Mother Earth Monday – Potatoes

Potatoes are something I doubt many of us give much thought to. Most of the time they are a side dish, or one of many ingredients. Sure, they take center stage on twice baked potatoes or potato soup, but how often do most people eat those? We tend not to think much about them, but they are a wonderful staple and most people eat them fairly regularly.

Just a few of the many varieties out there.

Just a few of the many varieties out there.

Growing Potatoes

Potatoes, like eggplants and tomatoes, are members of the nightshade family. This is a large part of why they are inedible when they have been exposed to light. As they green, they begin to produce toxins. Still, it is easy to keep them in a dark place even if giving them optimum air flow can sometimes prove difficult. They are also one of the few plants that we never grow from seed.

Sure, you may have heard the term ‘seed potato’, but that actually refers to sectioned pieces of the tubers. The potatoes that are to be planted are cut into pieces so that each piece has two to three eyes (if you are completely unaware, eyes on a potato refer to the small dimples where growth occurs). They are then laid out and allowed to ‘cure’ for a time in the open air. As the cut areas dry and harden, it forms a barrier against potential rot and disease. There are a number of non-commercial growers who prefer to start with whole tubers as it may result in healthier plants.

These prepared ‘seeds’ can be set into shallow box out of direct sunlight until they begin sprouting and turn green. Doing so can improve the speed of growth when planted. As they grow, they are mounded with dirt, straw, or other material to encourage greater potato production where the stems are covered. As they grow, you can harvest ‘new potatoes’ or you can wait until the tops die back and dig up the fully formed potatoes.

Eating Potatoes

So what is the difference? New potatoes are higher in sugar content since it hasn’t all converted to starch. This makes them sweeter. They are also often softer and have weaker skins. Many times you can peel a new potato just by rubbing the outside roughly. Unfortunately, they do not store well at all and should only be harvested just prior to use. Mature potatoes on the other hand are very high in starch and treated properly, will store for extended periods of time.

Where new potatoes work great as a stand-alone with a little butter and salt, they don’t offer the same starchiness that lends itself well to the average potato dish. Waxy varieties hold up very well in dishes where you want to have solid pieces such as potato salad. Baking potatoes work very well for mashing and soups, where they come apart and lend their starch to the dish. I have several delicious recipes including Hot Potato Salad and a very special Potato Soup recipe that my wife and I have perfected. I may at some point post one or both here.

Fried heirloom potatoes with salt, pepper and rosemary. Delicious!

Fried heirloom potatoes with rosemary. Delicious!

Identifying Potatoes

Almost everyone is familiar with the Russet baking potato. It has become the gold standard of baking potatoes for good reason, though true Russets are a specific breed. Many times what you find at the store is not listed as Russet, but simply baking potato or just potatoes. Russet has an interesting history, but I won’t go into that for today. There is no way to know what actual variety they are in this case. Next are the red potatoes, which are often waxy varieties and thin skinned. Depending on the store, most now carry both white and yellow potatoes as well. Whites often fall somewhere between starchy and waxy and in my opinion are often flavorless when bought from a supermarket. Neutral at best and not great at any particular task. Yellows lean towards the waxy side more oftne than not and can have a subtle sweetness and nice color for dishes.

Most likely, your supermarket won’t have purple, blue potatoes or fingerlings, but they might have petite potatoes being listed as new potatoes (not true ‘new potatoes’, but just small ones). No matter what they have, they most often don’t label them by variety. Russet, Kennebec and Katahdin are the only exceptions I have noted in the last few years to that rule. Instead, they get labeled by their color as though that expressed everything about them.

Varieties of Interest

Every variety has its own traits. Some have great flavor, some have interesting growth or colors. Disease resistance is often important based on where they are grown and of course waxy vs baking quality is worth noting. There are some with rose-petal pink interiors. There are others with blue skin and white flesh. Some are known for producing far more than others. There is even one variety with pale brown skin and pink spots where they eyes form a dimple.

Each is its own unique sort and will be great in certain applications. Red, white and blue fries come to mind. Purple potato chips. Perhaps one that creates a super creamy potato soup. Whatever the case, if it is being sold by a seed company, it is probably time tested as good. With that said, you are free to create your own varieties. Sure, most of them won’t be as good as commercial varieties for one reason or another, but who says what the commercial folks are looking for is what you personally prefer?

New Potato Varieties

Potatoes are a lot like apples in that they don’t grow true to the parent if planted from seed. That is why we do seed potatoes; it clones the ideal parent. Instead, they are entirely unstable with no way to predict the traits of what you plant. Do it anyway. Grow a few varieties you really like together and save back the seeds from each to plant next year. After a few years of repeating, you are bound to run across something interesting and new. If you are really lucky, you will end up with something well worthy of the market that has never been seen before! Best of all, once you have it, you can increase exact copies each year through traditional potato planting.

My only word of advice is not to try growing the potatoes you buy at a store. Usually, these are treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting and they will not perform well in the garden. Still, since they can often be obtained at farmers markets or in any number of seed catalogs at a reasonable price, it shouldn’t be hard to get started. Give it a shot sometime. At the very least, grow something! Why settle for the store bought when you can have garden fresh? Then again, that is a valid question for almost anything.

Post Script: Now I am craving a number of potato dishes. :-/

What are your thoughts?

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