stored, they shrink, darken, and develop spots.

SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLUE
When it comes to cooking these unfamiliar potatoes, it helps to adopt and experimental attitude. Borrow a "baking-potato approach," for example, for purple fingerlings. Roast the pearly pink round that looks like a typical "steamer": it can transform a simple roast chicken. Mash little "boiling" potatoes with their skins. Steam starchy "bakers" for salad. Different varieties have different qualities worth discovering.

Do not be seduced by appearance. Blue potatoes—and other eye-catchers—may lead you astray. Ravishing colors in the raw may not translate to rainbows on the plate. Baby blues chosen for a vivid salad may be dull-white beneath the colorful skin, or may turn cement gray when cooked. Cooking techniques affect colors dramatically. Microwaving preserves color best, but degrades flavor and texture. Steaming maintains a minimum proportion of color, flavor, and texture—but the skin may taste metallic and develop an unappetizing texture. On the other hand, they are easily slipped from steamed potatoes. With few exceptions, skins are sweeter and meld more closely to the flesh when potatoes are baked.

SMALL POTATOES: AN UP-TO-DATE GUIDE TO OLD-FASHIONED VARIETIES
Guided by growers and distributors, I sampled 31 potato varieties (twice each, usually from different farms) considered significant in the marketplace or having future potential. Each was both steamed and baked; some were also mashed and/or made into salad. For speedy visual reference, groupings are determined by appearance: fingerlings, peach-to-rose, blue-to-purple, and golden-to-tan potatoes. "Up-and-coming, heirlooms, novelties" embraces a wide assortment from all groups.

FINGERLINGS
"Fingerling" is an informal term for many narrow, small tubers. Although the Old English word describes anything tiny, it commonly refers to tiny fish and, more probably, to multi-knuckled fingers, which many fingerlings resemble.

As a group, fingerlings are generally knobby, fairly skinned, comparatively low in starch, difficult to peel, and above all, flavorful (nutty, fruity, earthy are paramount). They are also firm, creamy-smooth, and appealingly waxy. Most excel steamed, roasted, and tossed in vinaigrette. Steamed are best peeled, which is easily once cooked. Thinnest-skinned, teeny fingerlings are incomparable slow-cooked, covered, with a little butter and rosemary.

Banana/Russian Banana: Narrow tapering, quite smooth; tan-cream skin, buttercream flesh. Rich, refined, old fashioned potato flavor. Firm, fine-textured when steamed, baked, boiled, in salad. Steamed is silkiest; baked is sweetest. Color remains close to same as raw.

Ozette/Anna Cheeka's Ozette: Maintained by the Makah/Ozette Indian tribe in Washington since introduced by Spaniards, via Peru. Narrow, knuckly; tissue-thin, pale gold skin; yellow flesh. Steamed is creamy, slightly nutty, pleasantly floury and waxy, with delicate skin; visual effect is pale, clean. Baked, less attractive; skin toughens a bit , flesh compresses somewhat—but flavor is fine.

Purple Peruvian: Knobbed, deep purple/ navy irregular rounds and teardrops; flesh pale at perimeter deep purple at center. Cooked, flesh turns lavender-to-blue, skin remains dark. Thick, tough skin difficult to peel; unbalanced flavor with soil predominant. This relatively well-known specialty is, to my taste (six samples), overrated. Baked is most acceptable: nice earthiness, starchy/mealy texture.

Rose Finn/Rose Finn Apple: Long, narrow, oblong, with knuckly protrusions; satiny pale pink-buff, thin skin; yellow flesh. Steamed, roasted, braised, in salad—an altogether elegant, versatile, rewarding potato, sweet, but balanced yellow flesh is both waxy and creamy, drier than some. Rarely requires peeling.

Ruby Crescent: Neither ruby nor crescent-shaped, but wavy oblong; thin, pale peach skin; yellow-cream flesh. Steams and bakes equally well to a complex blend of earthy, sweet, milky. Waxy, moist, consistent texture; skin rather tough. Develops a slight fishiness when cold; not for salads.

