Tuber libre

After months under the soil, this season's crop of new potatoes is just waiting to burst forth, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My grandfather grew potatoes and I remember as a kid eating the new ones only at this time of year and through some of the months of summer. The sweet little spuds with their earthy flavour were a treat to look forward to, just tossed in butter with freshly picked mint and parsley from the garden. I didn't know then that new potatoes were probably available all the year round from the greengrocer or the only supermarket in town.

My grandfather grew potatoes and I remember as a kid eating the new ones only at this time of year and through some of the months of summer. The sweet little spuds with their earthy flavour were a treat to look forward to, just tossed in butter with freshly picked mint and parsley from the garden. I didn't know then that new potatoes were probably available all the year round from the greengrocer or the only supermarket in town.

Most of my grandfather's home-grown fruit and veg had its time and place on the dinner table and when it was gone that was it until the following year. He just grew basic stuff like strawberries, gooseberries, apples, beans and great tomatoes and they all tasted as they should. I've no idea what variety his potatoes were, or whether he even knew. It was the growing conditions, love and attention that mattered, and that's why he had manure delivered for forking into the ground and mixing into the soil for his tomatoes and prize-winning chrysanthemums.

The idea that people are growing heritage potatoes and stripey tomatoes would have seemed ridiculous to him, but these days we're all trying to get back to the days when produce tasted the way his did. When it comes to new potatoes, Jersey Royals can have the ultimate flavour, except for the early greenhouse crop that is marketed to give the season a little kick-start. The prices are ridiculously high, but the flavour once the season (which lasts until July) gets going is second to none, mainly down to the seaweed used to fertilise them.

Originally called the Jersey Royal Fluke, these gold-standard tubers were first accidentally discovered 125 years ago by a farmer who planted the eyes of two large potatoes. They're the only vegetable in Britain with an EU protected designation of origin, so they're unique to the Channel island, as the ham is to Parma.

Not only have they ensured no other potato can be passed off as one of theirs, the potato farmers in Jersey are well organised, and sell their potatoes as a co-operative, with stringent quality control.

Although I'm all in favour of traditional home-grown varieties - and Jerseys are British - Ratte and Roseval are other new potatoes I look out for. My favourite all-the-year-rounder is the Anya which appeared on the market a few years ago and which I've only ever seen sold in Sainsbury's. It's rather like a pink fir apple, but less floury and very versatile.

You can tell if a potato that looks new really is by whether the skin can be rubbed away with your fingers. A lot of the small potatoes in shops aren't necessarily new crop. I change my mind from year to year about whether I prefer new potatoes with the skin on or without. When the skin is thin and tender it's fine to leave it on. The problem restaurants have is consistency and you might start off with new potatoes with thin edible skin, then find a month later that they've become bitter and tough. If you're sure your potatoes really are new crop just scrub them lightly so the earthy taste on the skin remains.

Blue potato crisps

Serves 4-5 as a snack

I've never really been sure what to do with these weird-looking French potatoes. They are called black truffle potatoes, blue congo or violetta, and they are blue all the way through. The English version are called salad blue. I've tried mashing them, but they turn a bizarre shade of mauve which people find off-putting in mashed potato. I've sliced them into salads, and you can boil them, but I couldn't resist turning them into crisps. Snack food can get away with being weird and wonderful, but they often charge an outrageous price for a few slices of crunchy potato, so if you can find the blue potatoes in the first place (try www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk and farmers' markets, farm shops or direct from the Northumberland growers), make your own.

400g blue potatoes, washed
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
Fine sea salt

Slice the potatoes thinly with a mandolin or on the side of a grater. Wash in cold water and dry well on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper. Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180°C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Fry the crisps a handful at a time, stirring every so often, then remove with a perforated spoon on to some kitchen paper. Season with fine sea salt, or you could use your own spice mixture, such as crushed chilli and salt or celery salt, or paprika and salt.

Charlotte potato and parsley soup with cockles

Serves 4-6

Charlotte potatoes have a good waxy texture, which generally means they taste good too. It makes them perfect for salads, hot or cold. They also make a good soup and once blended give it a silky finish. I prefer not to blend the soup up too much so you end up with a natural chunky texture. Make sure you wash the cockles thoroughly as they tend to harbour lots of grit in their ridged shells. The best way to do this is to leave them in a bowl of cold water for an hour and agitate them with your hands every so often then wash them under cold running water for 10 minutes.

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
A good knob of butter
300g Cºharlotte potatoes, peeled
2litres vegetable stock
1tbsp double cream
30-40g (a good handful) curly parsley, washed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
300g cockles, washed as above

Gently cook the onion in the butter on a low heat, for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the potatoes and stock, season and simmer for 15 minutes until the potatoes are just beginning to fall apart. Add the cream and parsley, stalks and all, and simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Liquidise to a coarse consistency in a blender or food processor, re-season if necessary and return to a pan.

Meanwhile put the cockles in a saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water, cover with a lid and cook on a high heat, stirring every so often, for 2-3 minutes until they are all open. Drain the liquid and add to the soup. To serve, spoon the cockles into bowls and pour the hot soup on top.

New potatoes with chorizo

Serves 4-6 as a snack or tapa

The pimentón heat and hue of the chorizo gives the potato warmth and colour and the potatoes soak up the tasty chorizo oils as they cook. Try to buy cooking chorizo rather than the normal cured one as it will release more fat and not be tough. This makes a great snack, starter or part of a tapas selection. I've even served it as the potato accompaniment with chicken or a robust fish like monkfish.

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
150g cooking chorizo, cut into 1cm chunks
1tbsp olive oil
500g waxy new potatoes like Charlottes or Ratte, peeled and halved
500ml vegetable or chicken stock
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the onions and chorizo in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often. Add the potatoes and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes until the potatoes are soft, but not falling apart and the liquid has almost evaporated. If there is still a lot of liquid left, turn the heat up and continue cooking until the potatoes are just moistened with the liquid. Stir in the parsley and serve warm or piping hot. Eat with crusty bread.

Baked Roseval potatoes with sour cream and salmon caviar

Makes 20

These luxurious little snacks are perfect for celebratory drinks parties or pre-dinner snacks. Our catering business Caprice Events often serves them at canapé parties, the kind of caviar depending on the client's budget. Saviar or keta, pink salmon roe is one alternative. Another is Avruga, herring roe, which is black. There's even a vegetarian "caviar" made in the Orkneys from seaweed.

20 Roseval potatoes, or similar small potatoes
30g crème fraîche, or more if you wish
30g keta salmon caviar

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/Gas mark 6. Bake the potatoes for 30-40 minutes, remove from the oven and leave to cool a little. Cut a cross on top of the potatoes and push the potato up with both thumbs and forefingers as you would with a jacket potato. Spoon a little crème fraîche inside and the caviar on top.

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