(photo from Wikipedia)
I wanted to share a recent revelation about the baked potato. All my life, I’ve been told “russet potatoes” make the best baked potato. Fine. All my life, I’ve thought a russet was a russet and the baked potato was a nice, bland meat accompaniment that is always improved with a little salt, pepper, sour cream, chives, bacon and cheese.
But when you’re making an earnest (though not always perfect) attempt to avoid sour cream, bacon and cheese, that potato had better make an equally earnest effort to impart some flavor without having to get all tarted up for you. It took 41 years for me to find a potato that tastes delicious completely naked (the potato, not me, you perverts) and I want to shout it to the world!
Drooling with anticipation about where to find this earthy gem (that’s a hint)? You need go no further than your local Whole Foods. That’s where I found baked potato nirvana. On my last visit, pumped with endorphins from a ride on the bike trail, I mustered up the courage to ask the produce guy why their russet potatoes were so sweet and flavorful.
First, I pointed to the bin where I always found the special russets. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was pointing at because they now had what appeared to be two different potato types in one stack. One was mottled looking with a smooth, glossy skin and the other had a dusty, netted brown skin.
He pointed to the dusty, netted one and said, “That’s what you’re looking for.”
“Is there a special name for this type? Is it a particular variety of potato? Where is it grown? It’s-so-sweet-I-love-it-Please-don’t-ever-stop-carrying-it.”
“It’s called a netted gem and these are from California.” He relayed that several customers had commented on the flavor, and that a group of elderly ladies told him it was “too sweet for mashed potatoes.” I beg to differ, ladies, and I say that with the utmost respect. Still, isn’t it remarkable that we’re discussing the flavor of a potato and we haven’t even gotten to the toppings yet?
I bought some, repeated the name “netted gem” several times out loud and not at all like a crazy person and finished my shopping.
Later that evening, I Googled “netted gem potatoes”, which appear to be synonymous with Russet Burbank potatoes, and were discovered by a man named Lon D. Sweet. Ok, so, um, shouldn’t it be named the Russet Sweet instead of the Russet Burbank? I mean, c’mon, he discovered it and it’s so sweet and his name is Sweet.
According to Luther Burbank the Russet Burbank was originated by a man in
Denver, Colorado, who evidently selected a chance sport out of Burbank. Burbank
stated that, “These Burbank potatoes raised by Lon D. Sweet of Denver, Colorado,
have a modified coat in a way that does not add to their attractiveness. It is
said, however, that this particular variant is particularly resistant to blight,
which gives it exceptional value.” Read more.
Oddly enough, I didn’t come across any mention of the netted gem’s superior flavor. Well, I have been accused of being a bit of a “super taster“, so maybe I’m picking up this subtle sweetness when to many, russets all taste the same. But wait, remember the elderly ladies? They found the netted gem too sweet for mashed potatoes. I’m not imagining this! I’d love more people to try the potato and report back. Any chefs or potato farmers or foodies reading this?
This being a gardening blog, you’re probably expecting me to encourage you to grow your own netted gems. Nah. You can’t grow everything and potatoes seem like a lot of work. Is Sacramento lovingly referred to as Sacrapotato? No, it is not. It’s Sacratomato. Live with it. Plus, the netted gem is reportedly difficult to grow in the home garden. Just buy them at Whole Foods and ask around for them at your local farmers’ markets.
I’m also guessing there’s more to this potato story than one produce man and Google can provide. If anyone is more up on their potato history than I, please feel free to comment. And were these potatoes really grown in California and not Idaho?
If you decide to make mashed potatoes out of netted gems, please let us know how you like them and what recipe you used. Can you taste the difference? Might want to test drive a batch before Thanksgiving. I’m betting your potatoes will be the talk of the table. Rats, I’ve been asked to bring green beans this year.
Dec. 13 edit: Check out the Cooks Magazine Potato Primer. It’s a PDF download.