This week’s share: Genovese and lemon basil, Napa cabbage, Dill, Escarole, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuce, Snap peas, Potatoes, Squash
Small potatoes are increasingly big. I know, kind of a lame joke. But it is true. In a couple of ways actually, now that I think about it. Literally, for instance. The small potatoes on our potatoes vines are getting big. Or at least bigger. To get really big they would probably need somewhat more consistent rain, rather than, say, getting almost nothing in June and then 4 inches the afternoon of July 1st. Still, they are definitely growing.
But what I really meant is that the market for small potatoes has increased significantly in recent years. Increased from essentially nothing to now making up 12% of potatoes sales. In the old days, by which I mean maybe a decade ago, potato farmers generally regarded small potatoes as an annoyance. They were just potatoes that had not amounted to anything.
For a seed potato grower small potatoes have some use since they make good seed stock. You don’t have to cut them before planting, which makes them far less susceptible to rot than than the normal cut seed pieces. But they were viewed as having no real culinary value–possibly because you cannot make french fries from small potatoes. I don’t know what potato growers did with their small potatoes, but it would not surprise me if they just threw them away.
Now they stick them in mesh bags and sell them at a premium as gourmet spuds. And to be fair, there are good reasons to prefer small potatoes. They cook faster and more uniformly, and they look nice. But I think a lot of people assume they are also somehow not just fancier (for some reason very small or very large often equals fancy for produce), but also fresher. After all, they must have been picked as babies so they are young and fresh–those new potatoes, whatever that means, that you see mentioned on menus.
Well, they could be, except that you see those bags of small potatoes in the store year-round, plus potato plants make a lot of tubers, and not all of them size up. A potato plant dug long after it has died (I would say of natural causes, but in fact most big potato farms kill their vines with herbicide at some point in order to have a more predictable harvest date) will still yield some small potatoes. That is just how potatoes work.
And while it is true some potato packer has bothered to sort out the nice little ones just for you, they do that anyway. They have just run all the potatoes through grading machines on the packing line like they always have. All that has changed is that they found a clever way to sell the little ones they used to grade out.
That is not a bad thing. In fact, it is good. Good for the potato farmers, who have found value in something that previously had none. Good for the planet because it reduces food waste. And good for people who like small potatoes and would never had found any in a grocery store before.
The only slight concern nagging at me is the trend, of which these small potatoes are certainly part, to bring modern American marketing to the world of produce. Not that marketing has played no role before now. People would hype new crops–broccolini, for instance–and new varieties–the Uglyripe tomato. But by and large they skipped all the suggestive aspirational lifestyle ploys used to sell soda and chips and all those other foodish edible objects that take up the vast majority of our stores and diets. Vegetables, being so obviously just themselves, don’t easily lend themselves to that sort of thing, and anyway there’s just not that much money in produce.
But now eating well, eating local, eating fresh, these have become more culturally meaningful. Now a vegetable is not just a vegetable. What you buy in the produce section can tell people something about you, about your values and sophistication and skills and knowledge and wealth. And once that happens the marketers have something with which to work on you.
Which, I suppose, could be great if it just serves to make more people eat vegetables. But that kind of marketing has a way of twisting things into new shapes, of making people think drinking soda will turn them into fit, fun-loving beach-goers when they are far more likely to end up as desperately ill diabetics. One of the attractive things about vegetables–at least to me–is that they are what they are. Unlike, say, a frozen pizza, they aren’t good at lying. You don’t need any marketing suggestions to figure out what is good. Just have a small sense of adventure and use your senses and you will know what is good.
You may even be able to tell which potatoes, such as the ones in your box this week, are actually new. New meaning early season, dug while the plants are still alive, before the skins have set. What really makes them special is that they are the first potatoes of the new season. Well that and the fact that they actually taste like something: a potato.
Vegetable notes: Lemon basil, as one might expect, has a lemony as well as a basilly flavor. You could chop it up finely with garlic and some hot pepper, mix it with olive oil, salt and a little lemon juice or vinegar and have a nice sauce for grilled fish or steak or squash. You could make a lemony pesto, which would be good on some steamed potatoes or sautéed squash. And best of all, you can steep it in simple syrup and mix one part syrup with one part good bourbon over lots of ice and enjoy the Alleged Farm cocktail #1 (more on cocktail #2 some other time).
You can use Napa much as you would normal cabbage, or stir fry it (its tender texture lends itself to quick cooking) or you could carefully remove the outer leaves and steam them until the ribs are pliable and use the leaves as wrappers for spring rolls or stuffed “grape” leaves or whatever else you think might be good wrapped up in a Napa cabbage leaf.
These little leeks are fairly tender so you could grill or broil them and marinate them overnight and they would be good with cold grilled squash or chopped up and added to a potato salad. Or you could just cook them with the escarole and a lot of garlic and finish it with some Genovese basil. I would point out that you could add some chunks of potato and chicken stock and make a nice hearty soup, but it is way to hot to think about that.