Tuber virtuoso: second earlies

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton celebrates the various varieties of British potatoes and offers her expert guidance on cooking with them to make the most of their wonderful diversity of flavour, texture, shape and colour. This month: the second earlies

Image: John Holdship

Many of us can be guilty of rose-tinted recollections of the long summers we had as kids. Idyllic times of never-ending sun (of course for the kids of summer 2018, that may actually be true…) and games in the garden. Possibly slightly oddly, my main memories of childhood summer days involve new potatoes.

It is not so much the eating of them that I remember—it is a particular image of my mum, sitting outside in a strappy summer dress, freshly-painted toenails drying in the sun, scraping Ormskirk new potatoes in her lap in a large yellow enamel bowl that was only ever used for that job. That, for me, is the image of summertime happiness, and quite probably set the seed for my love of new potatoes that has sustained deep into adulthood.

She was scraping the skins because by the time it is July, and then the school holidays, it is the ‘second early’ new potatoes that are around for us to enjoy. They are typically larger with more skin than the first early new potatoes of May and June—those ones tend to be very small, with the most delicate of skins that barely need a brush with your thumb for it to come off. The second earlies of proper summer have a more substantial skin on them. If possible, the very last thing you want to do is peel that skin off before cooking.

The skin is absolutely delicious; packed with flavour and nutritious, too. Potato flesh has lots of fibre, potassium and vitamins. Keeping the skin on delicate new potatoes helps both keep their flavour in and stop those nutrients leaching out in the heat of boiling, steaming or roasting. Not just protective, the skin packs its own proportions of those nutrients. Scraping the skin gently with a knife or giving it a scrub is all you need to do to remove its outer layers and the soil.

Freshness and flavour
Because the new potatoes you buy do have soil on them, right? I hope so. That means they are the freshest out of the ground, the most newly harvested, the least treated. Pre-packed, washed potatoes in bags dominate our national potato sales, to the detriment of their freshness and, therefore, flavour. When people learn of my new potato love, they are often quick to complain that new potatoes these days don’t taste like they used to.

Admittedly maybe that is another hangover of our memories of summers of the past, but I am always quick to say that maybe it is also because some of the potatoes we are buying now are the result of huge pressure put on farmers to turn out high yields, then treat and store their new potatoes for long periods to lengthen the selling season. Of course that impacts the potatoes’ flavour. As cooks and shoppers, we would be naive to think otherwise.

New potatoes enjoyed as fresh as possible from the farm and the ground—with as little done to them as possible before selling—are the ones that are going to have the most flavour. That’s when you get a new potato so good, you barely have to think what to serve it with—bliss in the summer, when spending time in a hot kitchen loses appeal for even the keenest of cooks.

I mentioned in the last instalment of this series how great it is that we tend to talk about British new potatoes in terms of where they are farmed, more so than what variety they are—like those Ormskirks, which were our local new potatoes, produced barely 30 miles from where my mum was sitting scrubbing them. Which isn’t to say you should only buy the ones grown near you.

The right idea
Produce can find its way around the country quick enough now to mean you might find on market stalls lovely second earlies from Norfolk, Kent, or Cheshire. I was unspeakably thrilled the other day when a member of the Borough Market Cookbook Club talked at one of the events I am privileged to host about choosing Norfolk new potatoes rather than generic ones for the dish she’d brought along. She absolutely had the right idea.

The recipe she was cooking happened to be a dauphinoise and so highlights the other great thing about second earlies: they are much more varied and versatile to cook with than first earlies. Size is a factor, as mentioned earlier. First earlies can be barely walnut size; second earlies are twice the size or more. The texture can be quite different from the first new potatoes, too.

A second early new potato dauphinoise made with a waxy number would mean the potato slices hold firm and keep their shape. Perfectly lovely. Made with a flourier new potato, you would find the slices become more at one with the sauce. They’ll disintegrate into it. I would prefer that, but maybe you wouldn’t. We would both be kept happy by choosing the ‘right’ kind of second early.

For waxy second earlies to use in salads, or wherever you really want to prevent the potatoes collapsing, look out for maris peer, aura or royal kidney. For floury second earlies, look for yukon gold or sharpe’s express. There are other varieties, too, and while you may not see the variety named because—as we know—the potatoes are often identified by region, all you have to do is ask, is it a waxy potato or a floury one? Find out and then decide whether to use for salads (waxy), roasting (either), frittata (either), mashing (floury), or chipping (floury). New potatoes chips? Yes please.

Cooked as you please
The basic difference in texture is that waxy new potatoes hold their own and have a smoother texture; floury new potatoes collapse and are fluffier. Armed with this knowledge you are all set to enjoy the rest of the British summer with a steaming bowl of second early new potatoes, cooked just as you please.

Read Angela’s recipe for crushed new potatoes with bacon and hot mustard sauce