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IN SEASON/RUSS PARSONS

The 'News' Are Good

May 14, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

When cooks talk about new potatoes, what they usually mean are small potatoes. They've been grown, harvested and treated like any others. They aren't new; they're just the spud equivalent of the runt of the litter.

A bunch of California growers, though, are trying to make a go of selling potatoes that are truly new. That is, they are freshly dug and shipped without curing.

Right now you can get red and white boiling potatoes that are new, and Yukon Gold new potatoes. In another month, they'll be selling new russets, the familiar baking potato variety.

"Freshly dug potatoes give you a more moist potato with a thinner skin," says Tom Franconi of Mazzei-Franconi, an Edison, Calif., firm that markets new potatoes. "Potatoes coming out of all the other states have been stored since September or October, when they were dug. That's almost nine months now."

It's probably not as bad as he makes it sound. Potatoes are grown to be stored, says Mikal Saltveit, a professor of vegetable post-harvest physiology at UC Davis. In fact, the first stage of the potato harvest normally involves killing the potato plant's foliage, forcing the potato to go dormant and to form a thick, impermeable skin to reduce moisture loss.

Once the potatoes are harvested, they're either sold immediately or cured for long-term storage by being held in a warm, humid environment for about a week to allow any harvest blemishes to heal and to stabilize the potato's internal chemistry.

New potatoes will have a higher sugar content and more moist flesh than cured ones, Saltveit says. Cooks know that moistness is great for boiling potatoes but of questionable value for russets. The fluffiest baked, fried and mashed potatoes come from the driest russets.

Almost all the California potatoes that you find in the market right now will be new potatoes, whether they're specially labeled or not. The best way to cook them to show off their flavor is to steam them until they're tender and toss them with a little butter and some coarse salt.

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