My grandfather taught me the clever trick of bandicooting potatoes. I was a kid who always liked being outside, and as soon as the first plants started to flower he would get me out to his potato patch. Carefully stealing into the soft earth of the mounded rows, searching for the small, hard baby potatoes and pulling them out like a robber pocketing treasure was a piece of magic for a child.
Grandpa knew that my little fingers could accomplish the job without any damage to his precious spuds, which would happily go on growing and producing more potatoes as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile we got to enjoy the first potful of those very first waxy, sweet baby potatoes – the skins are so soft you can just rub them off with your fingers. Simmered gently in a pot with nothing more than water, salt and a little knob of butter, they offer an unrivalled gourmet pleasure that I will go out of my way to find today — I am a potato lover.
Genetic testing of the wide variety of cultivars and wild species has now proved a single origin for potatoes in the area of southern Peru and the far-northwestern part of Bolivia. The plants were domesticated somewhere between 7000 and 10,000 years ago. Following millennia of breeding, there are now more than 1000 different types of potatoes.
I always start the season with the famous waxy jersey bennes, along with another early season favourite, liseta. I have found that if I leave the jersey bennes to mature, rather than picking them as baby waxy potatoes, they form a large tuber with a fluffy, rather than waxy, texture that is good for roasting and chips (waxy spuds won't give you a crisp, gold crust).
Another potato worth looking out for is the pink fir apple variety – it is long and knobbly and has a wonderfully nutty flavour and an appealingly dry, almost mealy, texture. The famous French variety la ratte is another heirloom variety now available through various seed-saver groups here. It has a marvellous, creamy texture.
Main-crop potatoes, such as agria and rua, will keep longer than new-season varieties, which sprout very quickly. Be sure to store them out of the light (if the skin turns green they are toxic) and check they aren't in any way damaged before you store them.
It's not too late in the season to get a crop of potatoes in the ground — or in a growing bag or a stack of old tyres if garden space is limited. Even down south in Wanaka I plant my last potato crop of the season in the last week of January – that way I get to enjoy new potatoes at Easter.
Today I'm sharing some of my favourite ways of cooking new potatoes. The trick to avoiding overcooking them is to simmer them until they are only just beginning to feel tender when pierced with the point of a knife, then turn off the heat and allow them to cook through in the hot water.
New Potato Salad with Green Beans
Ready in 30 mins
850g new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 2cm chunks
130g green beans, halved lengthways
¼ small red onion, very finely chopped
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp baby capers
1 spring onion, finely sliced
3 Tbsp boutique extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp tarragon or dill leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Place potatoes and eggs in a large pot, cover with 4cm of cold water, add 1 tsp salt and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently for 12 minutes, adding green beans in last 3 minutes of cooking. Scoop beans out of pot, refresh under cold water, drain well and set aside. Drain potatoes and eggs. While potatoes are cooking, combine red onion with vinegar and capers in a large serving bowl. Add warm potatoes and mix well to coat the potatoes and let them mush up a bit. Peel eggs, chop finely and add to potatoes with drained beans, spring onion, oil, tarragon or dill and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine. Serve at room temperature. Best made the same day as it will be served.
Annabel says: Mixing the dressing through the potatoes while they are still warm allows them to absorb the flavours more readily.
New Potatoes with Parsley Butter
Ready in 35 mins
1.5kg baby new potatoes, scrubbed
1 tsp butter
3 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
¼ cup very finely chopped parsley leaves
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Place potatoes in a pot, cover with lightly salted water and add 1 tsp butter. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to the lowest simmer (do not boil hard). Simmer gently until potatoes are just tender when pierced with a sharp knife (about 15-20 minutes from the time they begin to simmer, depending on size). Just before they are cooked through, turn off the heat and leave them to finish cooking in the hot water. While potatoes cook, make the parsley butter by mixing together butter, parsley, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Drain cooked potatoes, add parsley butter, toss to combine and serve immediately.
Annabel says: Always be sure to remove any green skin from potatoes and remove any sprouts, as these contain toxic alkaloids, such as solanine.
Potato Salad with Smoked Chilli Caesar Dressing
Ready in 30 mins + cooling
500-600g baby new potatoes, scrubbed
2-3 rashers streaky bacon
2 spring onions, finely chopped
1 Tbsp chopped chives and/or a few mint leaves, to serve
Smoked chilli caesar dressing
1Tbsp boutique extra virgin olive oil
1 fat clove garlic, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp chopped or pureed chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or more to taste
½ cup cream
Zest of ½ a lime or lemon, finely grated
¼ cup finely grated parmesan
½ tsp salt
To make the smoked chilli caesar dressing, heat oil in a heavy frying pan and sizzle garlic for a few seconds. Stir in remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring now and then. Once mixture boils, remove from heat and allow to cool. (It will keep for 5-6 days in the fridge and can be reheated to soften.) Place potatoes in a large pot, halving any that are big so they are all about the same size and will cook evenly. Cover with lightly salted water and simmer gently until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife (about 15 minutes, depending on size). Turn off the heat and allow to finish cooking in the hot water. While potatoes are cooking, fry or grill bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel and chop coarsely. Drain potatoes, transfer to a mixing bowl, add the dressing, spring onions and most of the bacon and toss to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with remaining bacon and chives and/or mint and serve at room temperature or chilled.
Annabel says: A can of chipotle peppers in adobe sauce is a useful pantry staple. I often puree them, divvy the puree into ice trays and freeze it so I have portions ready for dressings, sauces and marinades. In this recipe they deliver a smoky kick that tastes amazing with potatoes.