Long Island Larder: The Real McCoy

Miriam Ungerer | November 7, 1996

"Bumper Crop; Potato Farmers Moan," proclaimed a recent headline in The New York Times. If crops are bad, farmers moan. If crops are good, farmers moan. Maybe moaning is just a way of life for farmers - at least for potato farmers.

But at last East End farmers are trying new varieties and have, for the most part, abandoned the Katahdin, an "all-purpose" potato that wasn't much good for anything - except maybe fodder for the golden nematode.

That insect is what creates all those yellow-brown spidery tracings inside the potato that are undetected until you've carefully peeled the tuber and cut it open.

The big thing in potatoes now is the Norwis. And I do mean big. They can reach a hefty two-pound weight and football size, which makes kitchen workers happy, I suppose, but I'm not at all sure the final customer - the person sitting at the dinner table - all that cheerful.

Flavor tends to get lost with giganticism. And a high water content makes potatoes somewhat difficult to fry up crisp and light. It's better to age them a few months until some of the moisture content evaporates.

Few of us have the ideal storage for root vegetables - namely a root cellar - but any dark, unheated space is better than storage in the average kitchen. I have bins set up in my garage. Another good place I used in a previous house was the cellar steps under the Bilko door. This made getting in and out of the cellar a chilly game of hopscotch, but what the heck, some sacrifices must be made for quality. Yellow Finns are a lovely little European variety and purple Peruvians are knobby, finger-shaped varieties with tasty old-time flavor, but they aren't easy to find.

The Green Thumb in Water Mill has two varieties I treasure.

Green Mountains - an heirloom variety, bumpy and with deep eyes that don't endear it to kitchen mechanics - makes the finest mashed potatoes I've ever eaten. They are very floury and absorb gallons of milk or cream and butter. Dieters can use low-fat (but not skim) milk and hold back a bit on the butter. Mashed potatoes with olive oil are a taste I've never developed, but some people like them.

Ozettes are a very bumpy, knuckly, yellow fingerling decended from the original wild Peruvian blue, now grown chiefly by the Ozette Indians in Washington State.

Incidentally, some eye-catching blue potatoes turn a hideous cement-gray when cooked, and some aren't blue at all except for the skin. True "blues" make interesting home-made potato chips.

Reds And Golds

Red Bliss are not the only "new" potatoes on the scene. Look for Ruby Crescents, Rose Finns, and Russian Banana potatoes with old-fashioned deep potato flavor.

These are special and to be found chiefly in classy food shops, or you might try growing your own next season. A little patch of interesting types of potatoes is no big deal to grow.

I've bought little yellow-gold Bintjes, beautiful steamed or pan-roasted, at King Kullen. The come in small mesh bags and keep a lot better than one would expect of such fragile, thin-skinned potatoes.

Yukon Golds have turned up at a lot of farmstands lately, though I've heard one local farmer grumble about having to grow them. Yukon Golds became the darlings of the New York restaurant chefs a few years ago, their smooth shape, golden flesh, and good potatoey flavor making them justly popular.

Butterballs

German Butterballs (I discovered them ages ago in Bavaria) have a deep gold color and excellent flavor. Most European-developed varieties have yellow flesh, while most American ones are very white-fleshed.

For baking, the Idaho still reigns supreme for fluffiness. The familiar Russet is good for both baking and boiling, though its skin leaves something to be desired for eating.

Finally, a "new" potato is one dug out of the ground while the plant still has green foliage. Pulling them yourself is about the only way to get them. Next best is following along behind a farmer on his tractor/harvester (with his permission, of course) and "gleaning" what the machine fails to pick up.

In The Fridge? Never

Any potato that's been stored isn't "new," though any small potato, brown or red, is usually called new. Conversely, a large Red Bliss or other type freshly dug is a true "new" potato.

Potatoes with cuts, sprouts, or a greenish tinge are to be left where they are offered. The green, caused by exposure to light, often contains solanine, a bitter alkaloid poisonous to some allergic people and at the least, unpleasant to others.

Keep your potatoes in a cool, dark place with air circulating, and never, never, in the refrigerator. They develop a high sugar content in the fridge and are sickeningly sweet after a very short stay.

They're Number One

Never wash potatoes until you're ready to cook them - the dusty soil protects the skin and helps keep the potatoes dry.

Maybe you think this is more than anyone ever wanted to know about potatoes. You'd be wrong, because potatoes are our number-one food crop consumed in its natural state (as opposed to wheat, which has to be made into something else).

Real mashed potatoes, absent for a couple of decades in American restaurants, are now to be found on all the best menus, usually at $5 a pop a la carte. And potato mavens care.

Proper French Fries

These are the real McCoy, crispy golden crust and mealy-light inside, neither dried out and wooden, nor limp and greasy. People who've never had anything but the frozen, fast-food variety may not recognize them (as those who've never before tasted home-made mayonnaise think it tastes "funny"). But deep in the American soul lies a longing for real, honest-to-God, french fries as well as Mom's mashed potatoes (if certain '50s moms ever did mash potatoes).

To serve four

4 large Idaho potatoes
2 qts. peanut or corn oil
4 Tbsp. rendered beef suet or strained bacon fat
Coarse salt

Rinse the potatoes and peel them smoothly with a potato peeler. Slice them lengthwise into long ovals 1/4 inch thick. Keep the potatoes under cold water when not working with them. Stack about 5 slices and cut them into long slender sticks about 1/4 inch thick and quickly toss them into a bowl of ice water. Repeat until all potatoes are cut in sticks. Rinse under cold running water until all the milky residue runs off and the water is clear. Run fresh cold water into the bowl and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to three days.

Two-Step Process

When ready to cook, drain, spin-dry in a salad spinner, then rub between kitchen towels to dry completely. Heat the pot of oil with the suet or bacon fat to 325 degrees F. Drop in the potatoes a handful at a time, adding only as many as will move freely in the hot oil. After about six minutes, remove from the oil with a large slotted spoon or skimmer and drain on crumpled brown paper bags (paper towels are too soft and the oil tends to soak back into the potatoes). Let them cool for at least 15 minutes. An hour is better and even 2 hours is okay.

Reheat the oil to 350 degrees F. just before serving time. Slide half the potatoes into the hot oil and, gently stirring with a pair of chopsticks or handle of a wooden spoon, fry again until puffed and golden brown, about 1 minute. Scoop out with a wire-mesh strainer (the Chinese wire ladles are best for this) or any wide strainer with holes, and scatter on more clean crumpled brown-paper bags. Keep these warm in a 175-degree oven while frying the second and possibly third batch. Repeat the quick final frying, sprinkle with salt, and serve tout suite.

There is an old classic French recipe for fried potatoes called Pommes Soufflees, but it is so time-consuming (three separate trips to the frying oil) and so tricky there's no fail-safe procedure even for professional chefs. I doubt many people even want to know how to do it.

The next time you're in the 21 Club you can order them, at $8 a portion!