The Latin name for the potato plant is Solanum tuberosum, which indicates that it is part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, botanical family. This family includes tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, as well as deadly nightshade. In fact, every part of the plant, apart from the tubers, is mildly poisonous and should not be eaten. Hence the one-time fear of Europeans about eating the potato (as well as eggplants and tomatoes).
Choose potatoes that are the freshest, most unblemished looking. Avoid any that are cracked, bruised, soft, wrinkled, or spotted with green. (If your stored potatoes turn green, cut off all the green portions; if they are very green, discard the whole potato.) When your potatoes are being stored, check up on them every so often. If you find any sprouting taters, bury them in a pot of dirt, pat down, and water gently. Place outside in the sun, and water every day. Shoots will spring from the earth and grow into a plant; when flowers have started to blossom, pull up the plant and dig up the five or six little potatoes resting at its roots. You will be rewarded by the tastiest, nuttiest, earthiest little morsels; few things are more delicious than freshly dug baby potatoes.
Floury potatoes store well; new waxy potatoes do not. In the right conditions, potatoes should last about two weeks; for young potatoes, plan on eating them within a few days of purchase. The exception for eating the freshest potatoes possible is the Italian potato dumpling, gnocchi. They must be made using old potatoes, stored from last year's harvest.
When storing, potatoes should be kept in a dark, dry, coolish (45 degrees F to 50 degrees F) place, unwashed. If they are stored in the light, they turn green and should not be eaten because of possible varying toxicity, as noted previously. Storing potatoes in too warm a place makes them sprout, soften, and wrinkle. Storing them in too cold a place, such as the refrigerator, tends to turn the starches to sugar and develop an unwelcome sweetness. Also, when stored for extended periods, or if harvested late in the season, the sugar content of the potatoes increases. Too high a sugar content interferes with the potatoes' hearty, savory earthiness and causes them to brown too fast-before they cook through or crisp up-if they are destined for the fryer.
And potatoes do not freeze well. If your potatoes are in danger of deteriorating and sprouting, plant them. One of the prized features of potatoes is the fact that you can keep them around for weeks and they will be ready at any time to boil, mash, bake, or fry your way to happiness. Storing works best for baking potatoes. New potatoes are just that: young, tender, fresh. The difference between freshly dug potatoes and those that have been around for a little while is huge, the same difference between out-of-season cold-storage tomatoes and sun-warmed ones straight from the garden.
—excerpt from Yummy Potatoes by Betty Marlena Spieler
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This page modified November 2009
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