Miriam's Garden: Almost potato time

Right now in my garden, on a stormy yet sunny and steamy afternoon, the conditions are sensational for growing and perfect for yanking out any pesky weeds. Harvest time has begun. Glorious fresh vegetables! The reason we work so hard.

Lately, we're been savoring crisp sugar-snaps and splitting open June pea pods, scooping out the plump seeds. We're munching on salads from our own bountiful lettuce, though the white-tipped French breakfast radishes are gone. Sweet white onions are forming fat bulbs. I slice them into the salad bowl, adding small sprigs of herbs, dressing the salad lightly with fruity olive oil and lemon juice. A friend's sister visited and took a garden tour. I pulled out an onion as a gift and she joyously bit right into it.

My beets are a bit slow and spotty. Things have good years and bad, I remind myself. The tall garlic is doing great, and has curving shoots called scapes that curl off the top. I must scissor them off. Removing the scapes concentrates the plant's energy so it will form nice, chubby garlic heads.

From my last column, I send an apology to the groundhog, whom I referred to as "him" and "dastardly." While still dastardly, I do not know the sex of said animal and I wrongly accused the furry garden destroyer of being male. He could be a she. Other pronoun and grammar issues must be taken up with my editor.

Our spuds are thick and green, sporting pink blossoms. We're planning on a hefty potato harvest of ‘‍Red Norlands,’‍ plus a small white potato and a yellow-fleshed type. We'll have a bumper crop -- probably too many.

The reason we have so many plants is because we set them in the ground when it was very cold. A few weeks passed and they hadn't sent up leaves, so we planted more.

Gardening is a roll of the dice. Every year our neighbor Frank plants his potatoes much earlier than we do. Every year his are beautiful and ours are slow. Potato envy. But he's a generous guy and he shared a basketful of red beauties along with some lettuce, parsley plants and spicy radishes.

Potatoes need to be hilled up as they grow. You cover the stems up to the top leaves so developing potatoes aren't exposed to light and turn green. In addition, writes Southern Exposure Seed Exchange's Ira Wallace in her useful new book "Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast," "potatoes grow off the stem above the seed piece, so a longer stem under the soil means more potatoes."

My husband, David, has hilled the potatoes with well-aged horse manure. Gifts from our happy rescue horses, Cisco and Aremis. He surrounded the hills with a thick, insulating layer of straw. You can also hill potatoes with soil if you don't have horses.

As do many plants, potatoes have a long history in humankind. They originated in the Andean region and were cultivated there for more than 7,000 years. It is believed that the ancient potato was small and deep purple with yellow insides. Spanish explorers spread potatoes to Europe, where they became beloved, both for filling hungry bellies and because they were so versatile.

Nutritionally potatoes get a bad rap. Undeservedly. According to registered dietitian and author Mindy Hermann, "Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and also provide fiber and the mineral potassium. People avoid them because they're nearly all carbohydrate. They also have a reputation for being fattening. While they are high in carbohydrates, they also deliver a lot of nutrition for the calories, especially if they're not seasoned with lots of butter or fried in lots of oil, as in french fries."

I admit that my Mashed Potato Pie is not a low-cal recipe. Take it to a potluck as I did. Share it with friends and enjoy small slices. Or make the Patate Al Rosmarino (Rosemary Potatoes) and reduce the oil to about 2½ tablespoons. Serve with roasted salmon and a leafy green salad for a delightful and nutritious meal. Mostly from your garden.

Patate Al Rosmarino (Rosemary Potatoes)

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These potatoes, roasted with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, are from a beloved cookbook by Anna Teresa Callen, a native of the Abruzzo region of Italy. She passed away just a few years back. She writes: "This is one of the most common ways of cooking potatoes in Italy, where the rosemary grows wild on the slopes of our hills."

1½ pounds baking potatoes, peeled (I used small, new, yellow-fleshed potatoes and didn't peel them), cut into ¼-inch slices

2 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered

1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves chopped (I used a bit more, a heaping tablespoon)

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (reduce to about 2½ tablespoons, if you wish)

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Kosher salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a large, heavy baking sheet.

In large mixing bowl, place potatoes, garlic, rosemary, oil, pepper and salt to taste. Toss well and pour onto oiled baking sheet in 1 flat layer. Bake, uncovered, until the potatoes are done, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Food and Memories of Abruzzo: Italy's Pastoral Land" by Anna Teresa Callen (Macmillan, 1998, $35)

Mashed Potato Pie

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I brought this to a neighborhood dinner and it was gone in minutes.

Pie crust for 9-inch pie

1½ pounds new white or yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 whole garlic cloves, peeled

Kosher salt

1/2 cup sour cream (I used reduced-fat)

1½ cups shredded Dubliner or fontina cheese, divided

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup sliced green onions or scallions

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives (optional)

2 or 3 medium tomatoes, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fit pie pastry into 9-inch pie plate, making a high fluted edge. Fit a sheet of foil into pie crust. Fill foil with dry beans or rice. Bake 12 minutes. Remove foil and beans; bake 5 to 8 more minutes until crust is browned in spots. Transfer to wire rack.

Meanwhile, put potatoes and garlic in large saucepan. Add water to cover and a big pinch of salt. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well, return to pan over medium heat and stir 1 minute to dry the potatoes.

With portable electric mixer or potato masher and then a wooden spoon, beat potatoes with sour cream until very smooth and fluffy. Add 1 cup cheese, eggs, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and pepper. Beat until fluffy and blended.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add green onions or scallions and saute 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often, until tender and wilted. Stir scallions and chives, if using, into potatoes and spoon mixture into pie shell. Top with sliced tomatoes and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese. Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Place pie on baking sheet for easier handling. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until puffed and browned. Serve warm.

Makes 8 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Miriam Rubin @mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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