Sunday, July 20, 2008

Potato Paradise: The Rhode Island Coast

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         We used to jokingly refer to my old house in Little Compton as “Chateau Potato,” pronounced with a soft ‘a’ so that it rhymed, because half the 175 acres behind it were planted with potatoes. I loved having the endless, purple- and white-flowered potato fields there—except the one year, of course, when a potato bug infestation was so severe that the striped little critters began to show up uninvited at the house after they’d exhausted the plants. Both the farm and my house have now changed hands, but the potato fields are still there, now planted and harvested by my former neighbor, Tyler Young, and sold by his wife Karla.
I stopped in at the farm yesterday and Karla said, “I’ve been wondering when you’d be by looking for those little ones,” nodding in the direction of the basket in my hand; she was right, I always picked the tiniest ones she had. The newest of the new.
Potatoes are Rhode Island’s biggest crop, grown primarily along the southeastern coast. And that’s not the only thing potato about Rhode Island. We are the birthplace and home of the perennially popular and charming toy, Mr. Potato Head. Thanks to the same fine legislature that made coffee milk our state drink, you can get a Mr. Potato Head license plate if you want.
But I digress. Good local potatoes are beginning to appear, and from now until fall they will be available here in Rhode Island. The first ones of the season, freshly dug and cooked while they are barely out of the ground, are always a kind of miracle. Their melting texture and full flavor, at once earthy and delicate, are beyond description. The best advice I have is to treat them as you would a good diamond: solitaire, without too much fussy distraction from the perfection of the thing. Boiled, of course, or fried. Or the simplest of potato salads.
A good, honest potato salad, one worthy of the new potato, is an elusive thing. Here are the rules for the potato salad my family has made for three generations: no hard-boiled egg; no celery, pickles, or other doo-dads; no “salad dressing” or sour cream or anything other than first-rate mayonnaise; no seasonings other than salt and pepper; dress while potatoes are very warm; never, ever refrigerate before serving, at room temperature. The potatoes should be what are generally called all-purpose—those that fall comfortably between waxy and mealy—with a neutral flavor that allows the texture to be the focal point; I think, for example, that Yukon Golds or other yellow potatoes have too strong a flavor. Red-skinned potatoes, except for those that are newly dug as I have here, can be too waxy and hard; go for whites from California, Washington, or Maine if you cannot find tiny local new potatoes.
Lest you think the rules are too rigid, I will just mention that everyone who has ever eaten potato salad at my house, or my mother’s, or my grandmother’s, has said it’s the best they’ve ever had. It’s one of those non-recipes that are about getting just the right taste, and to accomplish which we never measure. But here is my best shot to get you started, in the absence of being able to give you a taste.
The Family Potato Salad

The proportions here are based on 1 pound of potatoes. When you double or triple the amount of potatoes, it is probably about right to double the oil and vinegar, but add additional onion more conservatively—maybe 2 T to start for 3 pounds of potatoes. Serves 3 per pound of potatoes.

1 pound freshly dug potatoes, or the best all-purpose new white potato you can find
1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise, or Hellmann’s® Real Mayonnaise only*
2 tea corn or other vegetable oil
¾-1 tea cider vinegar
1 T finely chopped, almost minced, fresh onion
Freshly ground pepper
In a small bowl, vigorously stir the oil and vinegar into the mayonnaise to lighten it. Stir in the onion and the seasonings, starting with perhaps a scant 1/8 tea salt and 3 or 4 twists of the pepper mill. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Boil the potatoes, unpeeled and whole if they are new and small but peeled and cut up evenly if not, until they can easily be pierced with a fork but are not falling apart; this will take as little as 10 and as many as 20 minutes, depending on freshness and size. Drain, and let stand about 5 minutes, or until you can handle them. Cut into halves, quarters, or slices, depending on how you started out, and toss them into the dressing; it is crucial that you do this while the potatoes are still very warm, which results in a magical melding at the borderline of potato and dressing. Taste for seasoning; add additional vinegar, salt, pepper, or onion cautiously to achieve a balance of flavors; if the potatoes are very absorbent, you may need a bit more mayonnaise as well. Do not refrigerate! Leave on the counter, and serve at room temperature. (Of course, refrigerate left-overs, which will be very good but not as transporting the next day.)
You may be tempted to add some fresh basil, parsley, or tarragon for color or flavor. My advice is: don’t. But if you do, just don’t tell me, and please don’t do it while the potato salad is still warm: the herb will permeate and dominate the dressing, defeating the essential point of this salad.
*Roughly west of the Rockies, Hellmann’s® is known as Best Foods®.
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