They might not be the most glamorous vegetable rolling around in the vegetable drawer, but potatoes are the stuff of life. “If there was any vegetable you could survive on totally, it would be potatoes,” said Barbara Damrosch, an organic farmer and author with Eliot Coleman of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook. “Of all of the great world survival crops like rice or wheat or potatoes, this is the one that a home gardener can grow easily without an enormous amount of space.”
Early spring is also an interesting transition period when storage potatoes begin to give way to new spring tubers. At the moment, Damrosch is starting the season off by chitting, which is letting her seed potatoes sprout in a warm, dry, dim spot. Once the potatoes sprout, she’ll plant the potato and sprout in the garden to get an earlier harvest.
Eventually, the potatoes will form a hearty, leafy plant that produces pink, white or lavender flowers (depending on the variety of potato). “When you see those flowers, that is the signal that there actually potatoes underground,” Damrosch said. “You can cheat, even if it’s just your one crop, you can get baby new potatoes when you start to see your flowers.”
She says the process of harvesting new potatoes is called grabbling. “It means that you take your hand and you just sort of claw away at the outside of the plant and get closer and closer until you feel a few little potatoes,” Damrosch explained. “Those potatoes taste so fresh in comparison to the maybe storage potatoes that you’ve been eating all winter that it’s like a completely different vegetable.”
While potatoes are inexpensive and easy to find, growing the vegetable is also comparatively easy and can be done in a deep bucket or barrel. The deeper the soil, the greater quantity of potatoes. Damrosch notes that she once even accidentally planted potatoes in her compost pile.
(Photo: Barbara Damrosch/Courtesy of Workman Publishing)
“I just threw my kitchen waste on my compost pile with some potatoes, potato peelings, potato discards along with it,” she said. “I was turning my compost pile one day and I kept finding potatoes, and I thought, I must have throw out a lot of potatoes. Then I realized that, no, these are ones that grew.” She ended up with about a bushel of potatoes from the happy accident.
For more discerning gardening, Damrosch recommends varieties like red bliss for new potatoes. At Four Season Farm in Maine, she grows rose gold as an early variety but notes that she wasn’t able to to find those for seed this year and had to rely on the seed potatoes she saved instead. As for larger, storage potatoes, Damrosch recommends the Charlotte variety.
The term “new potato” is not limited to just one variety, though. “It just refers to freshly harvested young potatoes, although there are certain varieties that are particularly good for that purpose,” she explained, adding that size alone isn’t enough of an indicator for new potatoes. “Now there’s some cheating that goes on in supermarkets. Sometimes you’ll see a little bag of new potatoes and by tasting them you realize that you’ve been duped because these are last year’s potatoes. They’re just the little ones.”
In order to be sure new potatoes are on offer, Damrosch recommends a straightforward approach: Just ask a farmer at the greenmarket.
Below, Damrosch shared her recipe for Peruvian Potatoes, which is one that she’s particularly looking forward to making with the soon to be had new crop of tubers.
from The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman
Serves 4 to 6
- 4 small yellow-fleshed potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 1 pound total), scrubbed but not peeled, cut in half or in 2-inch chunks 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- ¼ cup heavy (whipping) cream
- 1 teaspoon mildly hot pepper flakes, such as Aleppo (or a hotter type if desired)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric (for color; optional)
- 6 ounces mild, slightly tangy cheese such as queso fresco or Monterey Jack, cut into ½-inch cubes
- ½ head butterhead lettuce
- 1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 10 strongly flavored black olives, such as Alfonso or Kalamata, pitted
- 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh pepper, either a red, yellow, or orange bell type or a mildly hot type such as ancho
Even in Peru there are many ways to make papa a la huancaina, a traditional dish named for the city of Huancayo, high in the Andes. I make a somewhat Americanized version. It is very colorful to look at, and can be enjoyed at room temperature. Make it mild or spicy, according to your taste. Because it requires some artful arrangement, this is a not for a picnic far afield, but it is still good to eat outdoors, matched with barbecued chicken.
1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, until they are fork-tender but still hold their shape well, about 15 minutes. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon, keeping the water at a simmer, and set them aside in a bowl.
2. Drop the eggs into the simmering water and cook for 10 minutes. Remove them with a large spoon and hold them under cold running water for a minute until they are cool enough to handle. Then peel the eggs and cut them lengthwise into quarters. The yolks should be slightly soft and well colored. Carefully set the egg quarters on a plate, keeping them yolk side up.
3. Bring water to a simmer in the bottom of a double boiler. Combine the cream, pepper flakes, and turmeric in the top of the double boiler, and heat the mixture until you see steam rising. Then gradually drop in the cheese cubes and stir them as they melt, 10 to 15 minutes. (This can also be done in a saucepan directly on the burner, but keep the heat very low and stir constantly with a wooden spoon.) Taste, and add a dash of salt unless the cheese is very salty.
4. Rinse and dry the lettuce leaves, and arrange them around the edge of a platter or on individual salad plates.
5. Cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch-thick slices and arrange them in the center of the platter or plates. Pour the cheese sauce over them. Distribute the onion slices, egg quarters, and olives around the edge, on top of the lettuce. Sprinkle the minced fresh pepper over everything, and serve.