I am making a withdrawal of sorts on this humid late August day. I am pulling out of the market, selling at a high, getting out while the getting is good. I am reaping a dividend that has been a long time coming and I can wait no more. The spuds are finally ready to come out.
Back in mid-April on a cold, wet afternoon with skeins of fog draped across the fragrant pine trees above my pond, I am kneeling alongside a row of soil in my garden in a wool cap and insulated Carhardt’s. Spring on our mountain is wonderful, an event filled with dandelions, the roar of our brooks and a warming sunshine from the south and west. But spring is not yet here, not nearly. The air is still cold and smells of dirt. Fog rises from the flattened grass. Thin patches of dirty snow cling to our pasture like the desperate survivors of some natural disaster and our chimney spits a petulant stream of smoke into the grey sky. This is still part winter. But I am in the garden, hallelujah, and that is spring enough for me after a winter that will live in infamy here.
Let me detour here. Several months ago we endure two snow events that deposit over 50 inches of snow and more in some places. Power goes out for days in our region. Small trees and even road signs are completely covered, which proves to be a moot point because there are no roads left after the storm; they are impassible, buried. Town maintenance trucks and plows are helpless and every single person we know is trapped in their home- literally snowed in.
During the worst of it, as the snow falls thickly, I correspond with Erin hourly via cell from Boca Raton, Florida. I am on a work trip and she is smack in the center of it, hunkered down at the farm. She cannot use the land line because the power has been out for days. She is also pregnant and miserable. She tries to describe the magnitude of what is happening but I confess to suspect that she is exaggerating a bit. After all, here I stand on the balcony of my hotel room taking in the scent of bougainvillea, watching palm trees sway and white gulls bounce lazily over the blue sea. I gently reason with her. We get snow storms all the time, I say calmly, lovingly; it must be gorgeous outside. I ask her to look out the window and describe it to me. She tells me patiently and without apparent sarcasm that she is sure it IS beautiful but that she can no longer see out of the windows, they are covered. I try to steer to more cheerful subjects. How are Angler and Mirk, our dear dogs? She tells me that they are wonderful but that they haven’t been able to get out the door to poop in two days. I sigh and switch the phone to my other ear. I am in the rhythm of balmy south Florida and I try to match her level of concern but struggle. Lovingly, I suggest that she relax and get back to melting snow on the wood stove or she won’t be able to keep the toilets flushing. I make sloppy kissy sounds and we hang up. Chivalrously and to expurgate any lingering guilt, I make a quick finger thrusting call to National Grid and admonish them to get the damn power on for my poor family. I sit for a brief moment and try to picture snow covering our windows, then giggle and wave it away and head out for a balmy boat ride on the intercoastal with my co-workers. Later that evening, enjoying a couple of crisp cocktails and a particularly tasty meal of coconut crusted grouper with scented jasmine rice and curried mango, I reason to myself; Erin wouldn’t want me to feel bad, would she? We shouldn’t all be miserable, right?
The next afternoon I land in Albany, collect my bags and head home. There is snow at the airport but nothing extreme as I had suspected. Erin has warned me that there is chest high snow in the driveway and so I will humor her. I stop at a hardware store and purchase a new snow shovel, chatting and joking with the clerk, blah, blah, blah and then continue my drive west towards our home, radio blaring, singing along. Things begin to change soon after. Within another few miles the depth of the plow throw-offs bordering the road begins to deepen, slowly at first, then with alarming speed. Suddenly I am stopped at dead end after dead end on country highways where the plows have retreated and left the public to fend for themselves. Landmarks are missing, buried. I become disoriented, turn off the radio and drive feet at a time looking for ways home. When I finally find the turnoff to our road, I can only barely make it out- just the top of the sign is visible. And the sign is 7 feet high.
