Watching my seedlings pop out of the ground in the garden never ceases to amaze me. I’ve become quite the over-anxious parent checking on them more frequently than my email these days. Potatoes require a bit more patience but once the flowers on the mother plant begin to appear, tender new potatoes are easy to pull out from under the soil. Bring a handful or two straight in from the garden, rinse, steam, add a big lump of butter, salt & pepper and I promise you’ll be in potato heaven. These newbies are an excellent reason to plant potatoes but if you want to have keepers for next winter, you’ll have to let them stay in the ground to set the skins for 3 or 4 weeks after the plant has died down so you’re looking at late August, early September.
Here’s the game plan. If you haven’t already decided on your favorite variety, go visit Alden Farms at the University Farmers Market. Buy a mixed bag of varieties that interest you. Go home, have a taste test to decide which ones to plant. Go back the following week to buy more for seed. While you’re there, ask Jan about the excellent hand-out her husband Peter put together with all the instructions you need for planting potatoes successfully. (You can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org)
You may have noticed that most organic potatoes will sprout in your cupboard if you leave them in there long enough. For planting, this is a good thing and there’s no need to remove the sprout. You can plant the whole potato or cut it into smaller pieces as long as you have 2 or 3 eyes per piece. Oh, and by the way, most potatoes you buy at a grocery store won’t work for seed because they have a sprout inhibitor on them. Seed potatoes from a garden store or seed catalog will work but getting them directly from the grower at the farmers market is easy and you can be assured of buying a variety that works well in our climate, you know it will be organic and you’ve done your taste test.
Since I’m already running out of space in my newly expanded vegetable garden, I’m going to plant my potatoes in an barrel. This is also a great option for those planting on patios or decks. For a 24″ barrel, you can plant 3-4 potatoes per barrel. Early season varieties like Yukon Golds won’t yield as well as indeterminate varieties. Yellow Finns, Purple Majesty, German Butterballs and all the Fingerlings are good barrel-planting choices and should give you tremendous yield in a limited amount of space. According to the Alden Farm instructions, choose a barrel that is minimum 24″ diameter, 3 feet high and has numerous holes in it for drainage. Put approximately 1 foot of sandy loam soil in the bottom of the barrel (if your soil is clay, use compost to amend). As the plants emerge continue to add soil until the barrel is as full as you desire. (To clarify — when the plants are about a foot high, you start to mound the soil around them, leaving an inch or two above the ground. You can repeat this one or two times as the plant grows).
After tasting many different potatoes through the years — although I’ve barely scratched the surface since there are at least 4,000 varieties — I still love the most well-known of all, the humble russet. As we all know, they make an ideal baked potato and classic mashed potatoes but I recently made a batch of latkes. They were perfectly crispy and held together well because of the russet’s high starch content. There wasn’t any need for flour or matzo meal which will make anyone on a gluten-free diet happy. I wish I could say this is an old family recipe but since my Jewish grandmother didn’t cook, I had to consult my virtual grandmother, Epicurious.com, and came up with a recipe of my own with excellent results on my first attempt. Lily even asked me to give her Mom the recipe so “she could eat them everyday.”
Potato Latkes (12-14 latkes)
3 large russet potatoes
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 large onion, peeled
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 t salt
3/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil for frying (full disclosure, I used duck fat which may have contributed to the incredible flavor. Chicken fat is traditional in Jewish cooking)
Peel potatoes and place in a bowl of cold water.
Cut potatoes and onion lengthwise to fit in the feed tube of food processor. Grate onions with shredding disk of food processor, then place them in a large bowl. Without cleaning the processor, grate the potatoes and add them to the onions.
Toss potatoes and onion with lemon juice.
Spread grated onion and potatoes on a kitchen towel and roll it up, jelly-roll style. Twist towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Transfer potato and onion mixture back to the bowl and add eggs and salt.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Scoop a mound of potato mixture in a 1/4 cup measuring cup into skillet. Use the bottom of the measuring cup to flatten the mound to form a small pancake. Cook until underside is crispy and brown, 3-5 minutes, then flip over and cook the other side. You should be able to fit 3 or 4 in the pan at once. You may need to add more fat with each batch.
Transfer to paper towels to drain. You can keep warm in low oven until you’re ready to eat or cook early in the day and heat up for 10 minutes at 350, flipping over after 5 minutes.
Serve with creme fraiche or sour cream, smoked salmon and I promise you won’t be disappointed.