Simplicity from the Earth

For all that I love to make Asian foods, sometimes, I crave the plain comfort of country foods cooked simply.

Last night was one of those times.

Zak grilled bratwursts, and while those were cooking, I put a pot of some tiny Russian Banana fingerling potatoes on to boil in thier skins.

When I was a girl, my grandpa would dig up the very first potatoes in early June, just in time for the garden pea harvest, and we’d feast on creamed new potatoes and baby peas. He always grew Kennebecs, and when they were tiny–no bigger than a jawbreaker–their skins were so thin and tender you could rub them off with your thumb while washing the dirt off if you weren’t careful. They were sweet, too, and waxy, though when they were mature, the potatoes had the drier starch characteristic of the Kennebecs. They paired perfectly with baby peas and spring onions in a light cream sauce, and it was a treat we waited all year for.

Fingerlings are a type of potato that are grown to be harvested immature, and I was thrilled to find out that my CSA grows my favorite type–Russian Banana. They tend to grow peanut-shaped, with russet-brown skins and a nutty-sweet waxy interior. I fell in love with them when I first started getting the at the North Market in Columbus, because they are simplicty itself to cook and they go with everything.

When I opened the cabinet I had stored the ones from the CSA in, I was greeted with the dark scent of the earth they were grown in, and as I scrubbed them, the delicious odor called to mind the feel of red clay soil warm beneath my feet and and dry against my fingers as I carefully dug up baby potatoes by hand, so as to not disturb the roots of the plant, so that the remaining potatoes would grow and become large enough to harvest in the fall.

I typically boil them in salted water until they are tender. Thier skins are tender enough to eat, but not so fragile that boiling them will make them crack and burst–they have a bite to them under the teeth, and if you have some tiny enough to leave whole, they will pop when you chew them with a satisfying “snick!”

After they are tender, I drain and rinse them, then cut them into halves longways. I let them dry, then heat olive oil in a skillet–maybe a tablespoon and a half or so, and then, throw in some minced garlic–usually about three cloves or so. I let it turn golden, then add the potatoes, cut side down, and let them soak up the garlic-scented oil. I sprinkle thier backs with salt and freshly ground pepper, and then turn them over, and watch to make sure that the potatoes crisp slightly and the garlic turns nut-brown, but doesn’t burn.

In the last couple of minutes of cooking, I sprinkle over it all freshly minced herbs–last night, I used thyme, rosemary, oregano and chives. I have used basil in the past, cilantro, mint or dill. All of them are good, and they all add incredible flavor to the little nuggets that smell and taste of the fine soil they were grown in.

Then, we eat them, and we seldom have any left over, they are so good. But if there are any leftovers, they are good as a salad the next day.

There are variants, of course. Sometimes I brown a thinly sliced shallot with the garlic, and sometimes I add a chile pepper. But that is basically the dish–I don’t complicate it overmuch, because the focus of it is the delicious little potatoes themselves.

Every time I eat fingerlings or new potatoes, I always think of my Grandpa, and how he would say that potatoes shouldn’t be made into anything fancy. “They should taste of the good earth itself,” he’d say, “So don’t put too much weird stuff in them.”

While others in my family thought me strange for liking to eat them raw, straight from the ground, Grandpa understood. “They are full of goodness right from the dirt,” he’d say. “And they are good for you–don’t let anyone tell you different. They don’t make you fat. All that butter and sour cream people heap on them makes them fat. Just give me a potato baked or boiled with just some salt and pepper and a little butter, and that is the best meal the ground ever gave me.”

Wise words from a wise man.


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  1. I agree with your grandfather about potatoes, the simpler the better. A nice variation with fingerling potatoes is to substitute duck fat for the olive oil. It’ll make you swoon.

    Comment by Brett — August 19, 2005 #

  2. I am very fond of barely smashed fingerlings (or any truly new potatoes) with a little drizzle of truffle oil and the barest sprinkling of sea salt (they don’t even need pepper, but you could try a little finely ground white). I know it sounds extravagant, but a little goes a long way. There is something alchemical about the way the truffle oil augments the earthiness of the potatoes: it’s a haunting combo.

    (Found your blog linked from Jen’s “Life Begins at Thirty” one.)

    Nice piece, good writing. Thanks.

    Comment by Tana Butler — August 21, 2005 #

  3. Hello, Brett–welcome!

    I don’t often have duck fat about, but I do know that fingerling potatoes cooked in the drippings of a roast chicken or capon are divine. I used to help a wonderful client with her Passover feasts–and we always did a capon and cooked potatoes in the pan with it. One year, I brought fingerlings–and she fell in love with them.

    They were terribly good. I can only imagine how good duck fat would be!

    Hello, Tana, and welcome. It is good to meet you.

    Truffles are like potatoes–they taste of the earth they were grown in. My Grandpa never tasted one that I know of, and he probably would never want to, once he found out how expensive they were–he was a very frugal man. Uncharitable sorts would say he was cheap, but I will leave it at frugal.

    I will have to try the truffle oil trick–and I might add just a bit of fresh rosemary. The sharp green medicinal savor to it might cut the richness of the truffle oil admirably. But rest assured, I will try it your way first.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 22, 2005 #

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