There is so much comfort, warmth and solace in potato dishes that as the nights lengthen and the temperatures drop, these starchy spuds become the focus in many a meal.
There are more recipes for potatoes than for any other vegetable on the web and in cookbooks.
But the most important factor in any potato dish is not the other ingredients, but the quality of the potato itself. Potatoes are especially porous tubers and absorb everything in the soil as they mature, so where and how they are grown makes a tremendous difference in flavor and texture. It’s no wonder that potatoes that are cultivated in rich, naturally fertile soil on nearby farms are going to be the best tasting choice.
When I lived in Maine, I craved the tiny “salt potatoes” with briny notes that thrive along the low-lying New England coastline. In contrast, our region’s potatoes taste of the prairie and of the limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River.
Freshness makes a big difference. This was most apparent when I ordered a box of “gourmet” potatoes from those salty New England farms. When I served them alongside our local potatoes, the flavor of the fancy potatoes was flat and indistinct. Those Maine potatoes had been stored too long and flown too far to retain their character.
You can find local, organically grown potatoes from this year’s harvest at our farmers markets and in our food co-ops. Keep them in a dark place, away from light and apart from onions. The two hasten each other’s spoilage. I store mine in a paper bag in the coolest part of the kitchen.
When working with potatoes, include the skins, as they are packed with flavor and add texture to a dish. If you have a potato with greenish patches, cut away and discard before cooking. Toss away any potatoes that are completely green and have sprouted.
Choosing the right potato for a dish can be confusing. When cooked, high-starch potatoes such as russet or Idaho bakers become fluffy and make an airy mash. Low-starch varieties — red or boiling potatoes — have a close-grained, sticky flesh and hold their shape when boiled for salads and soups. Yukon Gold, fingerling and Yellow Finn fall somewhere in the middle. But I’ve used all these different varieties interchangeably.
Unlike spring’s harvest of tender crops, autumn’s potatoes are deliciously forgiving of the cook.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.