Saturday, December 13, 2008

Me off Potatoes

I had another one to post earlier today with the heading "Notes on America," but summarily forgot its contents, and now I'm sitting here watching Westside Story and thinking about how I've been trying not to eat potatoes--or at least not so MUCH of them--especially as winter comes. I blame Westside Story...for all of it: my food freakiness, my forgetfulness. The economy...

Moving on. Did you know that the primary source of Vitamin C for Americans is potatoes? Yep. Alex Trebek told me so. And ever since I heard that as the Final Jeopardy clue I've been thinking about my potato intake. Because I remember thinking (after, "Damn, not what is orange juice?), "Man, I /do/ eat a lot of potatoes." And while corn people is the single biggest thing we are, we've got spuds pretty well covered, too, such that I imagine our legs and arms and torso made of cobears, and our faceparts and ears and hands and fingers and toes and feet made out of potatoes. And since I was trying to stretch out and consider the fact that maybe it might be better for my body and my mind and all of it if I don't eat the same fucking thing every day of life on Earth. And because, well, why not? I like to cook and I like to challenge my skillz in culinary town. Because of all these things and more I can't remember but mostly Final Jeopardy and the fact I got it wrong, I decided to see what else I could eat when tomatoes weren't growing and asparagus wasn't here while still eating at least mostly seasonally and if possible locally (this is a barrel of goddamned monkeys once February rolls around in New York).

Part of this included eating different kinds of potatoes. You know, as a treat. Fingerlings generally had not been a revelation for awhile, but now there were like forty kinds. I tried Russian Banana, Ruby Crescent, Pink Thumb, Rose Finn, French, La Ratte (which look like the rat king apparently when they're all bunched up), and these purple knuckler things. They were OK, but mostly just expensive when all you really need to do is buy new (or small) potatoes to get the same effect. But if you wanna try em I'd say stick with anything yellow (Russian Banana or La Ratte), rather than the pink and blue and purple ones. The consistency on these last are just too annoying to work with, and come out gummy when you roast them, when roasting is really the only thing worth doing (buying tiny adorable segmented potatoes at three bucks a pound in order to boil and mash them will result in me showing up at your house and beating you with a turkey baster). Either that or when it's warm they make good potato salad.

Among regular potatoes, oh Jesus--don't get me started. There's German butterball, Caribe, Bintje, Adirondack Blue, Purple Peruvian, Carola, Kennebec, Norland, and then the common Yukon Gold, Red Bliss and Russet (or Idaho). For mashing or potato salad I like butterballs or Carolas, for french fries, gnocchi or baked potatoes I like kennebecs and the blue and purple ones, but really the Yukon Gold and the Russets I found work just as well in these respective categories. For boiling and potato salad I like any red skinned ones.

So, yeah, I still screw around with different kinds, but the only real difference I'm finding is one I already knew, namely, that some are starchy, some are waxy, and some are halfway between the two (the all-purpose ones, like Kennebec or Yukon Gold). They all taste pretty much the same, with one exception: blue and purple potatoes taste really nutty. That's the only word for it: nutty. Not like loco, like walnuts. They're good, but distinct. I actually like them best for french fries.

This wasn't enough, isn't enough, variety for me, though. I am a variety whore, it would seem. Or maybe it's just because I'm obsessive about going to the Farmer's Market for my food and the produce you get int he winter all comes out of the ground. This really, erm, /encourages/ creativity. I'm still trying to figure out turnips. So far I can do a soup with them and this thing with butternut squash and sesame seeds and leeks, like I half sautee half bake in the overn dealie. But that's about it. I suck at turnips. I make a really good rutabaga mash with thyme and roasted pears, but turnips have conquered me so far.

What I am pretty good at and like a lot, besides the obvious potato alternative carrot and its nine thousand possibilities (soup, side dish, roasting buddy--I've even made carrot gnocchi once), are the following:

Celery root. This shit is CRAZY. By far the homeliest, wartiest of the root vegetables, the ugliest of any vegetable, possibly. This is the troll, this is the toad, of the vegetable world. The skin is all nubby and brown and difficult to peel. There are cracks and crevices around the nodes at the bottom of the root that trap dirt, too, which is good times. But once you're done you find these creamy, aromatic white flesh (it smells and tastes like a cross between celery and spud). You can treat just like a potato. It's great in a cream of type soup, and my favorite recipe simply boils it with peas and then tosses it up with some shallots sauteed in butter. Plus I guess it's good for you, with calcium and minerals you don't see often in high quantities in veggies.

