In my younger days potatoes were the enemy of the perfect waistline in a less nutritionally enlightened era; it was starch that made you fat, and starchy foods like bread and potatoes had to be avoided.
Thankfully, bread and potatoes have now been rescued from this scenario; fat has now emerged as the number one culprit and the major cause of being overweight. This means that large portions of potatoes (without fat) are nutritious, healthy, high in energy-giving carbohydrate and low in calories – only about 70 per 100 g (about 4 oz), and, added to that, they are the single most important source of vitamin C in our diet. So potatoes are very ‘in’ at the moment and it’s therefore more important than ever to learn how to make the best of them.
The importance of flavour Before you even think about how to cook potatoes, as with many other foods, the key to flavour begins in the market place or, more specifically, in the earth. I well remember growing my first crop of new potatoes and discovering that straight from the ground into the cooking pot they were both soggy and tasteless and ended up being a huge disappointment. Why? I had simply grown the wrong variety, one with a high yield but absolutely no flavour. This problem is a commercial one, too, and high-yield, disease-resistant, good-storage varieties do not always produce good flavour. So for the cook, choosing the right kind of potato is first on the list.
Varieties: Thankfully, there are now many more varieties of potato to choose from; we could even be in danger of designer potatoes, like salad leaves, as I have seen both black-fleshed and purple varieties (neither of which have great flavour). But whilst we hear an awful lot about the texture of potatoes – which is measured by two things, waxiness and fluffiness, and the suitability of either of these in certain dishes – we hear very little about flavour. I would therefore like to see potatoes catch up with tomatoes on this, with varieties grown specifically for flavour. But since we are learning how to cook potatoes, here is not the place to study the long lists of various varieties that appear throughout the year. But I would like to point you in the direction of a few varieties which, in my experience, are among the best available at the moment.
Jersey Royal April to June: These, of course, have outstanding flavour, more so when they’re a little more mature and larger than the tiny marbles that appear in early April. Choose them unwashed with the earth still clinging to them, and they need to be as fresh as possible, so that when you push a piece of skin with your thumb it slides away from the flesh instantly. These are the finest new potatoes of all for steaming and serving hot or cold in a potato salad.
Pentland Javelin. May to July: These new potatoes also have a firm texture and excellent flavour and, depending on the weather, begin to come into season when the Jerseys finish. I have also grown these and they have excellent flavour.
Salad potatoes: These now appear regularly all year and, as their name suggests, are best eaten cold.
Some specialised salad potatoes, though, are more difficult to find: Ratte is an old French variety that has a delicate, nutty, chestnut-like flavour, and Pink Fir Apple a more intense potato flavour with a pink skin and a firm, waxy flesh.
Main-crop potatoes – available all year round
Desirée: This has always been my all-round reliable favourite because it has the best flavour of all commercially grown potatoes. It has a yellow, creamy, waxy flesh and bright-pink skin. I use it for boiling, jacket potatoes, roast potatoes, chunky chips and oven sautéeing, and I even like Desirée made into mash because of its depth of potato flavour.
King Edward: This is an old favourite and is the best variety if you want floury fluffiness. It's not suitable for boiling, as it tends to break, but it's wonderful for light, fluffy mash and for jacket potatoes when you want a really fluffy inside.
Waxy or floury? The above potatoes all have good flavour, but texture is sometimes a personal choice. I like to ring the changes and so sometimes I want, say a firm, waxy, full-flavoured jacket potato, so I choose Desiree, and sometimes a more floury one, so it would be Kind Edward. The same applies to mashed potatoes, and what I would recommend is that you experiment to find out what you personally prefer.
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