Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Starchy, Starchy Night

For the years I've lived in New York City I was one of the loyal denizens of the Union Square Market -- Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday -- rain, shine, snow, and bitter winds. I readily admit the market is one of the best shopping destinations in the city and I am a rabid exponent of the foods you can find there. My calendar it set to the comings and going of the stuffs that can be gotten there. Tender, crisp, thin asparagus; flats of violets and pansies waiting for fresh earth; blushes of vibrant chervil grown to perfection on the northside of oak trees are absolute signals of spring, the time my palate and everything else seems to come alive again.

By mid-August I am chomping-at the-bit waiting for the first new potatoes.  Not the golf ball or larger sized ones we all use but tiny marble sized beauties.  I excitedly dig through baskets filled to the brim to get to these gems that always seem to end up on the bottom -- Yukon Golds, Red Bliss, Purple Peruvians -- none are safe from my probing hands. 

On one particular visit a farmer spied my working through her large heap of potatoes and asked me what was wrong that I had to search so deeply.  I explained that my expedition was not just for potatoes, but for the exclusive and elusive marble-sized ones.  With a hearty laugh,  and a look like I was half cooked, I found another pair of hands mining for those starchy nuggets.  After we managed to retrieve about five pounds worth I thanked her dearly for the help and indulgence.  Of course, the big question was what do I do with these special spuds.  Well, since it was the beginning of the season, and my desire to eat them great I gave her my simplest application.  That is, I just toss them with virgin olive oil, coarse salt and black pepper, and then roast them in a hot oven until they are crisped. Then I eat them like popcorn, I said.  The following week she had already pulled five pounds waiting for my arrival ....and so it was for the many years.

My curiosity about these starchy tubers went beyond rummaging around the market for the smallest first-of-the-season harvest, but who are they? There are French and Russian fingerlings, German Butterballs, the blushing Desiree, and the always dirt encrusted Corolla. After years of knowing what to expect to find, and what the possibilities were someone new arrived to the party -- Papa Amarilla. The particular variety is a South American native that looks more like a waxy potato but will work for you like a starchy. The most exciting part of the discovery is that it tastes like chicken! I had never before tasted a potato with such a deph of flavor that required very little to bring it to the table. I was smitten.

I was celebrating one of those birthdays that ended with a zero, and decided it was the year to treat myself to an adventure I had always dreamed of – a sail through the Galapagos Archipelago. Ever since I was a little guy when my Dad I spent Sunday nights bonding, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom I have dreamt of visiting all the places Merl took us to weekly. My eight day jaunt through these islands was one of those expectations that was even better in reality. Ecuador is home not only to the theory of evolution but my latest obsession, the Papa Amarilla. I knew the potato was a native of the Andes Mountains of Ecuador and Peru, and since I was going to be in the neighborhood I could not pass up the opportunity to stop by for a visit. I put together an intinerary that had me traversing the Avenue of Volcanoes down the center of the country stopping in towns on their market days. My first market was in Machachi, about an hour drive south of the capital Quito. It was held in an expansive paved over area of town sandwiched between the railroad tracks and town central.  There was nothing romantic about it, the market in fact it seemed like a utilitarian necessity for the town – their Safeway without the brick and mortar. There was much to choose from: Amazonian oranges, papayas, yucca, plastic wash basins, corn, tomatoes, onions, toilet paper, and piles of potaotes. I bought a kilo of potatoes and two rolls of toilet paper. One of purchases I could work with the other I had to figure out what to do with. In my 9-grade Spanish I got the kitchen back at my pension to boil up my purchase, which allowed me to have a potato tasting that night – of course, everyone thought I was just a bit off. But I was eating a Papa Amarilla right from its native earth.

Curried Potatoes  - yields 4 to 6 servings
2 pounds baby new potatoes
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 tablespoons curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion - sliced julienne

Preheat the oven to 425 degree.  Wash the potatoes, and pat dry. If your new potatoes are larger than golf-ball size cut them in half or quarters.  Toss with the oil.  Sprinkle the curry powder, salt and pepper over the potatoes, and toss to coat all the potatoes well.  Lay them on a roasting pan, and place in the oven.  After 30 minutes distribute the onions on top of the potatoes, and roast for an additional 15 to 20 minutes.  The potatoes should be very crisp, and the onions caramelized.


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