I am speechless when I arrive at our home. The snow bank blocking my driveway is easily 8 feet high and I can barely see the house over it. I beep the horn twice and get out slowly, dread rising. I am overwhelmed in every sense, shivering in thin slacks and a dress shirt in the frigid air and gripping a crappy 20 dollar shovel with the sticker still on it. My equipment- my big Arens snow blower, plow blade for my Troy-Bilt, picks and shovels- everything that could help me is entombed within the barn. I am alone without back up. I take a deep breath of the cold air and am aware of voices up in the direction of the house calling out happily. A tentative first shovel full horrifies me; the snow is as heavy as any that I have ever experienced; so dense is it with water that it literally looks blue in the daylight (some up here now refer to this event as the “Blue Snow of 2010”). I labor to throw the first load, dump it actually because there is nowhere to throw it- the snow all around me is over my head.
Paraphrasing wisdom passed on to me by Erin a few days later: “There are jobs for men and jobs for machines…and this was not a job for men”. But I have no choice now and the preface to my epic cleanup starts with reuniting with my poor wife and son. They have absolutely survived like champs (let me say briefly that my wife is a superstar, every bit as capable and resourceful as she is beautiful. She kept our home and son safe, remaining calm and poised through all of this). After struggling with them back into the house and warming up, I finally head out, properly attired, to start shoveling in earnest. It takes until dark, almost 5 punishing hours to dig a thin walking trench to my buried Chevy truck.
There is so much more to tell about the Great Blue Snow; about the weeks of being snowed in to our driveway; about the countless, superhuman hours of shoveling the ground, the roofs, the barn and helping several of our neighbors to do the same; about the bus accident and Calvary arriving finally in the form of enormous bucket loaders from the town to free us (they literally had to scoop it up, maw by great heaping maw and drop it over the towering banks into our pond- there was nowhere else for it to go.)
I will leave you with this to consider. Until late April, the only way in and out of our house is a tremendous carved embankment of snow and ice steps that I am forced to create for access. Spring’s true harbinger is ultimately marked here not by the first crocus but by a far more telling event. On a warm day, our hefty contractor and friend Rod plunges through a crusty frozen step up to his knees as he come in to do some work. Spring has sprung.
Sorry for the HUGE roundabout! What I started out talking about was harvesting potatoes so let’s go briefly back to that cold spring day in the garden when I plant them. Potatoes like deep, well cultivated soil that is chock full of organic goodies. In the cooler climates, a great rule of thumb is to wait until the Dandelions show up and the soil temperature gets into the 60’s. But the hell with that- this is spring enough for my purposes and I ridiculously decide to push it this year and get them in the ground. One consideration is that the soil be moderately dry when they are planted, and it seems to be…or maybe I am just seeing what I want to believe, which is more probably the case.
I dig my hands into the cool soil of the raised bed and bring them to my nose, cupping black, crumbly earth. Snuffling deeply, I register an aroma that brings to mind exotic coffee or dark chocolate and something else, something wild and elusive, fermenting. This is what healthy soil smells like and I have spent almost 10 years getting it right in this garden. But that’s the hardest part. Potatoes are wonderfully easy to plant and extremely prolific if they are happy. You know those high end “fingerling potatoes” that you spend so much dough on in a fancy restaurant or gourmet market? Put away your wallet; the big secret is that you can grow them, lots of them with a minimum of effort. You can grow all kinds; Yukon Gold are always a great overall spud but catalogues and specialty potato suppliers like Ronnigers (now the Potato Garden- www.potatogarden.com) will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world of amazing and exotic spuds. Be adventurous and try some red, black or even blue ones. Take my word for it; Willy Wonka won’t be the only one drooling over a buttery, creamy pile those bright blue mashed potatoes on your Turkey Day table!
A week before planting, I have prepped my seed potatoes for planting. Using good stock is imperative here- you cannot bury store bought potatoes into the ground and expect them to grow perfectly. Seed potatoes are bred to grow disease free and dependably through the season. Making them ready for the ground involves cutting the larger potatoes into individual pieces that each contain a minimum of 2 little growth centers or “eyes” that will send up the plant eventually. Once cut, I allow them to cure for a week in some sun and two things happen as a result; firstly, the cut sides “scab” over (allowing less of a chance for rot and disease in the ground) and secondly, the eyes will begin to sprout. That sprouting will give them a head start in the ground.
