The most glorious food surprise for first-time visitors to Europe used to be the croissant -- now invading the U.S. fast-food industry. Second in line as a pleasant shock were European potatos . . . creamy-textured and packed with irresistible freshness.
Alas, most of these European varities do not prosper in American soil and climate. There is a close alternative, however: the "round reds" that blossom on American food counters in summer and continue into fall and early winter in regular supply.
Good cooks recognize that the reds are entirely different animals from the heavy duty russets and Idahos -- the great traditional basis for fries, chips and stuffed or mashed potatoes -- that crowd the potato shelf.
The round reds are dense and waxy, ideal for potato salad, for low-cal cooking, for service al fresco and for basically simple preparations -- boiled, oiled or buttered with herb or spice accents.
Potatoes look tough, but are really fragile, warns Judy Gorman, author of the guide to vegetable cookery, "Vegetable Cookbook" (Yankee Publishing, Inc., 1986). Potatoes "bruise easily, so handle them gently," she warns. Potatoes do best when their temperature is in the 40s. Over that mark they get starchier, under that they get sweeter. They can get sunburned, too, in ordinary porch bins.
One neglected and unusual method for cooking potatoes is oven-steaming. In this easy, fool-proof and low-cal format you simply chop the potatoes into halves or quarters with the skins on. Brush the potatoes with olive oil. Add rosemary, fresh or dried (about 2 teaspoons per 2 pounds) and a little salt and pepper, plus a couple of cloves of garlic. Put the potatoes in foil or parchment paper and seal them tightly. Place on a baking sheet in a hot oven (425-450 degrees), for 25 minutes, turning the package after 10 minutes.
Here is a hearty Mediterranean red potato formula revealed in a new volume from the Manhattan gourmets, Sally and Martin Stone, "The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, 1991, $22.95).
Garlic-roasted potatoes with Kalamata olives
2 pounds small (1-inch in diameter) new red potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons light olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or 1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
20 Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a baking pan, toss together the potatoes, garlic, oil, red-pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper until the potatoes are coated and evenly seasoned. Roast the potato mixture in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and stir in the olives and parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed and transfer to a warm serving dish.
As variations, the Stones recommend substituting 1/4 cup of chopped sun-dried tomatoes for 10 of the olives or omitting the olives altogether and substituting 2 tablespoons of small capers and two scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced. Sprinkle on some grated Parmesan and "voila!" the dish crosses the Italian border and becomes not Gallic but Latin.
My feeling is that you could use any form of pitted black olive, even the generics in the bulk bins, for this dish, without essential flavor loss. If you cannot find reds this small, buy the smallest ones available and slice in pieces, skins and all.