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Seasonal Kitchen: Behold the varieties of locally grown spuds

This time of year, local farmers markets brim with the vibrant colors of fall. Pumpkins, apples and winter squash dominate with their rich warm hues and bright pops of color, but venture a little deeper, and you will discover the subtle shades of fall potatoes. Deep blues and purples, rosy reds and soft buttery yellows – there are hundreds of different kinds in all shapes and sizes – and the farmers market is a great place to find these varieties.

Brent Olsen, of Olsen Farms, was among the first growers to bring specialty spuds to our area in the early 1990s. His mother, Merna, and wife, Kira, work alongside him at the farm, situated just north of Colville, where all the potatoes are grown, hand sorted and packed.

Today, Olsen Farms offers more than 20 varieties, including heirlooms, that are transported and sold at 14 different Seattle markets. They end up on the menu at many Seattle restaurants. Local shoppers can find them at the Spokane Farmers Market on Saturdays through October.

There are some clear customer favorites.

“Our most popular potato is the German Butterball,” Brent Olsen said. “They are rich and creamy, with yellow skin and flesh, great for soups, stews and salads.”

The Viking Purple, another bestseller, has bright purple skin with pure white flesh, and the Bintje, trending with local and Seattle chefs, is the new potato of choice for pomme frites. Brent Olsen’s personal favorite, the Desiree, pink-skinned and yellow-fleshed, is perfect for mashing.

“I love watching people’s reactions at the markets, when they see all the different kinds and colors of potatoes, seeing the surprise on their face when they realize how many varieties exist,” he said.

Olsen potatoes also are available locally at Huckleberries, and the farm offers home delivery Thursdays and Fridays, if you call ahead.

With so many kinds available, how do you decide which potatoes to purchase?

It all depends on how you plan to cook them.

Potatoes, in general, are divided into three groups – starchy, waxy and all-purpose – based on their level of starch. And it’s also their starch level that tells us how to best prepare them.

Starchy potatoes, like russets and Bintjes, are very low in moisture. When cooked, their cells separate, becoming aerated and fluffy. They absorb whatever you pair with them, which makes them ideal for buttery, fluffy mashed potatoes or baked potatoes. Their low moisture content and high absorption also makes them ideal for frying – perfect for french fries or potato pancakes.

But these high-starch potatoes can also too easily absorb water, so they fall apart when boiled, making them not the best choice for salads. Conversely, waxy potatoes, including red potatoes, fingerlings, most new potatoes, and some blue potatoes, are low in starch with flesh that is characteristically creamy, firm and moist and holds its shape well after cooking. They’re typically great for roasting in the oven or blanching as well as pureed in soups and baked in casseroles. Because they have a more cohesive cell structure and don’t get overly mushy, they are an ideal candidate for potato salads.

All-purpose potatoes have a medium starch content. They’re a true multi-purpose potato and can be used in just about any cooking application. The most popular is the Yukon Gold potato. Other varieties include Yellow Fins and some purple and white potatoes. They’re more moist than high-starch potatoes yet hold their shape a bit better.

This being said, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like.

Growing up in the 1970s, most potato dishes were all made with russets, including my mother’s disintegrating potato salad, which I still found delicious.

Potatoes were first domesticated in the highlands of the Andes, and it was from here that the first purple and red potato varieties came. From the Andes, they were taken to Spain and Britain, spreading like wildfire across Europe.

Today, potatoes are the most-grown and most-consumed vegetable in the country. For such a seemingly benign vegetable, they evoke a strong reaction – dearly loved as one of our most cherished comfort foods, or almost demonized, perceived as a culprit of our nation’s growing obesity rate.

“It’s a misconception that potatoes are thought of as empty calories,” said Roy Navarre, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research service scientist. “In their natural state, they are actually low in calories, containing about 440 calories per pound of potatoes.”

Surprisingly nutrient dense, “they are a good source of potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6,” Navarre said. “Red, blue and purple varieties contain higher levels of antioxidants, while yellow-fleshed potatoes contain more carotenoids, which are good for eye health.”

And perhaps spending a little more on gourmet baby potatoes may actually have some added health benefits.

“New research suggests that baby potatoes contain higher amounts of nutrients than they do when fully matured,” Navarre said.

