This year in my garden, we've had a very good potato season. Must be all the rain. I tend to think we don't water them enough otherwise.
The wet, wet weather was not as helpful to other crops (some that rhyme with potatoes). But the chard and salad greens were plentiful, the garlic fantastic. We're on our third planting of lettuce, taking advantage of cooler weather. I've sowed more radishes, more cilantro and early cabbage (yes, it's late, but I'm experimenting).
Early this spring, but not on St. Patrick's Day, as farm lore seems to dictate, we planted three types of potatoes. 'Dark Red Norland,' which looks deep scarlet when it's first dug, with white innards; a small yellow-fleshed type I can't remember the name of; and 'Red Pontiac,' red outside and creamy white inside, given to us by a neighbor.
They have been delicious. The 'Red Pontiacs' are lumpy and large. The 'Red Norlands,' perhaps because they were a bit crowded, yielded fewer than I'd hoped for, but lovely and firm, nonetheless. And the nameless small, yellow-fleshed ones were best of all, very tasty. I'll have to dig out the bill and put them on the list for next year.
We harvested our potatoes more than a month ago, lest they spend too much time in the muddy ground. They're on shelves in our cool basement, packed in single layers on perforated trays and baskets, each covered by a sheet of newspaper to keep the light out. Exposure to light makes them turn green, and that part has to be cut away. It can taste bitter or make you ill.
When planting potatoes, each year, start with new certified seed potatoes. Don't plant last year's seed potatoes and don't plant potatoes from the grocery store. Even if it worked once. Pull up any potatoes that are left in the ground when you start your garden in the spring to avoid diseases, especially those that might pass to tomatoes. They're in the same family. And rotate the crop each year to another part of the garden.
The last days of August were steamy and hot. I've been inside boiling up potatoes and making potato salads for this column. Makes it steamy inside, too.
With all the testing, we've eaten way too much potato salad recently -- but still, I'm craving it. It's good freshly made, good late at night for a snack, good the next day with tomatoes or watermelon. I brought a fresh batch of Ruby Harden Lanier's Potato Salad to a potluck dinner the other evening, and only a spoonful was left at the end of the night -- the sure sign of potluck success.
At the potluck, from new friend, Peggy Boyer, I learned about an old but not forgotten potato, once very important to this country. Peggy explained that she's a descendent of John Gilkey, an Irish immigrant who arrived in 1797 to what is now Lawrence County. He planted three different potato varieties in his garden: red, white and blue. The potatoes crossed and created a new potato that was large, long and reddish purple and streaked with purple in the flesh, which turned white after cooking.
He shared them with friends and neighbors and it seems everyone planted and loved this new potato. Gilkey named it 'Neshannock' after a nearby creek. According to an article in ExplorePAhistory.com,, the potato also had other names: 'Gilkey,' 'Mercer,' 'Shannock' and 'Shenago.' It was grown and shipped to many other states, becoming a staple. It grew better and larger than other potatoes, and importantly, held up longer in storage. But the potato "fell out of favor" in the late 1800s and no longer exists, though it was important in the development of other, later varieties.
Peggy Boyer has for the last two years spearheaded a festival in the small town of New Galilee to celebrate the 'Gilkey' potato. Called the New Galilee Gilkey Potato Festival, it's held on the fourth weekend in August (newgalileepotatofestival.com). There's a parade with floats and a potato queen, holding a small potato on a stick as a scepter. There are potato-sculpture, potato-cooking and potato-poem contests. There's a ham dinner with a potato bar. There's potato soup to sample.
Of course there is a potato-sack race, a potato-stamping booth and french fries to munch on. One of the most popular items sold at the festival was a hot dog on a stick enrobed in spiral-cut potatoes. "A couple thousand people attended this year," said Peggy. Her float, pulled by an old red tractor, won a first-prize trophy.
It's not every vegetable variety that garners a historic marker, erected in 1948. The marker is on Route 19 at State Road 1004 (Shaw Road) just south of the Mercer County line, in New Wilmington.
Pretty good for a spud that helped feed a nation.
Ruby Harden Lanier's Potato Salad
I'm so proud to present this creation of the mother of my good friend, Carroll Leggett. When David and I visited Winston-Salem, N.C., this summer, Carroll hosted a dinner where he served this potato salad, along with cold poached salmon and elegant peeled asparagus. A lovely evening.
Carroll told me a little about his mother, Ruby Harden Lanier, who was born in 1912. Her baby picture shows her sitting on the seat of the family buggy.
