June 28, 2017

In Love with Spuds

Dark Red Norland potatoes

Janine Pineo Photo | Dark Red Norland potatoes

• By Janine Pineo •

The unpretentious potato isn’t the most glamorous of vegetables. I’ve lived due south of potato country all my life and never really had a penchant for spuds — until last year.

In my gardening explorations, I discovered I really liked potatoes — not just any potato but dig-’em-with-your-bare-hands-right-out-of-the-hill potatoes.

That, my friends, is a potato.

Remembering the childhood fun I’d had hoeing down the hills, I decided to shrug off worries that potato bugs would descend like locusts and give the vegetable a trial run in my garden last summer. Lack of water kept the crop moderate in size, but the taste of the freshly harvested vegetables was one reason I planted potatoes again this year.

The other reason — and maybe the most important — is that growing potatoes is a little like growing your own buried treasure.

Perhaps because we in Maine are so accustomed to potatoes and their foibles, we fail to realize that this dietary staple has had a long and influential past.

Believed to have originated in South America — with the common white potato hailing from the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes — potatoes were cultivated as long as 1,800 years ago. Spaniards introduced potatoes to Europe in the late 1500s and within a century, the vegetable became a major crop in Ireland. Another hundred years later it was a major force in continental Europe.

Dependence on the potato grew around the world until disaster struck in the 1840s. Late blight (sound familiar?) caused crops in Ireland to fail, and the famine that followed ravaged the Irish and their nation’s economy.

A century and a half later, with the late-blight battle still sparking in parts of Maine and Canada, I again joined in the worldwide tradition of planting potatoes.

Of the 150 tuber-bearing species of the genus Solanum, six varieties graced my garden this year.

A reliable choice is Red Norland, the earliest red-skinned potato. Its flavorful white flesh is excellent boiled and a winner in potato salad. I’ve read that it stores well, too, but my crop is lucky to make it past September.

If Red Norland is a little too mainstream, consider a couple of my favorites: All Blue and Viking Purple.

A little exotic, but mostly downright peculiar, All Blue is just that. From its dark blue skin to its startling lavender-blue flesh, this variety could even be considered purple so rich is its color. Unlike some vegetables that start out blue or purple (consider the purple-podded bean), this potato retains its color as it cooks. While it may be a curious addition to any meal, its simply superb flavor should make it a must in next year’s vegetable patch.

Viking Purple (also called Purple Viking) is a white-fleshed variety with a gorgeous purple skin streaked with rosy pink. I’ve planted this potato — along with Red Norland — for two years and find its flavor delectable.

New to my garden this year was Yellow Finn, a midseason variety considered the classic European yellow-fleshed gourmet potato. One seed catalog says Yellow Finn’s popularity is nearly equal with that of Yukon Gold in the United States. One taste of Yellow Finn and you’ll be hooked on its sweetness, too.

One of the more oddball potatoes I’ve ever eaten is a type offered by Ronniger’s Seed Potatoes of Idaho. It’s called a fingerling and is a long, slender tuber that tends to be knobby. Anna Cheeka’s Ozette is a curious variety with a long history that makes you proud to be a part of it. According to Ronniger’s, Spanish explorers brought this heirloom from Peru in the late 1700s, trading it with the Makah/Ozette tribe in Washington state. An older member of the tribe, Anna Cheeka, managed to keep this variety going through the years to pass along to the next generations.

Even without the history, Anna Cheeka’s Ozette is a terrific potato. The taste is excellent and the variety is prolific. One of my favorite uses for it is in stews and soups because it remains firm and doesn’t turn to mush.

The sixth variety I grew was Onoway. It did just fine, blossoming furiously and growing on par with the other potatoes. The tubers weren’t so bad either, with the white flesh firm and delicious just like what my family ate all last winter.

That, you see, is what’s different about Onoway: It came straight from Aroostook County last fall. We had a few leftover potatoes starting to sprout in the root cellar this spring, so rather than waste any, I planted them alongside the rest.

It’s one of the other wonders of potatoes. Nothing fancy is required, just a potato — about any will do — a hoe and a taste for buried treasure.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in September 1996.

2012 update: Not exactly a great year for potatoes in the garden for me this year. The past few have been spectacular, so there has to be a bad one occasionally.

Great tip: We recommend growing potatoes in hay, especially if hoeing all those rows is too much for you. Just keep in mind that they need a steady supply of water above ground to produce well. Here’s the link on the how-to on hay potatoes.