One way to embrace snow on the ground mid-April is by turning garden seeds into food. And I don’t mean a few months later.
While painstaking winds chill me to the bone, I’m busy finding ways to have these seeds nourish me now. Sprouts and spuds help me heal the wounds from being bashed in the knees by Jack Frost while attempting to get potatoes in the ground by Good Friday.
So, instead of getting them buried, I’m savoring heritage and celebrating marriage with my first ever attempt at duplicating a German potato salad that tastes just like mom’s, and — for the hubby — just like Grandma Koster’s.
Over the years, I’ve found that recipes for picnic salads matter. Ratios matter. Quality ingredients matter. The slightest of variations has the forever lover snub a quick fix mix that gets fed to the dog when I’m not looking.
Growing up, Mom was always amazing at having fresh food in the house. And while tubs of macaroni salad or slaw could be stretched out for days, the tangy warmth of a bowl of German potato salad gets served and devoured immediately.
Of course, in Germany, it is not called “German” — just Kartoffelsalat. And if you’re from Northern Germany, the dish is very much like how we make it here, so understand this style is actually a regional flair adapted when German immigrants shared their recipe with early American settlers.
Interestingly enough, potatoes as we know them are a very young crop at about 200 years old. Potato origins trace all the way back to Peru when Inca Indians revered the gnarly roots as a food to ease childbirth and treat wounds. When Spanish Conquistadors brought the crop back to Europe in 1532, most thought the food only fit to feed livestock.
After 200 years and royal efforts to shift perception by declaring potato blossom lapels fashionable and staging armed guards to protect gardens, a much tastier version finally took off when horticulturist Luther Burbank bred the Russet Burbank potato in the 1870s.
Though many think of Ireland when potatoes are mentioned, it was not the origination but the demise of this crop that fueled the association. Largely mono-cropped due to the terrain of the island, when blight stuck the crop, nearly one million starved to death. The working class was forced to emigrate since few other crops could sustain their livelihood.
Today, nearly 19 million hectares of potatoes are harvested worldwide as a food crop. In comparison to wheat (211 million), maize (139 million) and barley (54 million), it doesn’t seem like much, but think of everyday consumption of tomatoes (4 million) and realize we eat five times as many potatoes! (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
One thing to keep in mind when growing potatoes is that flavor matters. Potatoes dug too early can be bitter or tasteless. Days to maturity varies greatly among the nearly 200 breeds of potatoes divided into red, white, gold and blue potatoes. Early types like Red Norland can mature in as few as 70 days with late season varieties like German Butterball wanting more than 120 days to fully mature. Kennebec russet and Yukon Gold are considered mid-season varieties in most climates.
So when my dad, each and every year, taunts me if the spuds aren’t in the ground by Easter dinner, I remind him I like the new potatoes (dug 15 to 20 days prior to full days to maturity) and early varieties that don’t take all summer long to get big! In fact, in spots where early spuds are dug in June or July, summer squash or green beans is a great relay crop.
When it comes to fertilizing, potatoes are a root crop. Lay off the nitrogen early on and give a good dose of potassium and phosphorus in the furrow at the time of planting to promote root density and healthy roots. Once plants are established, side dress with bone meal or kelp to boost flavor in your tubers.
If you don’t love, love, love the flavor of your potatoes, you’re either growing a generic type of cheap and easy to produce potato or starving your plants of nutrients during their growth cycle. A seed potato is no different than the one on your plate.
Unlike some vegetables that need insects or wind to pollinate their flowers in order to set seed, Solanum tuberosa does not need sex to thrive. New plants are produced from cuttings containing at least two eyes or from whole tubers that will clone again and again as long as they are in the ground and healthy.
In fact, Solalum tuberosa is actually a perennial plant grown as an annual. However, in our zone of disease pressure and freezing winters, sourcing seed potatoes means you are picking up a batch that is disease free.
The more important task is finding the flavor and longevity that best suits your garden layout. About six pounds of seed potatoes plants a 50’ row that yields 30 to 60 pounds at harvest depending on type planted.
If you’re a spud snob like me who won’t eat store-bought potatoes, look for types with longer storage capacity, sometimes several months in proper conditions.
If planting in less than ideal loose, well-drained soil, look for disease resistant types to bet against total loss during flood and pestilence. Also, it is worth a quick online check prior to checking out at the garden store to be sure the sack of potatoes on the rack being sold actually grows well in our region.
No matter what the type or conditions, potatoes will always be a staple crop that is easy for beginning gardeners and worth the space in the garden when you discover truly flavorful potatoes.
GERMAN POTATO SALAD
For this recipe, Ma Koster said use red potatoes and peel them. Mom adds 2 teaspoons of sugar to the mix while making the warm dressing and I, for once, stuck to the recipe. This is one combination that holds its own. While some may say it can be too much, I doubled the ration of bacon and a glow of peace smothered me at first bite. Admittedly, all blue potatoes seem a bit much at first, but they match in flavor to the rich, firm texture for the only twist allowed in my book of heritage recipes. Enjoy!
2 lbs potatoes, boiled and peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 lb bacon, cooked to a crisp and crumbled
1 large white onion, chopped
1 tbl white flour
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white vinegar
Boil potatoes for about 12 minutes. Strain boiling water, peel and slice into bite-sized chunks while still warm.
Fry bacon to a crispy texture, keeping back a skillet of bacon grease for browning onion and making roux. Place fried bacon on a paper towel to cool briefly.
Add chopped onions to pan of bacon grease and brown on medium to high heat adding flour and water and whisking until mixture thickens. Just before removing from heat, add vinegar and stir to combine.
Crumble bacon evenly over the potatoes and then drizzle with the warm dressing. Gently fold the mixture to completely blend. Serve immediately.
HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.