Q: Your last column had a question about potatoes. I have a different one: Why do some potatoes have a hollow space in the middle? Or sometimes it’s just a brown center? Are they safe to eat? I can never tell from the outside, and by the time I can tell, it can be too late to go get more.
Answer: While they might not look good when you cut into them, potatoes with hollow or brown centers are perfectly safe to eat. Just trim away the brown areas. A knife or even a spoon will work well to scoop out that middle part.
Growers know that potatoes get these conditions, but they have no way of checking the middle of every single potato they put in a bag. So it’s hard for them to be sure none of them gets to market.
The hollow or brown centers are due to changes in the heat and moisture in the soil as potatoes grow. They are not due to any bacteria or fungus, which is why there are no food safety problems. If the field was dry, then got a lot of rain and the potatoes started growing very quickly, they’re more likely to get a hollow center. Uneven spreading of fertilizer seems to cause it, too, sometimes.
The University of Florida paper on the condition calls it stress. Who knew that even the lowly potato suffers from stress, too!
Q: I tried to save a batch of banana peppers by covering them with vinegar and salt. I just sliced them, put them in the jars, added a sprinkle of salt and covered them with vinegar. And they turned to mush! I thought that the vinegar would be enough to keep them crisp and good. What should I do to keep them firmer? I don’t want to can or freeze them.
Answer: Well, your intentions were good. But even vinegar by itself is not enough to preserve them.
Several things were probably going on that caused them to get so soft. For one, it would take the vinegar a while to stop the natural enzymes. As soon as the peppers were sliced, the enzymes would start snipping the cells apart and softening them. Plus, there are bacteria and fungi that can tolerate the acid of vinegar. Just pouring cold vinegar over the peppers wouldn’t be enough to kill all of the ones on the peppers or on the jars.
Also, with just the pinch of salt in there, the natural sugars and salts in the pepper cells will try to get out to balance what’s inside with the outside. So the cells will get limper.
Boil the jars for 10 minutes first to sterilize them — or at least scald them with boiling water. Then, use enough salt. And bring the vinegar to a boil before you pour it over the peppers. The heat will take care of a lot of the bacteria and fungi naturally on the peppers.
If you don’t want to can the peppers, at least keep the jars in the refrigerator. The cold will slow down enzymes and bacteria and help keep the peppers firmer.
Here are proportions to use for canning (but if you refrigerate the jars, they will still keep very well):
For 3 pounds of banana peppers, mix 5 cups of vinegar, 1¼ cups of water and 5 teaspoons of salt. Wash and slice the peppers. Boil or scald 4 pint jars. If you want seasoning, put 1 tablespoon of mustard seed and ½ tablespoon of celery seed in each jar (but you can leave these out or change the ingredients to suit your taste). Divide the pepper rings into the 4 jars. Get the vinegar boiling then pour it over the peppers. Fill the jars to within ½ inch of the top. Put the lids on, screw them down, and refrigerate them until you’re ready to use them. It will take several weeks at least until they taste like pickled peppers.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.