"Ruby's mother, Stella Castellow Harden, ran an eatery called the Busy Bee Cafe in the small town of Windsor, N.C., from the '20s until the '40s. Mother got her first cooking lessons from my grandmother Nonie, who died months before I was born. Mother's first cooking was done on a wood stove.
"My father ran a country store and farmed, so mother had to feed the 'hands' at lunch, when Daddy would close the store and bring traveling salesmen or whoever else landed in the store at noon to the house to eat. She said my father, T.C., 'expected me to feed everyone who walked through the yard.' She had an African-American woman named Ada who pulled double duty -- helped her to cook and looked after me for my first six years.
"Mother was a country cook and a very good one. I never saw her use a recipe, except when she baked -- mostly at Christmas. My guess is that potato salad was mainly for Sunday dinner, church dinner or it was a dish for company."
3 pounds potatoes (Carroll likes to mix red and Yukon Gold), peeled and cubed
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped sweet gherkins (plus 2 tablespoons gherkin juice)
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 heaping tablespoons chopped red bell pepper (This is Carroll's modern addition; don't use green pepper instead, he cautioned.)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Duke's or Hellmann's mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip)
1 tablespoon Grey Poupon or other good quality mustard
Place potatoes in large pot; add cold water to just cover and a big pinch of salt. Bring to boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium, cover partially and simmer until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain in colander; do not rinse and let stand until warm. Transfer to serving bowl.
Add celery, gherkins and the juice, red onion, red bell pepper, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper; mix well. Add mayonnaise and mustard and mix again. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Excellent if prepared the day before (but good at any time).
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
-- Ruby Harden Lanier and Carroll Leggett
Tarragon Potato Salad
I first tasted this potato salad at a friend's birthday party. It was one of the delicious offerings at the big food table. The recipe came from Ina Garten, who prepares it with fresh tarragon. The salad I tasted used dried, as did I, with excellent results. Make sure your dried tarragon is still fragrant; if not, it's time for a new bottle. If you can find fresh or it's growing in your garden, by all means, use that instead.
2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes, 6 to 8 potatoes (I used large red potatoes)
1 cup good mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons tarragon or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped scallions, white and green parts
3 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon leaves (I used 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled tarragon)
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
Place potatoes in large pot; add cold water to cover and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover partially and simmer 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size of potatoes, until tender when pierced with knife. Drain in colander. Put kitchen towel over colander and let potatoes steam 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel potatoes (I also cut then in half lengthwise) and slice 1/2-inch thick. Place in serving bowl.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. While potatoes are still warm, pour dressing over and toss well. Add scallions, red onion, tarragon and dill; toss gently. Let sit at least 30 minutes for flavors to develop.
Makes 6 servings.
-- Adapted from "Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That?" by Ina Garten. (Clarkson Potter, 2010)
Smashed Potato Masala
No, this isn't a salad, and it contains no mayonnaise. This old South Indian recipe is from Padma Lakshmi. It's a favorite dish her mother made for a visiting uncle. The recipe calls for white gram lentils. Ms. Lakshmi says you can use dry-roasted peanuts, raw cashew pieces or sunflower seeds. "If you don't want any of these," she writes, "the dish is still fantastic and is very worth making."
I had no gram lentils and used none of the substitutions and it was fantastic. Good reheated for another meal too.
1 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes (I used large red potatoes)
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 1/2 tablespoons white gram lentils
1 1/2 teaspoons black mustard seeds (mine were brown)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 to 4 fresh serrano or jalapeno chiles, cut into rings, with seeds (I used 2 large mildly-hot Cheyenne peppers from the garden)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro (with stems)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Put potatoes in large pot, add cold water to just cover and big pinch salt. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat, cover partially, simmer until tender, 20 to 35 minutes, depending on size of potatoes. Drain and let cool. Peel and quarter.
In large skillet over medium heat, put oil, then gram lentils (if using) and mustard seeds. Stir and shake until seeds start to pop and crackle; add onions, chiles and ginger. Stir for 5 minutes, until lentils are toasted golden brown and onions glassy (I didn't know what that meant for sure, mine were lightly browned and translucent). Add potatoes, salt to taste and turmeric. Toss well and smash potato mixture with wooden spoon. (I also used a potato masher to make a chunky mash.) Mix well so turmeric gives as even a golden hue as possible. Cook until well heated.
Remove from heat. Stir in cilantro and lemon juice. Serve hot.
Makes 4 or more servings
-- Adapted from "Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day" by Padma Lakshmi. (Weinstein, 2007)
Miriam Rubin: email@example.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.