First potatoes are so good

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The humble potato ranks high on my list of the best tastes of summer. There is nothing like boiling up a freshly dug batch and eating a bowlful; maybe with a dollop of butter or olive oil or maybe just plain with salt.

This first taste, before the sugar in the potatoes becomes starch, is ambrosial. Unless you grow your own, this experience is out of reach. I no longer plant potatoes, but last Friday I got lucky.

Debby Farber of Blackwater Farm was digging her first crop of baby potatoes to sell at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market and she invited me to help. Debby led the way down the rows, using a pitchfork to loosen the dirt around the plants. Kit Luckey, her helper, and I had the fun of following behind, pulling away the plants, picking off all the potatoes still attached and then digging with our hands deep into the soft brown earth to gather up any strays. Each time we’d come away with a handful of red or yellow nuggets. In no time at all we filled a big basket.

There were at least four early varieties — Red Gold, Superior, Mountain Rose, and Yukon Gold. The potatoes ranged from the size of a hazelnut to the size of a large walnut. My favorites are the Red Gold, which can be recognized by the yellow color just under the delicate red skin. When we were finished, I filled two one-pound boxes with these jewels and headed home.

By now it was midday. I had planned to cook the potatoes for dinner, but as I washed them all thoughts of waiting evaporated. Wouldn’t they be at their best this very moment? I put off a couple of things I’d planned to do and put on the newly dug, freshly washed potatoes in a large pot of salted water to boil.

I could have eaten them plain, but I wanted to try something new. While the potatoes cooked I checked my go-to summertime cookbook, “Raising the Salad Bar” by Catherine Walthers. A resident of West Tisbury and president of the Slow Food chapter on the Island, Ms. Walthers devotes a whole chapter to “Not Your Mother’s Potato Salads.” A recipe that called for two pounds of small red potatoes, exactly what I had cooking on the stove, caught my attention — Potato Salad with Arugula, Tomatoes, Bacon, and Goat Cheese.

Could I make this without going to the market, my litmus test? I had the arugula. Debby had just given me a small bag of fresh baby greens. I had a few cherry tomatoes, which would do, and I had bacon. There was no goat cheese in the fridge, but I could substitute feta. I went to work.

While the potatoes were cooking, I fried up the bacon and sliced the cherry tomatoes and the kalamata olives, an optional addition I thought sounded delicious. Once the potatoes were cooked, I let them cool slightly before cutting them into quarters or halves, depending on their size, and putting them into a bowl. Then I added the arugula, bacon, tomatoes, and olives, thinking I’d be all set and at dinnertime I’d add the simple dressing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil at the last minute.

Then I tasted one of the potatoes. It was sublime. Wouldn’t the salad make a perfect lunch for one — right now? And what was left over would still be ready for dinner. Why wait? I added the dressing, tossed the salad, and filled a small, deep bowl to the brim. Sitting outside in the shade, I ate the whole thing. Each bite made me happy — I was eating the essence of a perfect summer’s day.

Potato Salad with Arugula, Tomatoes, Bacon, and Goat Cheese

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds small (about 1 to 1 & 1/2 inches) red potatoes
Salt
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved (optional)
1 1/2 cups baby arugula, washed and dried, coarsely chopped
4 ounces goat cheese

Balsamic dressing

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Boil potatoes in a large pot of salted water until they are tender and can be easily pieced with a knife, about 13 to 15 minutes. Cool potatoes slightly under running water to allow easy handling. While still warm, cut the potatoes into quarters and place them in a large serving bowl; season with salt. Cook the bacon and drain well on paper towels.

2. To make the dressing, in a small bowl whisk together the vinegar and oil, and generously season with salt and pepper. When potatoes have cooled to room temperature, add the tomatoes, olives, if using, and arugula. Place goat cheese in the freezer for five minutes, then crumble it with a fork.

3 When ready to serve, pour the dressing over the salad and gently combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Garnish with bacon and goat cheese.

From “Raising the Salad Bar” by Catherine Walters (Lake Isle Press, New York, 2007)