I start by digging a 10 inch trench along the center of two or three 30 foot beds. There are several traditional ways to grow spuds and this is one that I have used for many, many years. I lay each piece of seed potato cut side down, about 15 inches apart, backing in about 5 inches of soil to cover them. There is a reason for this; as the potatoes grow, it is necessary to move more soil into the trench around each plant to prevent the tubers from growing up and out on their stoats towards the sun. Exposed potatoes will develop skin green, a chemical process that also can create mild toxins in the affected areas. Relax, green areas can be cut off if only in a few places and I have never seen any documentation anywhere that a spot or two can hurt you.
Then I wait. We put in additional plantings of lettuce, peas, chard, carrots and shallots and more cold weather crops. Rhubarb pushes up with a bulbous red stalk, like some groggy prehistoric creature up from a winters nap. Our cherry, peach and pear trees erupt in blossom and dandelions explode in a bright patchwork across our lower lawns. I watch every few days for those taters to sprout. The weather continues to warm and asparagus appears shyly, tilting back a corner of matted mulch to peek out. Onions, shallots and garlic are already up, rigid green spikes reaching for the spring sun. A stubborn snow blows in one day but melts quickly and I am suddenly panicked that I really did plant too early. Did the seed stock die? Will I be denied one of my favorite of garden treats? In my blackest hour, the apple trees burst into glorious bloom and then one morning I see the first of them, just barely poking through the surface, rigid, dark green little florets that are resistant to the touch. Tater’s on!
The rest is a blur because the tops grow fast and furious as the weather warms, gulping water but sending up a dense, dark green and leafy canopy that makes any garden look like a raging success. But the best part is happening underground and by midsummer, as the first tiny white or purple or yellow flowers sprout, you can wiggle your hand into the soil and feel the first new potatoes, ready for roasting or tossing into a soup. A few long weeks later, the lush canopy starts to wither and die. And then it is time. It is this day. Time to dig out my treasures.
Digging our potatoes is one of our very favorite things to do in the garden. Plan to get your hands dirty in the process, very dirty, but oh the rewards for your effort! On a hot late summer day every year we head up to the garden with a tractor and wagon, several harvest baskets and a couple of potato forks, pitchfork-like implements with curved tines. Foot by foot we pull out the dead, brown vines and then use our fingers to grope and feel around in the soil excitedly for the prize; beautiful, fat spuds. A jumble of bright potatoes will usually nest at the base of each plant; these are the easy ones. Next, hands are required to dig around and catch stragglers. Yes, it is that elemental, it is a treasure hunt and no matter how many times I do it, squatting down like a toddler and up to my elbows in dirt, I have to smile.
You will not capture every one with your hands for all of your effort up to this point. The next step is to use a “fat” potato fork (wide tines) to loosen the soil and find the many more that you have invariably missed- they will grow in all directions on their long stoats, often confounding logic. But still you will miss some more, no matter how conscientiously you search and so a final combing pass with a “fine” fork (thin, sharp tines) is required to snare the most stubborn squatters. No matter how well you scour, you will always miss a few more yet and those will sprout next spring right next to whatever crops you have rotated into that bed. Bottom line: Potatoes are extremely prolific little buggers as I noted earlier- most growers plan on a pound of seed potatoes to yield about 10 pounds of taters. Revisiting my metaphor from the opening, digging out your tubers is like cashing out an investment after 3 months, with a 10X dividend- I wish I could find a CD like that somewhere!
But better than the sheer output of the plants, the very best reason to grow them is to experience the true taste of a potato, something that very few people, VERY few, will ever really know. There is a reason for this. The downside of a potatoes’ prolificacy is that they will need at some point to be stored. And when that happens, they begin to alter in appearance, nutritional content and flavor, much like any veggie. No amount of cash that you drop on that fancy plate of specialty potatoes at your favorite restaurant can change this fact. What I saying simply here is that you should be aware that most potatoes that you buy have been already been stored for many months, first by the growers and then by the retailers. By the time you get around to buying and storing them yourselves for a few more days more and then finally eating them, they should no longer even legally be called potatoes.
