The humble potato doesn’t get nearly enough credit in Thunder Bay. Home as we are to a couple of large farms specializing in potato production, we’re used to seeing Thunder Bay labels even in our big-name grocery stores, even in the middle of winter. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say – but there’s a lot more to local potatoes than you might think.
This year’s mature potato crop, like many other vegetables, is a little slow – those rows in the fields out there are still in bloom. Fortunately potatoes, like the garlic scapes we love to harvest in the spring, offer advance tickets to flavour country. New potatoes, although a little different in flavour and texture from their thicker-skinned and starchy elder siblings, are available on many produce vendors’ tables right now, and are a great seasonal treat we love to eat in between the last of last year’s storage potatoes and the first of this year’s.
New potatoes are immature potatoes. That doesn’t mean they’ve got bad attitudes; in fact one of the characteristics of a new potato is that its sugars haven’t yet transformed into starch. As a result, far from being bitter teenagers, new potatoes are actually a little sweet. Be wary of this when you cook them as you might be tempted to over-cook, since they don’t develop that dry fluffy texture you expect from starchy mature potatoes, but enjoy – they cook faster, so they’re great paired with meats on the bbq or in the oven for an easy roasted dinner. Their skins are only a layer or two deep and can be cleaned easily and left on.
Marty from Hyatt’s Greenhouses/Peace of Eden Farm tells us that on their farm they “steal” new potatoes from around the outside roots of the plant. He grins a little as he says this – it appears that the game of carefully sussing out the little nuggets he digs up is one he enjoys a lot. Much as he likes to joke about stealing them, though, pulling the new potatoes off directs a potato plant’s energy into maturing the larger potatoes growing closer to the middle of the root base, so it’s a practical thing and not just a way for Marty to enjoy digging or for you to enjoy the Northern version of the sweet potato.
Potatoes are considered mature and ready for picking when the green plants above-ground wilt and dry. No more solar energy is being harnessed at that point and the skin, which has thickened and firmed since new-potato stage, has become the familiar storage-potato brown. You’ll find storage potatoes at Market later on in the fall.
In the meantime, there are sweet-fleshed, thin-skinned new potatoes galore. In the past few weeks we’ve spotted white ones, yellow ones, purple ones and red ones, shaped as perfectly round gems, lumpy little peanuts and funny fingerlings.
Serve them roasted as a side dish, in soups and stews; boiled (remember to cook less than expected!) with butter, in potato salads and pretty much any way you’d serve mature potatoes… with less chopping and no peeling required. We think this weekend we’re going to grab some of those purple beauties Mark J is offering and chop them up with beets and onions to make a spectacular red and purple veggie roast – the kids will love it.
It’s potato season! See you at the Market!