Some vegetable gardening books advise the reader not to bother growing potatoes because they are cheap and plentiful in the stores and use up a lot of room in the garden. Instead, they say, use your space to grow such delectable seasonal crops as tomatoes, peppers and green beans. But, I beg to differ. I am finding great joy in growing my own potatoes and have found a way to grow them in containers so that they are not garden hogs.
Several years ago I purchased soft felt-like pots that fold away over the winter and last for years. I stick them in odd sunny places around the garden and at harvest time I tip the whole pot into a wheelbarrow and — voila! — out pour 10 or more pounds of spuds. These pots would allow people without garden space to grow potatoes on back porches or decks, should they so desire.
I also plant several garden rows with Red Norlands, an early crop, because I love to reach into the soil in June to pull out small, thin-skinned potatoes without disturbing the plant, which goes on to produce large potatoes later in the season. I pop the small ones into a steamer and serve them with butter, salt and pepper. You can even leave out the butter because they are so sweet and flavorful. I feel great pleasure in this tactile search for good food available at my doorstep and am touched by the generosity of potato plants that in return for decent soil, sun and water produce an abundance of healthy food.
Yes, they’re healthy
Potatoes have taken a bum rap in the wake of the low-carb crazes that possess the country from time to time. These wonderful vegetables have been portrayed as carbohydrate menaces by people who ignore that potatoes have more potassium than bananas and plenty of vitamin C and B vitamins. Potatoes also are a good source of fiber, especially if you eat the skins. Their reputation for being unhealthy and fattening comes from the American predilection for eating French fries with abandon, which caused James Beard to lament: “The notion that these bits of potato — when limp, greasy, without flavor or texture and barely warm — should be served with every dish in the world is odious beyond belief.” But Beard did go on to say that a baked potato can be a great gastronomic experience when served hot with plenty of salt, pepper and butter.
This view is shared by Truman Capote, who once wrote a preface for a book of potato recipes, “The Potato Book” by Myrna Davis, where he describes a favorite lunch made up of a baked potato, sour cream and a heap of Beluga caviar, all accompanied by a bottle of 80-proof vodka. A catchy menu item, to be sure.
The potato, so familiar to all, has had a long and convoluted history. Native to the South American Andes where archaeologists have found evidence tracing them back to 500 B.C.E., they traveled to the Old World in Spanish ships and eventually found their way back to North America by again crossing the Atlantic. Except for Ireland where potatoes had become almost the sole source of sustenance, the rest of Europe resisted them for centuries believing them to be dangerous to humans because their lumpy appearance led to superstitions that they caused such dreaded diseases as leprosy.
It took a Frenchman, Antoine Parmentier, to overcome resistance and declare the potato edible in 1772 by hosting dinners for such dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin, and serving potatoes in every course to no ill effects. But it wasn’t until the end of that century that the vegetable was routinely eaten throughout Europe. By then, the French were coming up with such dishes as Gratin Dauphinois, scalloped with cheese; Anna, thinly-sliced and baked with plenty of butter; Croquettes, mashed and deep fried and Duchesse, mashed with egg and piped through a pastry bag. These and many more dishes from the French repertoire illustrate the versatility of potatoes.
My own favorites, though, are simple affairs — potatoes added to a stew a half-hour before serving, or cut into chunks and tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted. And let’s not forget about the simple baked potato, which becomes a meal when served topped with cottage cheese and plenty of pepper, and a low-calorie meal at that.
But my all-time favorite is a family recipe we always called Skinny Potatoes in which they are thinly sliced, piled into a pan where a coating of oil has been heating and cooked until crisp on one side, then turned to crisp up the other. Nigel Slater has a similar recipe, but grates the potatoes and tucks garlic into them as they cook.
These dishes run through my mind when I head for the garden and gaze at my potato plants which, by the way, require no work. Their vines need no support, and when I pile more soil onto the plants as they rise up in the bins, I will get more potatoes. And, when I harvest a potato, it smells of sweet earth, a fragrance not found in bags of supermarket spuds.
1 pound of all-purpose potatoes
3 tablespoons of cooking oil
Salt to taste
1. Scrub potatoes, and if the skins are thin leave them on.
2. Slice them thin, using a food processor fitted with a slicing blade or by hand on the slicing side of a box grater.
3. Heat the oil in a wide, shallow pan and add the potatoes. Sprinkle with salt. Cook over low to medium heat for about 15 minutes until the bottom is crisp and golden.
4. Slip a spatula under them and loosen them as they cook so that they don’t stick to the pan.
5. When the bottom is crisp and brown, place a large plate on top of the pan and turn out the potatoes. Then slide the potatoes back into the pan to cook the other side. Sprinkle on more salt and serve.
Photo: Potatoes are easy to grow in containers. Credit: Barbara Haber