PEACH TO ROSE
In this group of nonfingerlings, skin color is the grouping criterion. Flesh color, however, is at least as important, because virtually all yellow-fleshed varieties offer more flavor than white.

Cherry Red: Small to medium, round, with coarse, magenta-pink skin; ivory flesh. Cooked, skin darkens, but color remains close. Baked (and baked, then mashed) best; flavor minimal, pleasant; texture creamy and flaky/floury; skin tough and rather bitter. Good butter-holder.

Desiree: Medium-size, symmetrical oval; thin, pale golden-pink skin; cream flesh. Europe's favorite pink potato. Best steamed to pearly alabaster; texture is waxy stain, with smooth sliceability. Pristine, delicate flavor with a high note. Remarkable staying power in flavor. Cooks fine, all ways.

Red Cloud: Medium-size, rounded; pinkish, fairly smooth skin; ivory, fine-textured flesh. Cooks well all ways. Steamed, keeps shape, character, well-balanced long flavor; holds up nicely for braising; bakes creamy, with sweet excellent, rich flavor and balance—at once waxy, starchy, crumbly, with concentrated firmness.

Red Dale: Medium-large, round, neat, and uniform; pretty pink-rose, smooth skin; cream flesh. Bake, braise, gratiné for mild, pleasant flavor with potato chip aroma; even, slightly mealy texture. Steamed, moisture distributes unevenly, flavor slightly bitter.

Rose Gold: Small, rounded; pale pinky gold, slightly rough skin; yellowish flesh. Steams beautifully: tender skin; silky, tacky texture; golden flesh; delicate flavor. Keeps shape and flavor in braises, roasts, salad. Baking develops starchy side, sweetness, glowing golden color, attractive firmness.

BLUE TO PURPLE
People tend to lump blue and purple potatoes together, as if there were only one variety, but there are many each of which has its own characteristics. Some are mealy, some moist—but most grown in this country are bland. Color generally changes for worse with cooking.

All-Blue: Medium, oblong smooth: midnight blue skin; deep purple flesh. Steams to deep lavender with pale rim; moist, smooth consistency, slightly waxy; fairly thin skin. Bakes deep lavender violet; soft, even texture between starchy and moist waxy; well-balanced taste, texture. Most versatile of blues tasted can be cooked many different ways.

Caribe: Large, rounded; speckled to uniform lavender/violet/slate-grey skin; white to grayish flesh. Steamed ranges from creamy and smooth with sweet, delicate potato flavor to ordinary. Baked, pleasant one-note. Mashes to quite light, fluffy consistency both floury and moist. Skin offers no advantages—turns gray with metallic flavor.

Kerry Blue: Large and quite smooth russet/baker form; stunning indigo/grape skin; cream flesh with violet perimeter. Best baked—light, creamy, almost fluffy. Cooked, the blueness vanishes, leaving only a blue-gray trace in the skin. Works well mashed, too. Steamed is light, starchy-mealy fresh. Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm says, "Many experts believe Kerry Blue and Purple Chief are the same potato. In any case, they look and cook alike."

GOLDEN TO TAN
Tawny-skinned potatoes with yellow flesh almost invariably offer superior flavor, whether starchy or waxy in texture. Their tacky, firm consistency and sweetness make them perfect accompaniment "vegetables."

Bintje: Medium-large, round to oblong; pale gold thin skin; creamy yellow flesh. Extremely popular worldwide, versatile. Changes little in appearance when cooked, but skin toughens. Steams has firm, waxy-starchy texture; warm balanced flavor. Equally good flavor baked; slightly firmer textures, starchier mouthfeel.

Carole/Carola: Small to large, round to oval; smooth tan skin; fine-textured yellow flesh. Steams golden, with warm creamy-smooth yellow flesh, sweet scent, and sliceable texture for salad, too. Skin needs to be removed. Bakes golden-skinned, yellow-fleshed, at once moist and flaky, smooth and fluffy; balanced, rich flavor, sweet-dough aroma. Thinish, chewy skin. Cook all ways.