Do you want proof? Cut open a freshly dug Yukon Gold and guess what color you will see on the inside? Right- the flesh of a Yukon Gold right out the ground is a bright GOLD; not white and not yellow or any shade in between- hence the name. That beautiful color is only a faint memory by the time you start making your Sunday mashed potatoes at home. Now taste that fresh spud and trust me on this; the flavor is singular and unmistakable. It is actually sweet, as sweet as if its flesh had been dusted with some confection. Long storage depletes the sugars in the potato and converts them to starches, which is why you probably have never experienced this. I am not making this stuff up.
But please hear me- I am a realist and I agree; potatoes must be stored. My point is only that every day that they sit, they lose some of what their ideal is and should be; they lose, minute by minute in that cool darkness their very “potato-ness”. That is why eating as LOCALLY as you can guarantees in every way better quality food and ensures that it will not be 6 months before that potato gets to your supermarket from Peru or California or China or wherever. Hint: Buy potatoes from your local farm stands; they will have endured significantly storage and travel time and even after some additional storage they will get you closer to the real thing. If you want to grow them at home in your garden (even better), drop me a line and I can walk you through it without the drama!
And now for the best part: how we eat them. Let me count the ways. Actually, let me share a couple of recipe ideas; you deserve them after listening to me spout off today. Potatoes are like pasta, there are almost no limits to the variations you can concoct and they all taste terrific. Again, feel free to share. But make sure you use great potatoes!
Erin’s Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
This is the basic recipe and it is always a happy day when these come to our table, sizzling and crispy golden. Erin makes them better than anyone I know. Preheat your oven to about 425 and pull out a cast iron skillet. Take a couple of handfuls of good fingerling potatoes- we use the Russian Banana varietal that we grow- or use any good roasting potato. Wash and thoroughly scrub and then with a sharp knife cut them thinly into ¼” slices down the length. Note here: if you want them a little more chewy and dense, leave them a little thicker, maybe cutting them into halves. In the summer, we like them crunchy and light, just north of a potato chip and so choose the thinner slices. Serving in cool weather with a roast, we do them in halves. Either way, toss them with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika and a good swirl or two of olive oil and commit to the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes or until super golden and crisp. If you having more than two hungry people, make a lot; there are never enough.
Variation #2: Oven roasted “Pestoed “Potatoes
We obviously make our own Basil pesto here in season and it has absolutely no better marriage with anything than it does with roasted potatoes. Prepare the taters as above again and as they roast, add two packed cups of pesto to your blender along with 2 large garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, a handful of walnuts or pinoli, and ¼ cup of good olive oil. Blend until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a sauce pan over low heat and add 1 large tablespoon butter and a handful of grated pecorino cheese and heat to melt into a “sauce”. When the potatoes come out hot, pour the pesto on top and toss well. Serve hot.
Three variations on mashed potatoes: with Blue Cheese, and again with Horseradish, and again with Roasted Shallots and Garlic
You knew it would come down to mashed potatoes, right? But who can deny the magic? Hard to improve upon the basic recipe, but these three variations from my personal cookbook are simple, elegant and fabulous. To make the basic mashed potatoes, peel a few spuds and cut into quarters or halves. Place in a good sized sauce pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, add a good amount of salt and let them simmer covered for 20 minutes or so until fork tender. Drain. Add a few glugs of milk and a suitable hunk of butter into the hot, empty pot and set the heat back to low. When melted, rice or food-mill the still hot drained potatoes into the milk and butter, stirring to incorporate. Add salt and pepper to taste and any additional milk or of course butter- you will know when you get it right. You can serve right there and swoon or take it a step further. Try adding some crumbled chunks of a great blue cheese, a killer accompaniment for any steak (Erin and I threw this together on a drenched camping trip a couple of years ago and it remains still a hard to beat favorite). For another amazingly good variation, stir in some prepared horseradish (and yes, store bought works fine)! A personal favorite is my Thanksgiving preparation: Stir in some slow roasted caramelized garlic and shallots- so easy and so fantastic.
Anyway, remember. Eat well. Live well and live locally. We have a choice. Happy farming!