Parsnips. These aren't all that exotic, but I've been playing with them, trying to figure out how to prepare them in a way that doesn't act like they are bizarro, albino carrots. There's a soup I make with leeks and dried porcini mushrooms (you soak em in hot water to make a sort of broth) that's thickened with chestnuts to make it creamy that works well. I've experimented with mashing or food processing it instead of mashed potatoes. I wouldn't pay this one forward to any of you, as it comes out the consistency approximately of Elmer's glue. Maybe if I thinned it with milk or something? (I did use a shit ton of butter, but that didn't help)

Beets. I grew up on beets in New England, but have recently rediscovered them. Candy cane, Chioggia (my favorite), the regular deep purple red ones. The best thing about beets is you can use the tops for stuff--I sautee them for either a side like spinach, to put under fish or something, or to use in a pasta dish with anchovies garlic and hot red pepper. But the tuber part kicks ass. I actually don't do much with beets--I treat them like squash. And besides borscht, which I don't know how to make, I can't think of anything that really incorporates beets. But that doesnt' stop me from roasting them for like a week and slicing them up with some rosemary and parmigiano and drizzled olive oil (winter bruschetta). They also work pretty well puree with some ricotta as filling for ravioli that you serve with poppy seeds cooked in butter (stole this dish from a restaurant in Brooklyn. It's an Italian restaurant. Seriously.) Mostly just on their own roasted beets are fan freakin tastic, and I try to integrate the tops and roasted root together.

Parsley root--this one's tricky. I like to think it's the most shy of all root vegetables. There's only one thing I've found I can do with it that doesn't suck. Once it's cooked and turns into semi-mushy starch, you can make it into a soup easily. The taste is super mellow, with parsley and potato and celery undertones, and delicate. Plus you can get your rocks off knowing, as with celery root, you're using the /whole/ friggin plant (unlike celery root, however, I've seen a massive punch of parsley sold with the root attached).

Leeks--not really a root vegetable, but I'm finding out just how versatile they are. They're part of my "substitute for onions" campaign, which also includes shallots, since I didn't really know how to cook with either of these non-onion oniony tasting things.

Another thing I've noticed happening is that the fewer potatoes I use the more I branch out in the "vegetable" category of the "meat, potato, vegetable" model (I don't always follow this model, but if you've got a mess of pork chops or steak that makes you drool just looking at it, why be anti- just for the sake of being anti-?). The two areas I've mainly explored are cruciferous vegetables--I've always eaten broccoli but now I play with cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and even and especially cabbage, which, who knew? Also has a burlapsackful of Vitamin C in it and God knows what other good crap for you--and squash--started with butternut but found I like all these nutty--like loco,, not like walnuts--Japanese varieties whose names except for Hokkaido I can't remember, Acorn, Kabocha, Delicata (a whole lot, one of my favorites), Carnival, Sweet Dumpling, Hubbard, Cheese Pumpkin, even the Jack-O-Lantern sugar pumpkin is good eatin', I found out.

But I'll get into all these non-root vegetable potato distractions later, as they fit better under the category of "fall seasonal" post than "how I broke my potato habit." Let me finish, though, by saying that, despite all the wonderful other flavors from food you can pull out of dirt, and all the cool new recipes I now have under the belt buckle, I still love me some potato. I in fact love it MORE now, I think, as I've started doing things like make my own french fries when I get a good steak (this combination may be completely unbeatable when paired with a high-end Belgian beer). It's weird, once I got healthy-like with the widening my food spectrum into stereo sound and abandoned the mono-tuber eating, I wound up eating potatoes with worrying so much about how they aren't all that good for me. Turns out spuds get a bum rap, and that the blue ones and purples ones have exactly the same antioxidants as blueberries or blackberries that they look so much like and people are so frantic about (the skins of all potatoes are where most of the nutrition lies, I found out, which is why "clean" mashed potatoes and most french fries from restaurants aren't all that great for you, being just empty starch). My attitude coming out of my little experiment is pretty basic: any food, if you drench it in grease and other garbage that in excess kills you and fry it up after dehydrating and flash-freezing it and more or less turning it into something you can eat but can't really call food anymore, is gonna be bad for you. It's a problem. But that's not the potato's fault--it just happens to be one of the only things on Earth that we can digest that will tolerate such treatment.

I used to hold the belief, and to share it with anyone who would listen, that "a potato was barely a vegetable." Now I think that's only true after we get done with it far too often, as in the case of what I call "french fry vegetarians," those wonderful hypocrites who weep at the thought of a feedlot cow or their grandchildren living in a world without polar bears and seasons and promptly get into a fast food line to be processed single file and served food their gut can't digest like the corn in that sad cow with other cow's shit on its fur's stomach, or who buy frozen dinners from Whole Foods or Trader Joe's that are packed with sodium and not much else and have been processed(manufactured, really) in the same industrial model Purdue or supermarket ground beef uses to supply these folks' heartless carnivore cousins. Nothing dies for a frozen dinner of daal, granted, but damn if those frozen veggies didn't come from a massive farm, growing in soil packed with petroleum-based fertilizer and unless you live in California trucked in from another coastline on diesel fuel. Drowning polar bears anyone? mmmmmm. yummy. And so ethical!

And this last paragraph is proof positive why I should never, ever do any grocery shopping on the weekends here. I see far too many of these people, and a perfectly harmless blog post turns into a piranha feeding frenzy I subject you all to. Sorry for the blood in the water, and for rambling. I'll be back at you all soon.

1 comment:

copperpot said...

Random factish thought: Never eat non-organic potatoes. Conventional farmers don't even let their families eat from their own harvest because of the amount of pesticides they use in cultivation. Also, I think potatoes also are one of those sponge-like vegetables in that they suck up more herbicides and pesticides than your average veggie (I think).

Pesticide, pestilence, pest.