Friday, August 3, 2007

Freshly Dug New Potatoes: Pommes Perfection

The coastal areas of
Rhode Island are blooming with potato plants right now, and the first early potatoes are coming to the roadside stands. Down the street, my former neighbors at Young Family Farm are offering white Norwis potatoes and a red variety; their Yukon Golds are on their way.
Except in the literal sense, their appearance is no small potatoes. A potato fresh from the ground is one of the very best, maybe the best, of the incomparable “first tastes” of summer. Better than the first tender Boston lettuce. Better than the earliest sweet corn. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, better than the first full-flavored field tomatoes. There is nothing quite like the impossibly creamy texture and sweet-earthy taste of a boiled new potato, simply dressed with butter, salt, pepper, and a little chopped parsley (and sometimes lemon, in New England), or the crisp-creamy combination of a French fry made from a potato dug that morning. The frying properties of new potatoes, with their optimal sugar-starch balance, are simply amazing: you get thin, golden, slightly puffed crusts that shatter through to tender centers. Freshly dug potatoes taste, and cook, completely differently from their stored and transported counterparts; their skins are so fine they rub off easily with a towel.
Though potatoes are grown in virtually every state in the country on some 1.2 million acres—14.5 million pounds from 500 acres are harvested in Rhode Island alone in a good year—most people go through their entire lives without eating a local, freshly dug potato. Potatoes from Idaho, California, and sometimes Maine are what’s on offer, no matter where you live. So here in Little Compton, where potatoes are grown in abundance, the local supermarket, five minutes from where I live, sells potatoes grown hundreds or thousands of miles away. Old potatoes, that is.
This is partly because many potato farms grow their products for commercial uses. A major potato farmer in my area, for example, grows his for potato chips; his yield is pre-sold, under contract, to a large food corporation. But he does put a few table potatoes, in assorted colors, shapes, and sizes, out on his wall for people to pick up, and they are wonderful. Unless you persuade your market to bring in some local potatoes (which of course you should try to do), going to farm or roadside stands is the only way you are likely to enjoy the revelation of taste and texture hiding inside a boiled new potato.
So if you do find some, showcase them. I used to live in a house that backed onto 175 acres, half planted with potatoes, half with corn, and I could pick up tiny little potatoes that were lying above ground, about the size of large marbles, on my early morning walks out the farm road. They became one of my favorite cocktail appetizers, microwaved briefly with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and popped in the mouth. If you come across such tiny potatoes, try it. It is not going too far to say that when you find new potatoes, you should make your meal of them: simply boiled, or if you have the patience, French fries, or if not, sautéed potatoes with roasted garlic or sliced potatoes grilled in foil packets with butter, thyme, salt, and pepper. A Tortilla Espanola is another nice focal point.

Tortilla Espanola with Roasted Pepper Garnish
Except for the olive oil and seasonings, this typical Spanish tapa, visible on the counter of every tapas bar worth its salt, can be made with all local, farm-sourced ingredients at this time of year. Per tradition, it is mostly potato; if you like more egg, add another; proportions here are malleable. Flipping a tortilla, as with a tarte tatin, requires more nerve than skill. Be firm, and confident. Serves 8-10 for an appetizer.
7 small freshly dug potatoes, about 1 ½ lb
1 medium onion, peeled
5 large fresh local eggs
½ cup olive oil, preferably Spanish
½ cup vegetable oil
salt (about 1 teaspoon)
1 whole red pepper, roasted
1 T olive oil, leftover from cooking the tortilla
¼ tea smoked paprika
¼ salt
freshly ground pepper
fresh basil (optional)
Briskly rub the skins of the potatoes under water. Slice potatoes and onion about 1/8” thick. Put the oil into a large skillet or sauté pan, layer in the potatoes and onions as they are sliced, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low but still bubbling, and cook the potatoes until they are just tender, pressing them lightly with a spatula occasionally and moving them around gently so that they cook evenly but do not stick or break up; you are really stewing, not frying them. They will take 10-15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, reserving the oil. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the potatoes, press them down to submerge, and let sit for about 15 minutes. In a 9” sauté pan, put 1-2 T reserved oil; heat to smoking; and slide in the eggs and potatoes (it will have congealed a bit while sitting, and should slide in pretty much en masse), distributing evenly if needed. Immediately reduce heat to medium and cook, shaking the pan, until the bottom is brown and the edges, which may puff up a little, are firm; this will take just a minute or two. Put a large lid over the pan and cook another minute, or until the top of the tortilla looks firm enough to turn. To turn: Invert a dinner plate over the pan. With a kitchen towel, grasp the handle of the pan as close to the pan as you can and, with your other hand firmly holding the plate in place, turn the pan over, depositing the tortilla onto the plate, bottom, browned side up. Return the pan to the heat, add another T of the reserved oil, and slide the tortilla off the plate into the pan to brown the other side. Turn it out onto a platter and let stand to room temperature. Serve in small wedges, topped with the red pepper garnish and chopped basil. It's also good with aioli.
Garnish: Roast and peel the sweet red pepper (I use the toaster oven on broil when doing one pepper); slice into thin strips and cut in half; mix with the salt, pepper, oil, and smoked paprika. Let marinate for an hour or so.


Marco said...

Fresh potatoes are a wonder of the earth. When I make a tortilla, I put the roasted peppers into the tortilla itself. Great with Romesco sauce. Fine post!

Steph said...

Hi Jane,

I love your blog! I also love Little Compton and the fresh potatoes that can be had there at roadside stands. I never tasted a potato until I tasted a Little Compton potato.
My fiance and I live in Providence but will live in Little Compton someday! Every August we rent a house there. Also, we only ever go to the beach there - every chance we get. It's a paradise. Untouched. This year, somewhat to my chagrin, Little Compton boasts some new street signs. Do we really want people to know where they are?
I am reading your archives, hence the lateness of my comment.

Jane said...

Thank you, Steph! The good news is, some of the new signs are actually confusing some people! I agree, paradise. Like the freshly dug potatoes.

Lynne B. said...

I'm half Italian, and this sounds like our frittata. (Isn't it interesting how different cultures often have similar foods?) I usually throw whatever veggie I have in the fridge in it, in addition to eggs, and usually potatoes - just made yesterday, as a matter of fact. I'm going to try the roasted red pepper with it next time - sounds delish.

By the way, I love reading your blog. I'm just north of Boston - hope to visit the Little Compton area someday. You're in a little hidden area of New England that many of us have yet to discover.

Keep up the tempting writing! I love it - I get hungry every time I visit your blog!

Jane said...

Hi Lynne: Thank you for your comment and for reading; I really appreciate it. Yes, the tortilla is similar to a frittata, but a little less omelette-y; it's sturdy, and never eaten hot. Both are fabulous!