Marble potatoes – cheap, healthy, convenient

It was in the summer of 1963 when I first encountered marble potatoes at the upper portion of the Baguio City public market, where the unprime (a.k.a. rejects) vegetables were being sold to non-institutional buyers, such as housewives and carinderia stall owners. The tiny potatoes were piled alongside undersized carrots, misshapen cauliflower, overripe tomatoes and lettuce heads that had started flowering.

CHEAPEST POTATO VARIETY - Then, as now, marble potatoes sold at 90% lower than regular potatoes. The price difference springs from the fact that in the Philippines, marble potatoes are harvested not as the main product but as a by product or incidental produce which could literally be had free for the taking from the farms.

In contrast, these small potatoes are classified as high value crops in upscale farmers markets, tiyangge, supermarkets and specialty food stores patronized by professional chefs and well-travelled upper crust families. Even at SM Hypermart, the marble potatoes sell at prices almost at par with regular ones. Last I looked, the tag was somewhere in the vicinity of P70 per kilo; compare this to P10-P15 in Divisoria, P4-P7 in Baguio.

Thinner skinned and less starchy than mature spuds, the young potatoes are prone to bruising and therefore have a shorter shelf life. This short storage life also contributes to its low price tag at public markets, where buyers prefer large, mature spuds.

At this stage in our economy, Filipinos should probably start using marble potatoes more often in daily meals, to save them time and money while serving healthier and more nutritious meals.

WASH, DON'T PEEL - Summer is when marble potatoes appear in the market. Smaller than pingpong balls and about the size of a lady's thumb, they are sometimes labeled new potatoes, baby potatoes, cherry potatoes or grape potatoes depending on size and shape.

They reach the market within hours of harvest, thereby retaining their natural sweetness. Occasionally, the roots still have farm soil clinging to their skin.

Because they are cooked, served and eaten whole, skin and all, they save the cook a lot of time normally spent peeling and slicing. All they need is a good wash in water to loosen all the soil off, although a few stubborn spots may need brushing or rubbing with a sponge or wash cloth.

Some professional kitchens add a little detergent to the water to completely rid the potatoes of any trace of chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides.

VERSATILE AND FAST - Marble potatoes may be used for any recipe calling for ordinary potatoes. Use them whole for stews and roasts, parboil and slice in half for salads, chop or julienne for omelets and hash.

One of the family's favorite time savers is to boil a kilo of baby potatoes for 10 minutes, drain, then soak in cold water to firm up the starches and prevent them from getting fluffy. Once cold, the potatoes could be diced with no need to peel.

The diced potatoes are sautéed with sliced onions and crushed garlic until lightly browned and could be called hash. The hash is cooled down, divided into six equal portions and frozen in air-tight containers or packaging material such as Ziplock.

Any time we hanker for an omelet, a frozen pack is microwaved for one minute, stirred into beaten eggs with salt and pepper, and fried into a perfect omelet. Any leftover sardines, ham, bacon, sausage or cooked meat are sometimes stirred in before frying, along with raisins, green onions, herbs and green peas. The omelet is ready in minutes, instead of half an hour it normally takes when making omelets from scratch.

PATATAS PASTA - Take advantage of cheap potatoes and make gnocchi, a potato-based pasta. Here is one recipe from Italy.

Boil potatoes until tender, peel and mash while hot. Mix 2 cups mashed potatoes, 1 tbsp butter and ¼ tsp salt. Stir in 3 cups flour until a smooth dough is formed. A few drops of water at a time could be added to reach desired dough consistency.

Roll the dough into a long rope about the thickness of your thumb, then cut the rope to 1-inch lengths.

Boil 1 litter salted water and drop the gnocchi gently, making sure the pot is not crowded with too much pasta. Take the gnocchi out of the simmering water as soon as they float, and slide into a buttered bowl. Use the cooked gnocchi like pasta, with your favorite tomato sauce.

The gnocchi can also be eaten plain, with white sauce, pesto sauce and grated cheese. They can be layered with cheese and sauces and baked like lasagna, or garnished with toppings and cooked like pizza.

SMASHED POTATOES - The new darling comfort food, Smashed Potatoes earned a special article in the prestigious New York Times' Food Section recently.

Marbled potatoes are boiled until tender, drained, and gently smashed with the fist until the skins split but before the potatoes burst into pieces.

They are deep fried until the skins are crisp but the flesh remain fluffy, and served either with a light sprinkling of coarse sea salt or a heavy dose of grated cheese. Use the toaster, oven or microwave to melt the cheese for a truly rich and luscious topping.

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