Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Potato Hedonism in Central New York

A delicious dish is a sensory experience that always takes you back to its place of origin.

Nineteenth century Irish salt workers in Syracuse, New York lunched on young potatoes boiled in the brine of natural salt springs "mined" for production of consumable salt. They inadvertently invented a regional summertime classic that is unique to the area and proof that the simplest recipes sometimes deliver the most sublime flavor.

An overdose of the three deadly sins of the food pyramid--carbohydrates (simple sugar), salt, and fat--Syracuse salt potatoes are not a recipe you'll find in the pages of popular fitness magazines or Vogue. Excluding water, the ingredients list is so simple, it's a wonder the dish is so little known outside Upstate New York. Simply, small white potatoes in-the-skin are boiled in a brine that's at least one part table salt to six of water (about a pound of salt for every four or five pounds of potatoes!), then after 20 minutes the hyper-saline water is drained and the potatoes drizzled generously with melted butter and perhaps some fresh herbs.

Sound like simple boiled potatoes? Think again. Salt potatoes are fair food, and in the United States that means indulgence. The higher boiling point of the salt water is believed to more thoroughly break down starch in the potatoes, resulting in an indulgently creamy, denser, almost mashed texture. And, a salt crust seals the skin of the potatoes and prevents water-logging, yet ensures that the interiors of the potatoes themselves are not overly salty. The resulting flavor of perfectly seasoned new potatoes is both refined and intense at the same time.

You're going to need a lot of this, at least one pound salt (.45 kg) per four pounds of potatoes. The volumetric water to salt ratio is about 6:1.
Notice the rind of salt developing on the rim of the steel pot.
Spattering brine will coat the top of your pot and the surface of your stovetop.

Notice the white salty rind that's developed on the drained and air-drying potatoes. Also, the skin is wrinkly (not a typical characteristic of boiled potatoes), indicating a slight dehydration that contributes to the extra-creamy texture along with the breakdown of starch due to the higher boiling temperature of the brine.

I used small red potatoes for this demonstration, and results were similar. To be strictly authentic, salt potato kits, which are sold in markets all over Central New York, specifically use Size B, Grade US no. 2 new potatoes. Just stay clear of larger potatoes with thick skins.

As you lick the melted butter off your fingers, you'll happily think that deprived supermodels and vegans must live in some unhappy circle of hell. There will be no leftovers.

Upstate New York is the ancestral home of the potato chip and Buffalo wings. For the region, a side dish of salt potatoes is no less of a passion during summertime barbecues or picnics. Welcome to Syracuse.