Yellow Finn: Medium-small with slightly rough, pale gold thin skin; yellow flesh. Among most well known of "specialty" potatoes. Baked most appealing—solid, even, texture, smooth and creamy; sound, even texture, smooth and creamy; sound, traditional potato flavor; nice accompaniment to roasts, in braises. Steamed is bland and damp.

Yukon Gold: Medium-large, round; yellow-tan skin; yellow-flesh. Great variation among samples. Baked is best, a good replacement for usual "round whites." Some have attractive strarch-wax balance, rich yellow flesh, warm aroma, sweet, even flavor (skin too). Some are ordinary on all counts. Steamed is damp, all-purpose; skin unpleasant. Buttery color, but not flavor, as often described.

UP-AND-COMING VARIETIES, HEIRLOOMS, NOVELTIES
With the current interest in potatoes, some of the following may well be standards before long. And beyond that, if the trend continues, you may find a Blue-Eyed-Russian, Newfoundland Elephant, Irish Cobbler, Viking Red, Yukon Purple, or Alaska Sweetheart alongside your Yukon gold, Yellow Finn, or Red Bliss.

All Red: Large, elongated; deep magenta skin; pink-lavender flesh. Baked turns stunning pink throughout with bland pleasant flavor, lightish texture, damp flesh. Steamed is slippery, pulpy, dull—but gorgeously pink. Needs flavor lift: sauté or bake with seasoning.

Australian Crawler: Small, rounded or irregular; pale, pink-beige thin skin with pink-splashed eyes; cream flesh. Steamed or baked, flavor is unusually sweet, smooth. Elegant effect; begs for dollop of caviar.

Charlotte: Small to medium, oblong; smooth, thin, pale golden skin; yellow-cream flesh. Baked has long, warm, sweet flavor, tender skin. Steamed is satiny soft, flavorful, but skin is less pliant.

Cherries Jubilee: Small to medium, oblong bright magenta skin and lightly veined; pale magenta flesh. Steamed has warm pink skin, mottled pink-beige flesh; flavor is mild, lightly sweet; texture is moist, waxy; skin is virtually nonexistent, melts in the mouth. Bakes pinker, with similar flavor; skin less delicate. Serve hot.

Early Rose: Small to medium, rounded; pale peach pink skin; warm-toned flesh. Steams best, to palest peach; flesh lightly tinted, with rich consistency, mild flavor; pleasant skin. Baked flesh is lighter with less delicacy; light potato flavor, fine balance. An improvement on red all-purpose rounds.

German Butterball: Small to medium round; smooth, very thin pale gold skin; yellow flesh. Bakes and steams to unique textural and color blend of potato and rutabaga, both moist and flaky, sunny yellow. Mild, lightly earthy flavor; supple skin.

Kasaan: Looks like fat beige fingerling or skinny Jerusalem artichoke. Neither steamed nor baked has much flavor, although white flesh has appealing waxy/starchy/moist texture. Baked is creamier. Less distinction, refinement than other fingerling types.

La Rote/Larota: Largish fingerling; satiny pale gold skin; very fine-textured yellow flesh. Steams sweet, creamy with rich flavor, appealing waxiness. Bakes equally well, with full flavor, light creamy flesh. Cook all ways.

Mandel: Prettily formed, small, smooth crescent or kidney-shaped; rose-beige skin; yellow flesh. Steams pale pink with tender skin; fresh, moist, fingerling style; makes attractive presentation. Bakes smooth and delicate with cream-colored flesh; somewhat bland. Good multiuse.

Norwegian: Medium-size, knobby fingerling; thin, pale pink-beige skin, buttercream flesh. Skin steams pearly golden with pink blush, smooth (a little tough); rich yellow gold flesh is warm, bland, sweet, a tad earthy Creamy and firm at once. Baked look is less attractive, slightly crumply, but color same ; nice waxy texture, flavor concentrated. Cook all ways.

