It has been a long time since I’ve had a really good—or, depending on your point of view, really bad—foodish rant around here. It’s certainly not for lack of cause. It’s not as if, once the thousand-dollar frittata and the P.B. Slice surrendered their fifteen minutes of fame, there were no other outrageous foodstuffs to replace them. From squeezable yogurt in a tube to those scary glop-filled Bowls O’Food that KFC rolled out last year to Paula Deen’s batter-dipped, deep-fried orange cake recipe that a dear friend shared with me, there has been a wealth of nonsense that should not have passed without comment—and yet, I had bugger-all to say about any of it. I could blame it on the law school follies, or on the months of unemployment torpor that preceded the law school follies, or the two last miserable years at LuthorCorp, when I basically lost interest in everything that makes life worth living. Or I could just jettison all the excuses and admit it: I got lazy. I got soft. I didn’t have the attention span required to get my knickers in a twist, much less spend a thousand words untwisting them.
Of course you know that couldn’t last.
Credit is due to Pam the Beancounter, who, if you are not acquainted with her, is witty and wry and thoughtful and a consistent source of amusing conversation. (If you are acquainted with her, of course, then you already know this.) Last week Pam was at a supermarket in Modesto, California, where she found—oh, heaven help me for using this phrase, even in a tongue-in-cheek way—a display of value-added russet potatoes. I am thankful that Pam has a blog, a camera and a well-honed sense of the absurd, because honestly, if she had tried to explain this to me, I would have refused to believe it. It would have been beyond my ken to believe it.
Apparently a venerable West Coast produce concern has discovered that if you take a crop of russet potatoes, sort them by size, wash them twice, shrinkwrap them individually and slap both a heat-sensitive tear strip and a double-sided label on the shrinkwrap, you can sell the resulting potatoes at 99 cents each. For 99 cents, you can buy one single, modestly-sized russet potato, the same modestly-sized russets that my neighborhood fruit-and-vegetable market, several thousand miles away from Idaho potato country, sells in five-pound bags for $2.50. (If I want bigger russets, I can buy them loose for 59 cents a pound. The big ones usually weigh around 9 or 10 ounces). This new generation of potatoes, branded as Micro Baker, are essentially twice the price of bagged potatoes.
So what exactly is the added value in these value-added potatoes? If you’re going to pay double the price for your spuds, particularly in an era of $4.00/gallon gasoline, certainly you should get something for your money—something, that is, besides more plastic in the supply chain/water table/landfill. A little research revealed that the produce company in question is Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, a frequent fixture in my food magazines, well known for sourcing exotic fruits and vegetables worldwide. Okay, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Inc., I thought, sell me.
Apparently the main selling points of these potatoes are a) they are foolproof to cook in the microwave, b) you leave the shrinkwrap on during the microwaving process, so that your hands never have to touch the potato and c) thanks to the heatproofing on the tearstrip, you can open the shrinkwrap without burning your fingers. They also have “consistent sizing,” “a label filled with valuable information,” and “a neat, clean appearance,” which, granted, is something the big loose dusty russets don’t have, although, really, it’s pretty quick work to scrub a potato clean. If these selling points were underwhelming, though, the last ones were mindboggling: In seven minutes you can have a “‘tastes just liked baked’ potato flavor!” You can have a potato just like the ones served in gourmet restaurants!
This, dear friends, is where they lost me, and where I got my lunatic, muttering food crank idiom back.
Those last two selling points are just plain wrong. When you microwave a potato, you are essentially steaming it, cooking it via wet heat. When you bake, or roast, a potato, you are cooking it via dry heat. Both are worthy cooking methods, but they are not interchangeable, and to claim that you can create a baked flavor via steaming, or a steamed texture via baking, is a pernicious fiction that does neither the produce merchant nor the cook any favors. Baking a russet does more than cook it through: it contributes to the fluffy, floury, mealy texture that makes it unparalleled for absorbing butter, sour cream or olive oil. It also encourages gentle browning and caramelization of the sugars in the skin, giving it a deep, roasted flavor that contrasts so nicely with the fleshy interior of the potato. To show off a russet at its best, it’s not enough to cook it; you need to dry it out as well. There is something inimitable and fine about taking a nice big russet, scrubbing it clean, rubbing its skin with a little bit of salt and tossing it into a hot oven (preferably on the rack above or below the roast you’re roasting or the bread you’re baking), pulling it out of the oven an hour later and feeling how light it has become. Wrap it in a towel so that you don’t burn your fingers, thump it once, hard, against your work surface, and unroll your steamy potato into a bowl, where it will happily soak up whatever you want to put on it, be it a quantity of butter or a little tub of cottage cheese. It is soulful, restorative food.
When you microwave a russet, you are not drying it out. You are steaming it in its own juice. This is a terrific thing if you are steaming a fish, particularly a lean fish, or vegetables: you are keeping the food nice and moist, with pure, clear flavor, unmuddied by caramelization. It is not terrific for a potato that derives its best flavor and texture from dry heat. Yes, the potato will cook through evenly; you can cut it open and dress it with butter or cheese; you can even eat the skin, although it won’t taste like anything and the texture will remind you of a wet paper towel. At best, you’ll have something nice enough to eat. But it won’t have a “tastes just liked baked” flavor, and no amount of exclamation points will give it one.
Most likely it will, however, taste like a gourmet restaurant baked potato. This is because, with few exceptions, gourmet restaurant baked potatoes are steamed, too. I don’t know who first lit on the idea of wrapping russets in foil before baking them, but it was a terrible idea. All of the moisture that would dissipate in the oven remains contained within the foil. The result is the same as that of microwaved potatoes: flavorless, paper-towellish skin, waterlogged flesh. But hey, it certainly looks snappy in its little foil bunting when it sits on the plate next to your steak, and if the kitchen is lucky, you consider that potato to be an afterthought, little more than a vehicle for that little plastic tub of sour cream they give you.
Admittedly, I might be taking this whole potato methodology rant a bit too far. I am not a martinet. I realize that sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to run the oven for an hour, particularly on a swampy day in August. I have also spent years working in offices where baking a potato wasn’t an option, but microwaving a potato was, and if the resulting potato wasn’t perfect, it was still tasty, filling, cheap and probably healthier than most of the takeout hot lunch options available to me. I have done it before, and one day I might have to do it again. I will not, however, be fooling myself into thinking that I’m getting something that tastes like the perfect potato of my dreams—and I’m sure as hell not going to pay twice the price for it.