Groundwork: Spud time
Spud growing is challenging in Washington's hot, humid climate. You can grow potatoes successfully and get a harvest that will really impress your friends and neighbors. But potato plants lose their lush and robust vigor in the dog days, and once the foliage browns and then withers, they stop putting energy into producing tubers. The result is tatty-looking plants and small, well smallish, potatoes.
But what potatoes! Sweet and nutty when cooked, and not bad raw -- a little starchy but with a piquant aftertaste. Growing spuds is worth it, even if it's a plant that few gardeners seem to think about these days. If I had a large garden, especially north or west of the city where the nights are a bit cooler, I would go to town with potatoes
The locals would call me the Spud Man.
There is another compelling reason to grow potatoes.
By growing your own, you can pick heirloom and gourmet varieties that are either hard to find or are overpriced at the market. At the Victory Garden at the American History Museum, Joe Brunetti seeded two varieties this year, both heirlooms in keeping with the garden's history mission. German Butterball is a standard creamy yellow variety (let's move on from the ubiquitous Yukon Gold) with russeted skin that makes it a good candidate for winter storage.
The other is All Blue. Its name derives from the fact the flesh as well as the skin is blue. In some varieties, Viking Blue, for example, you slice a brilliantly hued skin to find plain vanilla flesh. Still, the blue flesh is a fleeting attribute: It turns a sickly gray when cooked. Here are some sources; make a note and order early next winter for the best selection. Wood Prairie; Seed Savers Exchange; Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Nan Campbell, the intern who has been diligently helping Joe all summer, says there is evidence that blue potatoes contain some of the same antioxidants found in blueberries. In the veggie garden, blue is clearly a hue to pursue. All Blue is a bit of a misnomer. Wash the mud off a newly dug tuber, and it brightens to a near metallic purple. Dazzling.
Order seed potatoes in late winter for early spring planting. Avoid seeding with supermarket varieties: The selection is limited, the tubers have been treated to suppress sprouting and they may harbor diseases that later manifest themselves.
In the garden, heavy wet soil will cause seed potatoes to rot, so give them a bed that is free draining and with soil that is well amended with good stuff. Joe grew a green manure of winter rye in the potato bed. Sow it in September, dig it into the soil in February (absent a blizzard or a hard freeze) and you will add nitogren and organic matter to the garden while keeping the winter weeds at bay.
Some people slice their seed potatoes into two or three pieces (each must contain one to two eyes) to stretch their stock, but you run the risk of them rotting. If you slice them, you can dip the wound in sulfur or ash to ward off rot. Some gardeners simply let them cure a day or two before planting, and this heal forms a fungal barrier.
By hilling up the potatoes as they grow, you increase the yield and prevent sunlight from reaching the tubers, which makes them bitter and unpalatable. Add 6 to 8 inches of soil to the row when plants reach about 12 inches high.
Early blight can ruin a crop, but well-grown potatoes, evenly watered and fed, are the best defense against maladies. The Colorado potato beetle is a bane, and can quickly build in numbers to do real defoliating damage. The best organic control is to hand-pick them and squash their eggs, which are orange clusters on the lower side of the leaves.
A well-grown potato plant is a thing of beauty. In May, when Nan arrived, the plants looked superb, and the All Blue had lovely purple-blue veining to the leaves. There is one consolation for when the plants decline in late July and early August. Those tubers are ready for eating.
-- Adrian Higgins
Antoine Augustin Parmentier, the French 18th-century pharmacist and agriculturist, was a champion of the humble spud. He campaigned for decades trying to convince his fellow Frenchmen that the potato wasn’t poisonous; it was the antidote to starvation. Thank goodness Europeans finally listened to Antoine and other advocates of the starchy tuber. Otherwise McDonald’s may have resorted to supersizing Dahlia tubers; another edible tuber, but not nearly as tasty.
Potatoes are easy to prepare, inexpensive, nutritious and delicious -- especially when enhanced with herbs. Pair this preparation with a grilled steak; the potato-stuffed peppers can be made ahead of time and baked while the steak is grilling.
If meat isn’t in your diet, how about serving the potatoes with a salad featuring green beans instead lettuce? Or, since this is Top Tomato week in The Washington Post's Food section, serve these peppers with a platter of home-grown, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper.
From Cynthia A. Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education specialist.
Tested by Cynthia A. Brown
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the peppers
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon thyme leaves (see NOTE)
1 tablespoon oregano (see NOTE)
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt, for the cooking water
2/3 cup low-fat milk
2 medium jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
4 large red bell peppers
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have a baking pan at hand large enough to hold 8 bell pepper halves in a single layer.
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat; add 1 tablespoon of the oil and the onion; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onion has begun to soften. Add the garlic, thyme and oregano; cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring, until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
Place the cubed potatoes in a large, heavy-bottom saucepan and cover with 5 cups of cool water. Add the teaspoon of salt and stir until dissolved. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium; partially cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender.
Drain the potatoes in a colander, then return them to the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes until dry, shaking the pan to keep them from sticking.
Remove from the heat; use a potato masher to coarsely mash the potatoes. Add the milk, 1/4 cup of the oil, the onion-herb mixture, the jalapeño peppers, if desired, and the grated cheese; mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stem the bell peppers, then cut them in half from top to bottom and discard the seeds and ribs. Arrange the halves, cut sides up, in the baking pan; use a little oil (about 1/2 tablespoon total) to lightly grease the edges and interior walls of the peppers, then season the insides with salt and pepper to taste. Bake for 10 minutes; the peppers should slightly softened but still look firm.
Transfer the pan to the stovetop (off the heat; leave the oven on); use all the potato mixture to fill the 8 pepper halves. Use the remaining tablespoon of oil to lightly drizzle the tops of stuffed peppers. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese has melted in the potato stuffing and the tops of the stuffed peppers are just golden brown.
Transfer to a platter or individual plates; if the peppers' skins turn dark on the bottom or have loosened, just discard the skins.
NOTE: Herb mixture can be changed to suit taste. Try rosemary, parsley, chives or even basil.
August 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Groundwork , Recipes | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, Joe Brunetti, Nan Campbell
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