Friday, August 27, 2010

Focus: FINGERLING POTATOES (Solanum Tuberosum)

Potatoes are popular. Potatoes are big business. And it is no wonder. They grow well in different climates and soil types (including poor soil), they are storable, an inexpensive source of starchy calories, and nutritious. They are versatile - they can be boiled, steamed, baked, roasted, fried, mashed, grated and dehydrated. They can be curried, turned into soup or put into bread. Potatoes are the number one vegetable crop in both the world and the United States.

After the grains wheat, rice and corn they are the world's most grown food plant. They are eaten in about 130 countries. One reason they are so popular is that only one acre of land can yield up to 10,000 pounds of potatoes. Ratio of land to nutritious calories is a big deal in this world of increasing population and urban development and declining soil quality.

Wonky but interesting facts about American potato growing and consumption - impress your friends with your arcane knowledge at the next party you go to:
Here in America, we eat about 131 pounds of potatoes per year per person, up from 110 pounds per person in the 1960's. (By way of comparison, in mid-century Ireland -  before the murderous potato blight - the per capita annual potato consumption was 2,920 pounds. That is not a typo. That is what happens when a large population of poor people have little else to eat.  A famine is what can happen when you do not have a diverse food supply.)

You will not be surprised to learn that half of the potatoes we consume are turned into chips, french fries or dehydrated products, like instant mashed potatoes.

U.S. Potato acreage decreasing
By eating Featherstone Farm potatoes or any U.S. grown potato for that matter,  you are bucking a trend. The trend is a decrease in the area of U.S. land from which potatoes are harvested. The 2010 fall crop of U.S. potatoes was harvested from 896,100 acres - down 4% from 2009 and the smallest acreage since 1951! This is part of an overall trend of a decrease in the growing of fresh vegetables in our country. I will talk more about that in future blogs.

Potato diversity and the future of potatoes
Back a few thousand years ago in Peru and the Andes, about 5,000 varieties of potatoes were grown.
I am happy to report that the Peruvians still take their potatoes very seriously and are working to preserve potato diversity and the consumption of potatoes.  You can learn more here - the web site of the International Potato Center in Peru.

Types of potatoes
All the different kinds of potatoes can be grouped into three main categories - starchy, waxy and all purpose (somewhere in between starchy and waxy). The type of potato is important, because it affects preparation choices. 

Starchy potatoes - like russets- are better for baking or mashing, because they tend to be dry, fluffy and mealy. Waxy potatoes are best for boiling, steaming and roasting because they are most, creamy and firm. If you try to mash them they tend to get gluey. (Most folks think waxy potatoes are best for potato salad but I have recommended in this blog to use russets for that purpose. The potato salad debate continues.) All purpose potatoes can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the potato. A Yukon Gold, for example, is considered an all-purpose potato but probably a little too starchy for boiling. When I try boiling them they fall apart, which is usually okay if you are making soup.

Fingerling potatoes
I have become a big fan of fingerling potatoes for their superlative taste and texture. My husband has grown French fingerlings for about five years now, saving potatoes for seed each year (the seed potatoes are expensive!). Our crop is getting better and better. I use the potatoes for boiling, roasting (whole or cut up) and salad. I boil extra and refrigerate them - they make great American fries.

Russian fingerlings
The fingerling of choice at Featherstone is the Russian fingerling - similar in taste and texture to the French fingerling and used interchangeably. Peeling these potatoes is not necessary - the skin is fairly thin and tender. After it is boiled the skins are easily removed if you wish to do that. But try not to - most of the vitamins, minerals and fiber are in the skin. Just scrub the potato well with a vegetable brush before cooking.

Russian Fingerling potatoes can be stored like any winter potato - in a dark, cool (about 45 degrees if possible), well ventilated and dry place for up to about 8 weeks, depending on conditions.

A little history
Potatoes are now a stable crop in Russia and neighboring states. According to The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook, it took awhile for Russian peasants to accept the potato - they considered it unclean and un-Christian. Potatoes were called "Devil's Apples".

Spanish explorers brought home the potato in the 16th century, but it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that potatoes began to be accepted in Europe, often led by consumption by royalty. It took Peter the Great and some pressure from big government to achieve potato acceptance in Russia. Potatoes were served at royal banquets. (If they were Russian fingerlings they would have been well suited to a royal table.) What started as food for aristocrats ended up as food for the masses. (This phenomenon can go both ways. Look at polenta. Food for Italian peasants is now gourmet fare at fancy restaurants.)

Potatoes are high in fiber and rich in vitamins C and B6. They are only 132 calories per cup. They contain significant amounts of manganese and more potassium than bananas. Like turkey, then contain tryptophan. Tryptophan is a soporific - now can you see why everybody falls asleep in front of the TV after eating quantities of turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving?

Roasted fingerling potatoes
Scrub potatoes. Leave whole or cut into uniform pieces. Mix in a bowl with a small amount of olive oil - just enough to barely coat the potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees about 30-40 minutes, depending on size of pieces. The tip of a sharp knife should be able to pierce the potato with no resistance when it is done. Optional embellishments - add chopped fresh (or dried) rosemary or thyme to the olive oil. Scatter pieces of onion, shallot or garlic cloves amongst the potatoes.

Grilled potato squash packets
Slice or chunk potatoes, zucchini and onion. Mix with olive oil to coat lightly. Add thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Place on squares of foil - on one side. Fold over foil and seal edges by folding over. Pierce in one or two places to let steam escape. Grill about 30 minutes, turning once.

1 comment:

  1. I've read that the Irish were growing plenty of other crops at the time of the potato famine - but they were not allowed to own land, and their British landlords forced them to export the crops they grew, leaving them only their small personal plots on which they grew potatoes, which died from a blight. "The irony is that at the height of the Famine, Ireland was producing food, but the vast majority of it was exported, landlords seeking a better market price, and the native Irish were too poor to buy the food they themselves were farming."