It isn't the most attractive or the most flavorful crop grown, but this versatile culinary workhorse might be the most popular food around--even with the most finicky eaters.
In spite of its popularity, the potato--a starchy tuber, rich in numerous nutrients--has been shunned by Ventura County commercial farmers. It is generally considered incapable of bringing in a favorable monetary return here.
That matters little to Yvonne and Jim McCurley.
Moorpark residents, the McCurleys grow numerous vegetables in their two-acre back yard and are now offering local potato enthusiasts two varieties.
"We planted our potatoes last November so we would have them to harvest now," Jim McCurley said.
The McCurleys offer their organically grown vegetables at the Thousand Oaks Farmers Market. Sometimes, they say, they achieve veggie exclusivity there.
"I don't know of anybody else that grows potatoes in the county and sells them at the farmers market," he said.
McCurley said his two varieties are considered to be a gourmet's potato.
"Our Yukon Gold is a type of yellow Finnish potato," he said. "It has a light-yellow flesh and a sweet, buttery flavor."
According to McCurley, this variety is a fairly new entry to grocers' vegetable racks.
"It first started showing up in the stores a few years ago," he said. "It is a round, regular size--not as big as the Idaho baking potatoes."
The McCurleys also offer something called a Yellow Fingerling.
"They are smaller than the Yukon," McCurley said. "These tend to be a little longer in shape, oblong really."
But they taste pretty much like the Yukon Gold, he said. "Its flavor and flesh appearance is similar. They both have thin, light-colored, delicate skins."
When the time arrives for the McCurleys to enter their field--one-sixth of which is allotted to potatoes--planting means more than merely sowing seeds.
"To grow potatoes, you plant potatoes," McCurley said. "That's the old-fashioned way."
From the eyes of the potato, sprouts develop--just like those on potatoes that have been sitting idle in your cupboard--allowing plants to take root and mature.
"When you plant potatoes," McCurley said, "you plant them one foot down. The old rule of thumb is, the potatoes will grow up from where the original seed potato was planted."
And while the treasures are buried in dirt--out of sight to determine readiness--the plants do provide McCurley a telltale sign when harvesting should take place.
"We watch for blossoms to form," McCurley said. "And after blossoming, they will go to seed and then dry up. At that point of drying, we dig them up."
Prodding and lifting the earth gently with a shovel or spading fork, McCurley expects to harvest on average of about five pounds of potatoes from a single plant.
"That really isn't a big yield," he said. Which is just one reason why potatoes are not grown commercially in Ventura County.
"Large farmers don't raise them because our climate is not productive for it. Another reason is it takes a lot of water and we just don't have enough of that around here," he said.
Back to the sprouts of potatoes. They are toxic. McCurley said to remove any sprouts before eating if they show up on your potatoes.
All the more reason to buy your potatoes freshly harvested, according to McCurley. "A fresh potato hasn't had the chance to grow any sprouts." He said the plants themselves, members of the nightshade family, are toxic too, "just like their cousin, the tomato."
To store potatoes before consuming, McCurley suggests using a paper bag and placing it in a cool, dark location, which helps prevent sprouting. "You don't want to put them in the refrigerator, though, because that will dehydrate them," he said.
Test delicately skinned potatoes for freshness and readiness, McCurley says.
"Take your thumb and try to push off the skin. You know it's unripe when the skin won't push off or break."
Yvonne McCurley sells the Yukon Gold and Yellow Fingerling varieties for a very reasonable $1 per pound. "Typically, they are pretty expensive in the stores because they are kind of limited in supply," Jim McCurley said.
Also fresh at the McCurleys' Thousand Oaks Farmers Market stand, you'll find shallots, Walla Walla onions, red Italian garlic and more.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Thousand Oaks Farmers Market is at the Janss Mall, Hillcrest Drive and Moorpark Road; 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Call 529-6266.
SERVING SUGGESTION DIJON POTATO SALAD
One of the great things about potatoes is that they are simple to prepare. Even grower Jim McCurley likes to keep preparation to a minimum.
"I usually steam them," he said, "and then just put a little ketchup on them."
For those who don't mind a little extra work, here is a recipe for that old summertime picnic staple--potato salad.
12 to 14 medium potatoes, cooked and diced. (If using Yukon Golds or Yellow Fingerlings, leave the skins on)
Mayonnaise or mayonnaise and sour cream, to taste
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 green onions, finely cut
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
Cook potatoes and cool slightly. Potatoes should be warm when mixed with dressing. Combine mayonnaise, mustard and vinegar in a large bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add potatoes, green onions and eggs. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Makes 12 cups.
Note: To vary salad, substitute snipped fresh dill for green onions or add crisp diced bacon, finely cut celery, dill pickles or cornichons.