Passionate about potatoes
I’m ordinarily not one to dig potatoes — unless I literally get to dig potatoes.
Ambivalent to the average supermarket spud, I couldn’t be more passionate about homegrown potatoes. Far from the bland filler I associate with long-keeping russets, specialty varieties tickle my fancy with diverse shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Freshly dug from the earth, these tubers taste truly potatoey.
Avoiding mainstream grocers’ potatoes, excepting a couple of times per year — the week before Thanksgiving being one — I gather garden potatoes with the zeal of a scavenger hunt. That enthusiasm animated my kids on a recent visit to a small farm in Josephine County.
Planted primarily in hemp and cannabis, East Fork Ranch started growing potatoes in 2018 to combat symphylans, common across much of Southern Oregon. The soil-dwelling critters, also called pseudocentipedes, weaken the root systems of many garden and field crops, including cannabis.
But an Oregon State University study advised planting potatoes to inhibit symphylans, said East Fork’s Aaron Howard. So he planted nine acres on his 33-acre property in Takilma. The potatoes — about 5,000 pounds — were harvested by a local gleaning organization and distributed throughout the community.
“People were really thrilled,” said Howard, adding that one volunteer boasted of digging a 5-pound spud.
Potatoes didn’t have much effect on symphylan activity, Howard said, but demand for the food crop convinced him to plant on a much smaller scale — about an acre — in subsequent years with 1,000 pounds of seed potatoes donated by a Klamath County farm.
“I get bored just growing weed,” joked Howard. “It’s a nice way to give back to the community.”
Motivated by Howard’s generosity, my family dug about 25 pounds of his potatoes. As my kids probed the rows with pitchforks in competition for the largest spud, I sifted the soil for my preferred size — between a golf ball and a marble.
While most farmers and some gardeners ignore such tiny tubers, I prize their incomparable texture and resistance to waterlogging when boiled or steamed whole. Skins intact, the smallest spuds satisfy with a “pop” on the palate. And they require no tedious peeling, paring, slicing or dicing.
Summer’s perennial “small potatoes” dish in my household is Salade Nicoise, which also combines green beans, cucumber and tomato with oil-packed tuna. Come winter, few potato dishes epitomize the season like this braise of field greens, fennel, onion and carrot, brightened with lemon.
The largest potatoes I’ll bake and load with meat and veggie toppings for one-dish meals. That leaves in-between sizes for everyday use in soups, stews, au gratin and sheet pan suppers. But because Howard’s are no ordinary potatoes, I focused first on recipes that are practically pure potato, dishes that exist only for this ingredient.
Gnocchi is Italy’s iconic dumpling. Doubling for hearty pasta shapes in form and function, good gnocchi actually are light and pillowy. Gnocchi’s free-form method is easier, I find, than breaking out a pasta machine for homemade noodles.
From Italy, my culinary influence shifted to Spain, where “tortilla” isn’t flatbread but an eggy potato patty. Although many Americans would consider Tortilla de Patata a breakfast item, it’s traditionally served as an afternoon or evening tapa in Spain.
1. Bake 2 pounds of russets in a 400-degree oven until easily pierced with a skewer or knife, for 40 to 60 minutes. Let cool slightly, then peel and pass through a ricer or food mill onto a floured surface.
2. While potatoes are still warm, add 1-1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 2 beaten egg yolks or 1 beaten egg. Cut ingredients together with a bench scraper or mix by hand until dough comes together.
3. Knead the dough briefly, keeping it dusted in flour to prevent sticking. The finished dough should be soft and smooth. (Tip: To test if gnocchi will hold together while cooking, form one piece. Drop it into boiling water. If it breaks up, mix a little more flour into the dough.) Cut the dough into four pieces and cover three while you work with the first piece.
4. Smoosh the dough into a generally oblong shape. Place both palms on the dough and, moving your hands forward and back while simultaneously moving them away from each other, roll the dough into a long rope about as thick as your thumb. Cut dough into lengths of about 3/4 inch and place on a floured sheet pan while you roll remaining dough.
5. Roll each gnocco (singular of gnocchi) down the tines of a floured fork to make the characteristic ridges that help the sauce cling.
6. Boil gnocchi in lots of salted water. When they float to the top, remove them to a colander with a slotted spoon, toss with your preferred pasta sauce and serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 8 servings, depending on whether gnocchi is served as an appetizer or main course.
Oil, for frying
4 Idaho potatoes, peeled
1-1/2 pounds Spanish onions, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Aioli (recipe follows)
You will need two (10-inch) nonstick skillets for this recipe. In a pot, heat about 3 inches of the oil.
Slice the potatoes thin; pat dry. Working in batches, deep-fry potato slices until slightly crispy. Set aside.
In a separate large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of oil. Add the onions and cook until caramelized, for about 15 minutes. Remove from skillet and cool.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with onions, season well with the salt and pepper. Fold in crispy potatoes.
Coat 1 nonstick skillet with 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Pour in egg mixture. Keep pushing down sides with a spatula, and cook until bottom is starting to brown. Start a second skillet set over medium-high heat and coat it with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. In one quick motion flip tortilla to second pan.
Cook until bottom is just browned, still pushing down sides with a spatula if need be. Wipe out first pan, and get it oiled and warmed up again. Flip tortilla once more and let cook until not quite set in middle. Tortilla should still ooze a bit in the middle when sliced. Serve with aioli.
Makes 8 servings.
AIOLI: Place 1 large egg yolk in a bowl set over simmering water. Whisk in 1 small peeled and minced garlic clove and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Continue simmering until mixture begins to thicken. Drizzle in a neutral oil a teaspoon at a time until mixture emulsifies and thickens without scrambling egg.
1/2 cup olive oil, plus good, fruity olive oil for drizzling, divided
2 onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2 carrots, quartered and cut in 1-inch lengths
4 scallions, white and most of green parts, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and coarsely chopped, fronds and tender stalks reserved
4 to 6 fingerling potatoes, cut in bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle or finely ground
2 pounds mixed greens, spinach, sorrel, Swiss chard, outer leaves of romaine lettuce or any combination of sweet leafy greens, large leaves coarsely chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 preserved lemon, flesh discarded, rinsed and chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill or wild fennel, divided
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
In a wide, deep pot, heat the olive oil over medium. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, for about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, scallions, fennel bulb, potatoes and fennel seeds, stir to coat with oil and cook an additional 3 minutes.
Add the greens in batches, starting with larger leaves and gradually adding smaller, more tender ones. Stir a few times, then add the wine and cook for 1 minute; add 1 cup water, the preserved lemon and salt to taste.
Reduce heat to low and simmer until greens and potatoes are tender and most juices have been absorbed, for 15 to 20 minutes. If there is still too much liquid, raise heat to high and continue to cook until liquid is reduced, up to an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
Add the lemon juice, half the dill and fennel fronds and stalks; sprinkle with the pepper flakes; toss, taste and adjust seasonings. Cook an additional 2 minutes to marry flavors, then sprinkle with remaining dill.
Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the fruity olive oil. Accompany with feta cheese and crusty bread.
Makes 4 servings.
Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from Aglaia Kremezi’s “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.”