Nosebag: Medium-large, elongated, smooth, uniform oblong; thinnest rich-rose skin; fine yellow flesh. Steams pearly pink-gold with yellow-cream flesh; unusually satiny texture and melting skin—almost not recognizable as potato; waxy, moist, buttery, balanced. Baked has lingering sweet-dough aroma; flesh less silky, but has creamy/flaky texture, similar flavor. The unlikely name for this elegant tuber derives from its hiding place in a horse's nosebag, smuggled from France, according to sales literature.

Purple Viking: Medium-large, rounded, fairly smooth, uniform; stunning midnight-purple on magenta background; white flesh. Steamed, skin very earthy; quite smooth smooth, dull-white flesh; thin flavor, mostly earth. Baked gains some balance and sweetness, but still thin. The amazing skin turns various shade of purplish brown or brown.

Ratte: Small fingerling, peanut-or-sweet-potato-shaped; very thin golden skin; creamy yellow flesh. Steamed, the fine-textured flesh is creamy, waxy, silky; flavor is mild, buttery, balanced between earth and sweet. Baked had vanilla aroma, slightly rumpled hide; very waxy, smooth flesh. All ways, tastes more vegetable than starch.

Seneca Horn: Medium, elongated, tapered crescent; intensely violet skin; white flesh. Skin steams silvery lavender, flesh dull white; floury, flaky, dry; no sweetness. Baked, skin is crumply beige-lavender, flesh off-white; flavor a bit sweeter, but primarily starch—although oddly more moist than steamed. Looks more exciting than it tastes.

HOT POTATOES

Mixed Potato Terrine (Kerry Sear, Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, Seattle): Line terrine with the cleaned skins of baked russets. Boil small yellow fingerlings, small red and blue potato varieties, and small golden sweet potatoes; cool, peel, and reserve. Add gelatin, mint, and chives to the cooking liquid; layer this with the whole potatoes. Top with russet skins, weigh lightly, and refrigerate overnight. Serve chilled slices with calendula vinaigrette (cook petals in white wine vinegar, strain, and blend with olie oil and pepper); garnish with calendula petals.

Fennel-Stuffed Potatoes (Kerry Sear, Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, Seattle): Bake small red potatoes and split them. Scoop out flesh and mix with soft fennel puree; fold in fine-chopped fennel greens. Pipe back into potato skins; brown lightly. Serve with lamb.

All-Potato Plate (Waldy Malouf, Husdon River Club, New York City): Roast dYukon Golds, scooped from skin, blended with horseradish, shallot, and olive oil; whole Bintje potatoes roasted with garlic cloves anad rosemary; steamed Ozette fingerlings tossed with tomato dice and tomato oil; salad of pur[le potatoes on mixed greens with light vinaigrette and shredded fresh white farm cheese. Serve with Pinot Noir.

Roasted Potato Salad (Waldy Malouf, Husdon River Club, New York City): Roast, peel, and slice fingerlings; toss with red wine/shallot marmalade, a touch of red wine vinegar, oil, and fresh thyme. Serve warm with grilled venison chops.

Basil Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms (Peter Hoffman, Savoy, New York City): Bake Yukon Golds (to intensify flavor); peel and rice when hot. Bind with a little flour, then fold in chopped basil. Poach a few at a time; hold until serving with a touch of oil. To serve, cook chanterelles in butter; add gnocchi to reheat.

Warm Root Vegetable Appetizer (Peter Hoffman, Savoy, New York City): Roast Desiree potatoes, baby carrots, shallots, and Chioggia beets; split the potatoes and serve all with chestnut honey vinaigrette on a bed of greens.

Wild Mushroom & Potato Napoleon (Eric Stapelman, Luma, New York City): Line individaul stainless-steel molds with rounds of grilled eggplant; top with puree of celery root, Yellow Finns, and Yukon Golds; top with sauteed chanterelles, then thin-sliced roasted Finns and Yukons, more puree, chanterelles, and eggplant. Cap with portobello mushroom. Bake; serve with fish.

