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SPUD LOVE: THE ÜBER TUBER

For all its unpretentious, knobbly familiarity, the potato is pretty fabulous. A rich source of vitamins (including a hefty amount of vitamin C), minerals (calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium), protein (essential amino acids), and complex carbohydrates, it has nourished humans ever since it was first domesticated in Peru, about 8,000 years ago.* Granted, it took a while for Europeans to get the hang of what to do with the New World curiosity: In the 1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh’s kitchen gardener waited until the potato flowers set seeds, and then sent those to the cook, figuring they were what was eaten.

This summer, along with the first just-dug new potatoes came a Harvard long-term study on changes in diet and lifestyle, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Among the findings was a correlation between the consumption of potatoes and gradual weight gain. Not only do extra servings of potato chips and french fries tend to expand waistlines over time, but so do nonfried potatoes (presumably embellished with butter or sour cream).

I’m not the first person, of course, who wonders if people who routinely indulge in a second helping of fries or chips might consume more calories in general than those who make different choices; plenty of others have weighed on the matter, including the ever-practical Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of What to Eat and Food Politics. And, obviously, the study’s methodology and ramifications will be discussed endlessly and in great detail.

But not here.

I would much rather spend my time cooking—and eating—the new potatoes I scored the other day from Sue Dare’s Cherry Lane Farms, at the Union Square Greenmarket. It’s tempting to roast them in parchment, David Tanis–style: They taste irrevocably of the moment. But given the temperature outside, I’m not inclined to crank up the oven and roast anything for 45 minutes.

What I’m in the mood for is potato salad, and these just-dug spuds will be the key to its goodness; moist and dense-fleshed, they hold their shape beautifully after cooking. And although I adore an old-fashioned creamy salad, with chopped hard-boiled egg and celery, I have something simpler in mind to showcase the sweet, earthy, almost nutty flavor of the star ingredient. It’s a happy amalgam of recipes from two masters—Darina Allen, of Ballymaloe Cookery School, in County Cork, Ireland, and Marcella Hazan.

No matter what sort of potato salad you make, however, you’ll want to keep a few points in mind. Always start potatoes in cold water; if you add them to boiling water, their outsides will be done before the insides are fully cooked. Once the water comes to a boil, lower the heat to a steady simmer. A rolling boil is too chaotic—the potatoes will constantly bump into each other and begin breaking apart. And don’t forget the vinegar, which gives potato salad brightness and freshness; sprinkle it on the potatoes while they’re still hot so they absorb the tart acidity more easily.

My final tip is really more of a true confession. Cookbooks will solemnly instruct you to boil the potatoes whole for the best flavor and texture; that way, they don’t get waterlogged. I’ve never quite gotten the logic of this, given that a potato is almost 80 percent water to begin with, but maybe depending on the starch content … oh, never mind. All I mean to say is that if I need to fast-track dinner, and I’m dealing with any so-called boiling potatoes, I slice them before cooking and guess what? They turn out just fine. Only faster.

New-Potato Salad with Fresh Herbs

Serves 4 to 6

1½ pounds or so new potatoes, washed but left whole (see final tip, above) and unpeeled

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons vinegar (cider, red-wine, or rice)

Roughly chopped fresh thyme, parsley, and/or marjoram leaves, to taste

Your best extra-virgin olive oil**

Put the potatoes in a pot and cover them with about 2 inches of cold water; season with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes well and when they are just barely cool enough to handle, cut them into ¼-inch-thick slices. (Taste first, and if the skin is at all bitter, peel the potatoes before slicing.)

Spread the warm sliced potatoes on a platter and immediately sprinkle with vinegar. Add lashings of olive oil, scatter with herbs, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

This potato salad is a hit at dinner parties as well as on weeknights at home. Add it to an antipasto plate; bolster it with good canned tuna, blanched green beans, and little black olives for a niçoise effect; or substitute garlicky mayonnaise or pesto for the olive oil. Any leftovers can be a raft for a fried egg, or cobbled together with the remnants of broiled wild salmon or smoked trout.

“So, what do you think of that Harvard study?” asked a dinner guest. Looking almost furtive, he slipped another, very small, spoonful of potatoes onto his plate. “Mr. Potato Head is really Snidely Whiplash!”

“Curses! Boiled again!” interjected Sam, and poured more wine.

Oh goody, my turn. Everyone cringed in anticipation. I raised my glass. “Here’s to Spudly Do-Right …”

 

*For a wide-angle take on the subject, see John Reader’s Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (Yale University Press, 2008).

**Lately I’ve been fixated on Spanish olive oils, but use whatever speaks to you.

 

Comments

Comment from Damon Lee Fowler
Time July 11, 2011 at 4:27 am

Jane, I’m one of those authors who solemnly instruct to boil the potatoes whole in my cookbooks, but for this kind of potato salad I’ve started to slice them and steam them instead and don’t perceive a difference in flavor. It’s so much faster and not nearly as messy as trying to slice hot cooked potatoes!

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