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Potatoes

First cultivated in Peru centuries ago, ordinary white or "Irish" potatoes are still grown there - in varieties that include white, blue, red, and even striped and polka-dotted versions. Although we only see a few common ones in most supermarkets, there are more than two hundred varieties of potatoes now being cultivated. A small number of unusual varieties and hybrids can be found in farm markets and specialty produce stores. A member of the nightshade family, along with the tomato and eggplant, the potato is native to South America. Brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, it was a bit slow to be accepted because many people believed it was poisonous. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, potatoes were regularly taking a place on the table in German households, and now this highly nutritious vegetable is a staple in almost every country in the Western world. Potatoes store very well, but they don't keep forever. The year-round supply found in the stores is possible because crops from different states are harvested at different times. On the East Coast, for example, potato crops from Florida are the first to arrive in the market. As the season progresses, the potato harvest moves up the coast until the season ends with potatoes from Maine, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. "New" potatoes aren't a specific variety, there are many varieties that are good when they're harvested early and shipped directly to market. Although "old" potatoes - potatoes left a long time in the ground - aren't as attractive, they keep a lot better than the new crops and are good winter staples.

Russets begin to arrive in August and September. They are often mistaken for Idaho potatoes, but they have a skin that's a bit more leathery. They are excellent baked or made into french fries, and fresh ones are out around the time when the only Idaho potatoes you'll find have been in storage for nearly a year. The famous Idaho potato is harvested in the early fall, but it stores well and is available nine or ten months of the year. Idaho has the right soil and weather conditions to grow a great potato, and it is the variety Americans choose first for baking. The skin is thick and leathery, and the flesh had a relatively low moisture content. Graded by size, Idahos range from 60 to 140 potatoes per 50-pound box. New York State potatoes start coming in at the beginning of September, that's when they are light, bright, and thin-skinned. By late October the same potato has a thick, dirty-looking skin and will be a good keeper. Maine potatoes come onto the market next. As Idaho is to baking potatoes, Maine is to mashing potatoes, with soil and weather conditions that produce excellent crops. Growers begin to harvest them from mid- to late fall and continue shipping through the winter and on into May. Early Maine potatoes have a clean skin, as the season progresses, the skin gets dirtier and darker. These "old" potatoes store well, although they tend to sprout. The same holds for potatoes from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where the red clay soil produces a potato that has a reddish skin. These winter potatoes have a dirty-looking skin, but they're high in quality.

Redskin and New Potatoes

Although most people think of small red potatoes as "new" potatoes, the terms aren't always synonymous. California potatoes dug early in the season have thin, tender, white skins. Other new potatoes are grown in Florida, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and in states in the Midwest and Northwest. New red potatoes are harvested at the same time as the whites. They are usually a little sweeter than the whites, with smooth skin that's a bit thicker (but edible) and flakier than the skins of regular white potatoes. They are best boiled skins on, and can be eaten that way or peeled after cooking. New red-skin potatoes range from the size of a golf ball to a baseball. They are graded as A or B. Size B- the smaller of the two- usually costs more per pound than the larger ones.

Red bliss potatoes, which are grown in California, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, have a slightly different taste and texture than the Florida reds. The skin is flakier, and the flesh is whiter, harder, and contains less moisture. Red Bliss potatoes are available most of the year. The spring and summer varieties go directly to the market and always have a sweeter, milder flavor. Just like white potatoes, the later fall crop of red potatoes is put into storage for shipment during the winter.

Peewees are very small, thumb-sized potatoes that have become popular for boiling. They were once thought of as culls and left in the field. Less starchy than full-sized potatoes, they now command three to four times their price.

Yukon Gold, another new hybrid, has a golden color and a buttery flavor. Yellower, sweeter, and heartier than regular potatoes, Yukons whip up beautifully and have a rich look and taste without the addition of butter. You'll have to go to a farm stand or special produce market to find them, and they're likely to be a dollar a pound, but you should definitely try them.

Selecting

Look for potatoes that show no sprouts from the eyes and no wrinkling on the skin, especially if you're buying Maine potatoes. There should be no cuts or dark spots, and the potato should feel heavy in the hand for its size. Avoid potatoes with a greenish tint to the skin- these have been exposed to light for too long and have a bitter taste. Potatoes prefer the dark, and available light even at the supermarket or at home will make them develop a green tint after a few days. New white potatoes from California are especially susceptible to greening.

Storing

New potatoes should be stored in the refrigerator if you plan to keep them more than a few days. Old potatoes should be kept in a dark, dry place that's not too warm.

Preparing

Thin-skinned potatoes or new potatoes can be eaten skins and all, simply scrub them before cooking. Old or stored potatoes need to be scrubbed very well or peeled. Potato eyes that have started to sprout can easily be removed if you first push the sprout in with your thumb, then pluck it out.

Recipes

Bettes Creamy Potato Soup

   

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