Fabulous Flavor And Pecks/Pecs From Heritage Spuds
I love potatoes. Potatoes get a bad reputation with dieters, but these humble tubers have been the backbone of many a cultural cuisine for millennia. Until we slather them with tasty fats, potatoes are in fact highly nutritious. The reason we load on the fats is that fats carry flavor. Potatoes without help are not all that yummy, or so I always thought.
However, on a trip to Costa Rica a few years back, I ate potatoes that tasted fantastic without even the addition of pepper. When I asked the cook what she had done to make them taste so amazing, she looked puzzled, shrugged and said “salt?” in a quizzical, you-gringoes-are-so-weird voice. I soon discovered that in South and Central America, where potatoes were born, potatoes come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, with memorably delectable flavors.
Funky Looking Treasures
Until very recently, we North Americans didn’t know about these marvelous potatoes because many of them don’t pack, ship, or store especially well. For another thing, many of them look unusual, since they are knobby instead of smooth, and yellow, orange, purple, or blue (often inside and out) instead of brown-skinned and white-fleshed. For many years, we Americans had earned a reputation for rejecting any food that looked odd out of hand. (American colonists grew tomatoes–called love apples–as ornamentals long before they were accepted as edible.)
Thus, when hybridizers worked with various spud stocks to create an All-American potato, they looked for something that would stand up to spending long months in storage, would ship without bruising or rotting, and would make good French fries. That set the standard and until very recently, most supermarkets carried only Russet Burbank bakers and generic red or white thin-skinned “new potatoes” for boiling.
New Old Stock
Happily, our tastes are changing and these days, unusual looking foods are warmly welcome at our tables, especially if they taste exceptional. Recently, a heritage potato with a splendid flavor and an intriguing history has made its way to Northwestern farmer’s markets and restaurant menus. Small, thin-skinned and lumpy looking, the Ozette potato was introduced to Makah Nation people in 1791. At that time, explorers from South America built an outpost fort near Ozette Lake at Neah Bay. They abandoned it about a year later, but left a patch of potatoes in the ground. Since then, the Ozette potato has been passed down by generations of Makah Nation gardeners, who prize it for its distinctive flavor.
About 10 years ago, the Ozette potato was included in a fascinating book called Renewing Salmon Nation’s Food Traditions, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan (author of Coming Home to Eat). Nabhan cited the Ozette as an example of a little-known regional food that deserves wider appreciation. Almost immediately, this unassuming little potato was taken up by a group called Slow Food Seattle, which works to preserve and renew interest in the traditional foods of the maritime Northwest. Soon, Ozette potatoes were grown by local farmers and featured on trendy restaurant menus.
Pick A Peck Of Purple Potatoes
Because of the resident deer herd, my kitchen garden is actually on my back deck, some 20 feet above the ground. This year, I planted my potatoes in a large storage tub, cutting drainage holes in the bottom and along the sides as well. It holds three bags of potting soil, enough soil volume to support plenty of potatoes. I planted both the rich, nutty-tasting Ozettes and creamy, flavorful Purple Peruvian fingerling potatoes. Ozettes are awesome boiled, mashed, or roasted, and make terrific potato salad. So do Purple Peruvian fingerling potatoes, which keep their lovely color when cooked. Both are late varieties, so they’ll be ready to harvest this fall.
I used strong, healthy starts, but you cal also cut up sprouting organic (fungicide-free) potatoes and let the fresh cuts cure for a few days (I dry them out on a mesh cooling rack). Place each sprouted chunk several inches apart in full sun in compost-enriched soil. Planted from April into June, each plant may produce 10-15 potatoes this summer. Since potatoes form along the stem, plant them in a trench, filling it in as stems grow. In a container, put potted starts on a few inches of soil, cover the stems with another 6 inches of soil, then keep adding more soil as stems lengthen until the tub is nearly full.
Tubs Make Harvest Easy
Harvest potatoes when the tops start to turn yellow and collapse. Early potatoes and tiny new potatoes can be harvested in mid to late summer, while late varieties are ready in early to mid fall. In the ground, gently lift soil around the plants with a garden fork. Use any that get speared right away so they don’t rot. To harvest a tubful, simple dump out the soil on a tarp and sort out the spuds. Recycle the soil in a hot compost pile to eliminate potential diseases.
I recently learned of another way to get health benefits from potatoes that doesn’t involve eating or growing them. A friend shared the following suggested exercise for seniors to build muscle strength in the arms and shoulders. The original article suggested doing it three times a week. It’s so easy, I thought I’d pass it on.
Build Beautiful Pecs
Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of room at each side. With a 5-pound potato sack in each hand, extend your arms straight out from your sides and hold them there as long as you can. Try to reach a full minute, then relax. Each day, you’ll find that you can hold this position for just a bit longer.
After a couple of weeks, move up to 10-pound potato sacks. Then use 50-pound potato sacks, and eventually try to get to where you can lift a 100-pound potato sack in each hand and hold your arms straight for more than a full minute. After you feel confident at that level, put a potato in each of the sacks.
I love the punch line on the exercise plan!
On a more serious note, I too love all the varieties of potatoes that can be harvested from a home garden. I have had good luck storing them in stacked apple boxes with each kind of potato in a separate gunny sack. You can usually find the sacks at the local farm stores and any kind of stacking system would work. We keep these in our detached garage with no extra heat and it works well.
As long as the garage doesn’t get too cold, that will work fine. When potatoes are stored at very low temperatures, the starches convert to sugar and they start to taste sweet, which I find disturbingly unpleasant.