Green Scene

Amethysts move over for the fascinating purple potato

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My husband’s day usually starts with attendance at the morning service (Shacharit) of The Riverdale Minyan. He is then home before 7:30 a.m., to start his day. 

A few weeks ago, he returned carrying a three-pound bag of purple-skinned potatoes. Something strange was afoot.

Having been members of the food co-op at Riverdale Neighborhood House many years ago, I had the pleasure of going in the very early morning to the wholesale produce market at Hunts Point. If you can manage the timeframe — I seem to remember that by 6 a.m., the market was winding down — it was great fun. 

Of course, you have to buy in large quantities, but just seeing the amount and variety of fresh produce was an amazing experience. However, I never ventured beyond that point, and have no deep knowledge of the produce industry.

Enter Harris Cutler of the Race-West Co., a family-owned business in Pennsylvania specializing in root vegetables. On a trip to the west coast visiting potato growers, he found a field of purple-skinned potatoes looking for a buyer. 

A chance comment from a Costco salesman made a match, but the Cutlers were left with a case of purple-skinned samples to share. Hence, every person at the service received a bag of these beautiful potatoes. While the skin is a bright purple, the meat is golden — and remains golden after cooking — and we can attest that the flavor is excellent because I cooked a pot-full for dinner.

Potatoes were one of many crops that moved from the New World to the old, and vice versa. This transfer of plants, animals, populations, technology and ideas is now officially known as the Columbian Exchange. 

The term was unknown to me but is apparently recognizable to those who went to school after 1972 when the American historian, Alfred W. Crosby, wrote an environmental history book by that name. Africa was also a full participant in this exchange, and not just as a source of slaves. Unfortunate consequences of this exchange include diseases and invasive species.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are members of the Solanacea family. Additional familiar family members include tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), peppers (Capsicum annuum), and eggplant (Solanum melogena) as well as tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). 

They are all native to the Americas — with the exception of the eggplant, which originated in southeast Asia.

The original potato is native to two different locales: the Andean range running from eastern Venezuela to northern Argentina, and the lowlands of south central Chile. Each area had a local strain, both of which contributed to the modern potato. 

This valuable food crop contributed heavily to the population explosion in Europe in the 1800s.

Potatoes are tubers. The plant itself flowers and produces seed, as do most plants, but a new crop is grown from “seed potatoes.” This is somewhat misleading, since the new plants are not derived from seed but from tubers carefully selected to be free of diseases. 

The tuber is then cut in pieces, but each piece must contain at least one “eye.”  If you would like to get a jump on the growing season, you can start sprouting or “chitting” your potatoes indoors. All you have to do is expose your seed potatoes to bright sunlight on a windowsill or under fluorescent lights. Placing them in empty egg cartons keeps the tuber from rolling around. 

Later the potato pieces are planted with the sprouts upward in a  5- to 6-inch deep trench about 12 inches apart. Once the sprout grows 6 inches above the ground, you “hill” them to increase the number and size of the tubers by periodically adding soil around the base of the stem, gradually creating a hill. 

This can be done every time as the plant grows 6 inches above the new soil line. Some home growers add tires, one at a time on top of each other, so that they can continue to raise the soil level.

After harvesting, potatoes are “cured” to improve skin-set, meaning the skin becomes firmer and heal damage caused at harvest. They are laid out in temperatures of between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit for about a week to 10 days. 

Unlike other major food crops — such as wheat, which can be kept for years — potatoes are more fragile and require careful storage. The facility needs to be dark, well-ventilated and kept at a temperature of 45 to 50 degrees. If storage temperature is too cool, the starch begins to convert to sugars, which affects the taste and cooking qualities.

So, if you would like to be in the forefront of the potato scene, you can check out Costco in Hackensack for their new Huckleberry Gold potatoes, which were years in development by Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service.

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

CLARIFICATION: Huckleberry Gold was a potato variety developed through a collaboration between Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service. The Green Scene column that appeared in the May 10 edition did not include all the organizations that helped develop the potato variety.

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