Sunday, May 15, 2011

Simple Foods: New Potatoes

In another installment of the very occasional series, "Simple Foods", today it's about new potatoes. I've been thinking about them ever since an amazing dining experience I had recently while visiting relatives in Oxford, England. The location is significant because in England it is now the season for new potatoes.

So what? Potatoes are available all the time, right? Ah, no. That's where you're wrong.

Okay, well, technically you're right. Potatoes are indeed available all the time. But new potatoes -- those young potatoes that are harvested within a week or two of the plant's blossoming in the late spring -- are entirely different from potatoes eaten during the other 50 weeks of the year. New potatoes have a satisfying toothiness, yet are somehow still soft and delicate, and deliver a sweetness that carries just a hint of green. My preference is to eat them simply, scraped with a knife and then boiled in salty water, perhaps then sprinkled with parsley, and eaten with a bit of butter for each bite.

They're delicious. Because they have to be eaten within a day or so of harvest (the sugars in the harvested potato quickly begin turning to starch, changing its flavor and consistency into that of a normal potato faster than you'd think), they pretty much have to be local. And, best of all/worst of all, in their finest incarnation new potatoes are only available for a couple of weeks each year, though exactly which weeks depends entirely on where you are.

Is there any other type of food that changes so dramatically in its character during the harvest period? I don't typically think of peaches harvested early in the season being completely different from peaches harvested late in the season, or find myself able to tell if a bowl of rice came from an early picking or a late one.

In my case, the new potatoes I've been thinking about formed the backbone for that incredible, simple meal prepared by my aunt. The potatoes, some thick slices of delicious smoked salmon, tender local asparagus (also right in season), plenty of butter, and that's all it took. It was all fantastic... but it's the new potatoes that I keep thinking about...

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