There is no more pedestrian vegetable than the potato. It is the tuber, or root, of the Solanum tuberosum plant, which is a member of the nightshade family that is native to South America. Indigenous populations in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have cultivated potatoes for several thousand years. The potato has taken root most famously in Ireland, but indeed appears in most cuisines as a staple starch and a fresh vegetable.
Potatoes are challenging to grow in Central Virginia for at least two reasons. Firstly, the potato prefers a loose, loamier soil than the standard compact, red clay of our fields. Soil can be amended and fluffed over time—but the harvest of potatoes requires digging them up and washing them off, so there goes your loam. Secondly, potatoes thrive in moderate temperatures of around 60 degrees, which is a very pleasant temperature at which our mercury rarely hovers. And if those challenges aren’t enough, a potato harvest can number in the thousands of pounds, putting physical and financial pressure on the grower to bring the product to market all at once.
True potato season is late spring—as the summer solstice approaches at the end of June, potato foliage matures and blooms white, indicating that the tubers are probably ready for harvest. These early summer potatoes, or “new” potatoes, have thin feathery skins and will cook rather quickly because their sugars have not yet converted to starch.
On the autumn end of the spectrum, storage potatoes are harvested before the ground freezes, and in avoidance of heavy precipitation, which can cause them to rot in the ground. Fortunately skewer season has passed, because these mature spuds look more like rocks than food. However, they have just what it takes to hold steady in a root cellar—a thick skin and a lot of starch.—Lisa Reeder
Potato salad basics
Any potato can make a good potato salad, but most potato salads are so drenched in mayonnaise-y dressing that the potato flavor is absent. If it’s the potato flavor and texture that you want, follow these guidelines.
TUBER SHOPPING AND STORAGE
Ideally, a storage potato will have “cured” in a cool, dark place just
after harvest, which dries the potato and thickens its skin. At home, potatoes can be stored still bearing some dirt as long as it is nice and dry. Sunshine and warmth will cause a potato to sprout, making it bitter and mildly poisonous, so find the coolest, driest, darkest spot and try to convince them they are still safe underground.
If you bring home a bushel of variously-sized potatoes, don’t be dismayed—just sort them into two sizes as you clean them, and begin cooking the larger ones before slipping the smaller ones into the pot or pan.–—L.R.
Select similarly-sized potatoes, and scrub skins just before cooking to remove any dirt and leathery spots.
Cook potatoes whole in a pot large enough to give them some room to jiggle. Start them in cold water, and bring them up to a gentle boil and then turn down the heat so that they are simmering. Keep an eye on them—no lid, please.
While the potatoes are cooking, prepare your dressing and other vegetables. Consider macerating raw onion in vinegar and oil, along with other thin-sliced veggies (carrot, celery, sweet pepper, cucumber). Mustard is welcome; add mayonnaise if you must, but a little bit will go a long way when combined with the starchy potato.
When a knife easily pierces the largest potato, turn off the heat and let them begin to cool in the pan. Gently scoop or dump them into a colander to drain. Dump remaining water from the pot, and return the potatoes to the pot and the cooling burner so that they steam dry until cool enough to handle.
Peel the whole potatoes, or leave their peels on, as you prefer. Cut into bite-sized pieces, and drop (ideally still warm) into the dressing you have prepared. Warm potatoes will absorb the dressing and release some starch into it, creating a clingy effect and making for a delicious salad. Stir gently to combine ingredients, adding salt as necessary, then let the potatoes sit and cool.
Before serving, loosen up the salad with a bit of olive oil, and stir in any additional seasoning (like fresh dill, thyme, parsley, chervil, and more salt and black pepper). Thin the salad with oil, thicken it with mayonnaise, and give it more zip with spicy mustard.—L.R.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods consultant and advocate. Read more about her at http://alocalnotion.word press.com.