So it seems potatoes themselves are actually quite nutritious. How we treat them, and what we put on them, may not be. As unbelievable as it may seem, potatoes still can be comforting and healthy. In this lightened-up version of potato leek soup, butter and cream are left out all together, replaced with olive oil and light sour cream. The soup tastes surprisingly rich, without being too loaded up with fat.

Skordalia, a Greek-style dip made with potatoes, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, is an alternative to hummus. Served with toasted pita or naan, or fresh veggies, it’s a healthy snack.

If you like your potatoes crispy, try these rosemary garlic potatoes, cut hasselback style, roasted in the oven with olive oil. Not as fattening as french fries, they still satisfy the craving.

For a different take on potato salad, this grilled potato salad, with a black garlic and dill vinaigrette, features baby potatoes of all different colors.

Regardless of variety, all potatoes should feel heavy and firm, never soft, wrinkled or blemished. If storing potatoes for more than a week or two, take them out of the fridge and store them away from light in a place that’s cool and dry, like the basement.

Potato Leek Soup

3 large leeks (2 inches in diameter)

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound potatoes, diced

6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or substitute 1 teaspoon dry herbs de Provence)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

1/3 cup light sour cream

2 tablespoons fresh chives, for garnish

Remove leek stems and cut leeks in half lengthwise. Rinse to remove dirt. Slice leeks into ¼-inch half rounds. Heat oil in medium-sized, heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat. Add leeks and saute 3 to 4 minutes and add onion. Continue sauteing for 5 minutes until tender. Add garlic and saute for 3 more minutes. Add potatoes, stock and fresh thyme. Bring to a boil, turn heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Add salt and pepper. Blend in batches, until very smooth and silky. Return to the pot, bring to a simmer and stir in sour cream. Serve with fresh chives.

Grilled Potato Salad with Black Garlic Vinaigrette and Dill

1 1/2 pounds baby potatoes

4 cloves black garlic (available at Trader Joe’s)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chives

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh dill

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Blanch potatoes in salted boiling water, until just tender, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on size. Mash black garlic with a fork with salt and 1 tablespoon oil, until it becomes a chunky paste. Add the remaining oil, vinegar and pepper.

Strain the potatoes, and toss with 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette, just enough to lightly coat.

Grill the potatoes until nicely charred. Toss with the rest of the vinaigrette and fresh herbs.

Skordalia

1 pound white, yellow or russet potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces (peel russets, but thin skins OK to leave on)

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon lemon zest (reserving a pinch for garnish)

6 to 7 tablespoons water (hot potato water)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh chopped Italian parsley

Blanch potatoes in boiling water, until fork tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Strain, reserving 1/2 cup potato water. Mash or put through a potato ricer. (Do not puree in food processor.)

Place in a bowl and, using a fork, stir in olive oil, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add minced garlic, salt, pepper, lemon zest, lemon juice and hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time until desired consistency.

Serve warm or chilled with toasty pita bread or naan. To serve, create a circular ring or well with the back of a spoon, and drizzle olive oil in the well, sprinkle with parsley and more zest.

Crispy Rosemary Garlic Hasselback Potatoes

5 russet, Bintje or Yukon Gold potatoes (starchy potatoes)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise

6 sprigs rosemary

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven 425 degrees with a rack in the lower-middle position. Wash and dry the potatoes well. Leave thin skins on, or peel thicker skins off. Cut thin 1/8-inch slits into the potato, stopping just before you cut through so that the slices stay connected at the bottom of the potato. Don’t worry if you cut through though.

Slice the garlic, very thinly, lengthwise. Slip a piece of garlic in every other slit in the potatoes. Tuck a rosemary leaf or two into the other slits. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Brush the bottom of the baking dish with olive oil and sprinkle dish with salt and pepper. Brush top and sides of potatoes with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, (reserving 1 tablespoon for brushing again halfway through baking).

Arrange potatoes in a baking dish and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Bake potatoes for 30 minutes. At this point, the layers will start separating. Remove pan from oven and brush potatoes again with remaining oil, making sure some of it drips down into the space between the slices.

Bake for another 30 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes are crispy on the edges and easily pierced in the middle with a paring knife, about 60 to 70 minutes total.

Garnish with fresh rosemary.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feasting athome.com.

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