Potatoes aren’t very sexy. Not like a slender stalk of spring asparagus or those first delicate snap peas. They don’t have the natural beauty of a gorgeous leafy red speckled head of heirloom lettuce. They’re just there.
But that’s not really true. There are boring, “need to dress them up” or “cook them fast before they turn brown” potatoes and there are “melt in your mouth incredible as they are” potatoes. We grow the second kind and I don’t know who grows the first. Maybe some potato factories out in the vast anonymous land of “mass ag”. But one thing I’m sure, most potatoes have probably been held in cold storage before getting to the supermarket shelf. So they won’t taste like much. I’d rather have a wrinkled little guy with a few eyes spouting out than one of those “quick to turn orange” rubbery (supermarket organic) potatoes that drove me crazy last year when I was trying to make gratin in California. Silly me, it was February. It wasn’t potato season.
We crop potatoes in late June or early July. Though, sometimes Tadaaki’s busy and we end up cropping them later. Much later. And some years, Tadaaki is able to get a second crop planted for late fall or early winter eating. But not this year. This year the potatoes lay in the ground all summer and we only just started digging them up this week.
We took the little SSU! kids out to help collect the potatoes the other day. Tadaaki could barely keep up with the digging, as the kids were impatient to grab the spoils each time he turned over the earth mounds and uncovered more potatoes. The kids love to get their hands and feet into the dirt and also love to help with the “fun” aspects of farming. But we need to keep them corralled, so it’s a bit busy for the teachers. First, the potatoes should be separated by type. Also we took the eyes off before dropping them in the feedbags. Any potatoes sliced by the digging tines had to be kept aside to be used right away. Oh, and the kids had to drink water and go pee-pee. Tadaaki told them to do it in the rice field because it would add nitrogen. (This was not his rice field, mind you.) We only got a couple rows done before it was time to go back and work on lunch, but Christopher and Tadaaki went back the next day. There are still a few more rows to dig but now it’s raining. That’s how our life is defined. Work, rain, eat.
One year we had a really small crop of fall potatoes. We had about 50 kids in the preschool at the time and 8 staff members plus the Hachisu’s, so one lunch used up the whole crop. I didn’t realize that until later and was initially (selfishly) sorry to have “wasted” them on the school. But then I remembered Riku Arai. Riku is a very passionate little boy. He came along with a couple grade school girls and my boys on a trip to the U.S. two years ago (no moms). At first he didn’t want to go, but then Andrew and Matthew told him about Swan Oyster Depot and the “best clam chowder he would ever eat” and the dinners at Chez Panisse and the Acme bread, and the “kid wine” (Navarro Gewürztraminer Grape Juice) and the desserts and all of the glorious food we would be eating in California. “Okay, okay, I go!” he shouted. He also told his mother that maybe he would like it so much in California he might not come back. He was five at the time.
When Riku was four, he ate those just harvested potatoes at Sunny-Side Up! for lunch. I cut them into chunks and boiled them unpeeled in salted water. I probably served them with curry flavored chicken hamburgers made from coarse ground thigh meat and a garden lettuce salad. Riku speared up a whole hunk of potato, held it aloft and grasping the fork vertically, started taking little bites (sprinkled with sea salt). He closed his eyes (almost in rapture) and slowly chewed, his face deeply reverent. For a plain boiled potato. That image has stuck with me as one of the most stunning examples of how something so simple can be so good and how something so simple can speak to a child on such an fundamental level. It still gives me shivers.
Late Summer Potato Salad
Boil potatoes in their jackets until the center is cooked, but not mushy. Drain and cool. Peel potatoes (or not). Cut into small (½ -inch) cubes. Add various chopped seasonal vegetables, herbs and homemade mayonnaise. Fold gently and serve immediately with grilled meat or fish. I used: chopped red onions, shaved corn kernels, thin (not paper-thin) sliced okra (wipe first), Japanese thin-skinned green peppers slivered, a few green beans cut vertically, then crosswise into thin short segments (parboiled for 2 mintues), cherry tomato halves, and basil chiffonade.
Mayonnaise: eggs & oil should not be cold. Use only the freshest farm eggs, otherwise it will be very difficult to emulsify (and risky for salmonella). Put yolks, a little Dijon mustard, and a squeeze of lemon in smallish bowl. Whisk lightly to combine, then whisk in a fine stream of canola oil until the mayonnaise “takes.” If it does not emulsify soon, it never will. Once the mayonnaise looks like a creamy sauce (not oily-looking), then you can add the oil a bit faster. At this point, I start adding some good olive oil for flavor. I usually add a big dollop of oil, then whisk powerfully. Making mayonnaise successfully depends on fresh eggs, initial patience and confidence in the process (experience doesn’t hurt). One yolk will take about 150 to 200 cc oil. It depends on what I’m making, but for potato salad, I usually use about 75% canola and 25% olive oil. Add sea salt and fresh ground pepper and taste for more lemon juice. The mayonnaise keeps for a few days in the fridge.
Japanese Potato Salad: According to Maki Itoh from Just Hungry you can make Japanese-style mayonnaise by using rice vinegar instead of lemon and adding a little sugar. Though Tadaaki uses the non-sweet lemon version. The big difference is you mash the potatoes before adding vegetables and mayonnaise. The only think I object to is adding the mayonnaise when the potatoes are still warm (like Tadaaki sometimes does…). Peel the potatoes, cut them into large chunks and boil them in salted water with a few carrots. Cook the carrots half way (they should not be soft) and the potatoes until the center has no resistence. Mash the hot potato pieces until fluffy, cool then add: thinly sliced cucumber and partially cooked carrot rounds along with some finely sliced onion. Fold in some Japanese-tasting mayonnaise and salt.
French Potato Salad: If the potatoes have thin skins, boil without peeling, otherwise peel and boil as for the Late Summer Potato Salad—the centers should be a touch hard. Drain and cut immediately into thick ½ -inch rounds. Toss into a large bowl as you go and every so often sprinkle a layer of potatoes with good olive oil and intense red wine vinegar. Pinch in some salt and fresh ground pepper. Continue slicing and seasoning the layers while the potatoes are still warm. Once cool, fold in seasonal chopped or sliced vegetables as per the Late Summer version.