Warm Potato & String Bean Salad (Eric Stapelman, Luma, New York City): Roast small, oval, yellow-fleshed ptoatoes ("creamers"). To serve, warm in a little stock; add a touch of balsamic and red wine reduction, Toss with kalamatas and blanched string beans; serve with roasted pheasant.

Baked Egg with White Truffles & Baby Potatoes (Wayne Nish, March and La Colombe d'Or, New York City): Top baked egg with sautéed Ruby Crescents, herbs, and grated white truffle. Serve at once.

Potato & Prawn Appetizer (Reed Hearon, Lulu, San Francisco): Roast Banana fingerlings and Alaskan spot prawns on sea salt in a wood-fired oven. Serve with romesco sauce.

Halibut & Potatoes in Saffron (Reed Hearon, Lulu, San Francisco): Halve or slice tiny Yellow Finns, cook in an intense saffron/fish broth. Drain, then bake with halibut, a little broth, olive oil, tomatoes, bay leaf, and thyme.

Gunea Hen with Herbed Potato Salad (Roy Breiman, Restaurant at Meadowood Resort, St. Helena, California): Blanch and slice small, narrow white potatoes; marinate in olive oil and rock salt, then grill ("this procedure develops the true potato flavor"). Miz with sprigs of parsley, chervil, basil, tiniest spinach leaves, chives, and vinaigrette with shallots and balsamic. Serve warm with crisp breast of guinea hen, sliced and fanned with foie gras slices between.

Elegant Potato Salad (Lydie marshall, A Passion for Potatoes): Steam small round potatoes or fingerlings. Peel, slice, and sprinkle with white wine, salt, pepper, and minced tarragon. Sauté drained, soaked, dried morels in butter, adding soaking liquid, and reduce; toss with potatoes. Add very thin strips of radicchio, fennel, and Gruyère; toss with vinaigrette. Garnish with arugula and watercress lightly glossed with walnut oil and a touch of vinegar.

Potatoes with Shellfish (Lydie marshall, A Passion for Potatoes): Steam mussels, then clams; set aside. Strain broth add olive oil, red wine vinegar, and shallots; reduce by half. Steam Yukon Golds or Ruby Crescents; peel, slice, or cube, then toss with parsley and vinegar. Heat broth; pour shellfish and potatoes.

Creamed Potatoes with Peas (Lydie marshall, A Passion for Potatoes): Steam fingerlings until tender; meanwhile, boil half-and-half with tarragon sprigs; skim. Add fresh peas and simmer until tender. Discard tarragon, add potatoes, and heat through.

Peppery Pub Potatoes (Maggie Waldron, Cold Spaghetti at Midnight): Coat small red potatoes wit softened butter and dip into a mixture of equal parts of salt and sugar and a considerable quantity of coarsely ground black pepper; bake until tender in a moderate oven. Serve warm, as an appetizer.

Baby Potatoes Coated with Almonds (Yamuna Devi, Yamuna's Table): Steam new potatoes the size of large marbles until just tender. Combine almond oil, minced jalapeño chiles, grated fresh ginger, blanched almonds ground to a powder, and minced cilantro. Add the potatoes and toss well, seasoning with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Spear with toothpicks and serve hot or warm.

CHOOSE WISELY, STORE BRIEFLY

Look for relatively smooth, rock-hard potatoes, free of soft spots or sprouts. Avoid those with holes or cuts, which hasten spoilage through bacterial penetration. Stay clear of green-tinged potatoes (and dealers who market them), which may contain solanine, a bitter alkaloid poisonous to some allergic people.

Uneven color, flaky skin, and muddiness are more often sighs of freshness than inferiority. If potatoes are coated with a dusty soil layer, do not wipe it off, as it helps keep skins dry and protected.

Potatoes are generally summer and early fall crops. Unless you have a root cellar with ideal storage conditions, do not stock up. Small thin-skinned potatoes are more delicate and perishable than is general understood and sprout and spoil rapidly when storage is poor. Keep in a cool, dark place, but not in the refrigerator, where they darken and develop a high sugar content.