Octuber: The Magic of Fresh-dug Potatoes in Fall

The Dutch word for potato is aardapel, which means earth apple.  Apples and potatoes have long been a staple because both can be stored long after harvesting in root cellars and apple barrels.

...van Gogh's Potato Eaters chowing down on my favorite fall food.

...van Gogh's Potato Eaters chowing down on my favorite fall food.

But they are also alike in that, though they remain quite edible, they are beyond delicious when actually fresh.

What a happy combination: potato texture achieving this supreme consistency with flavors so pure and substantial just as the bracing wind, and fall rain make hearty fare like potatoes feel like the ideal meal.

Wisconsin cranked out 2.3 billion pounds of potatoes in 2008, ranking us as the third biggest potato producer in the country.  And when I visit my in-laws in the Stevens Point area, I drive through miles and miles of flat, sandy potato country where most of them are grown.  But I feel very lucky to be a potato lover and not live there.

I get my potatoes in my food share in the Vermont Valley Community Farm and at the Dane County Farmers Market from organic growers who have stepped away from the standard supermarket varieties produced by the billions of pounds.  ( Potato Fast Facts :  34% of the U.S. crop is used for frozen food, 28% for fresh market, 12% for potato chips, 10 % for dehydration and 16 % for livestock feed, and potato seed.)


For David Perkins at Vermont Valley, potatoes are just one of many crops he grows for his CSA members, but he still grows several varieties:  Dark Red Norland, big white Kennebec, Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue, Yukon Gold with yellow skin and flesh, Corolla and small, moist French Fingerlings.
“They all have their own special qualities,” David says.  “But we can only grow so many.”

There are thousands of varieties of potato grown around the world.

...(photo credit freeranglifes-photostream flickr)

...(photo credit freeranglifes-photostream flickr)

“It’s funny that in the U.S. we have gotten used to just a few varieties, whether we live in Main or California – everyone is growing the same white potatoes – Russets or Reds,” says John Aue who grows potatoes at his Butter Mountain Farm near Richland Center and sells them at the farmers market.

John got interested in potatoes when he was in grad school studying entymology in the 1980s at UW-Madison screening different potato varieties for resistance to insects and disease.  “A professor I knew, Doug Rouse, had just done a study for dairy farmers in western Wisconsin who had tobacco allotments,” John remembers.  “He was looking for other things they could grow in that acreage, and found you can grow potatoes on these upland hill soils.  You can grow potatoes  on loam, silt loam or clay loam.  That’s what we have here at Butter Mountain.  I knew it could be done, and I knew how to do it!”

John and his family are always exploring new varieties. Every year they drop the ones they didn’t like and try new ones.  “We are looking to see if there is something unique about their taste that we can use. We settle on about 10 varieties each year that we like, and that seem to grow fairly well here.”  The exception being Rose Fin Apple potato, which John says, “is hard to grow, but it’s so good we grow it anyway.”

...This is a beautiful spud!

...This Purple Viking is a beautiful spud!

When I stop at the Butter Mountain stand at the farmer’s market, it’s never easy to decide.

I am particularly fond of the Purple Viking, which has flesh as pure white as the driven snow but skin of flaking mottled shades of purple and pink that I would like to recreate on a wall.  It is sweet and moist and firm.

I believe teeth were made to bite into a potato like this.  John tells me Purple Vikings make the world’s best mashed potatoes,  but generally I eat them unmashed just for the fun of sinking my teeth into them.

And then there are the German Butter Balls, which run drier and are deep yellow this year.  For other color, there is the Adirondack Blue.  And Butter Mountain offers an odd little deep, blue potato called Purple Peruvian Fingerling.  John doesn’t care for the Purple Peruvian, but his son loves it, and evidently so do some customers.  The list goes on and on.

For the moment, while potatoes are at their peak, I slip them into the meal many times a week.

A favorite is hearty salad entirely from the farmers market:  Mixed greens, microwaved Purple Vikings, and feta cheese, along with what ever else catches my eye in the fridge.   Alas, my dressing isn’t totally local.  I use local sunflower seed oil, vinegar from who knows where, along with local garlic, homemade, but non-local humus and Wisconsin cranberry mustard.  This makes a thick, nutritious coating that I never tire of.

Another favorite is  potato soup simply made by boiling potatoes —  and when they are almost done, I drop broccoli and spinach in with them.  Then I blend it all into a creamy, green goodness and stir in caramelized onions (along with whatever else I sauteed with the onions like carrots or corn or celeriac).  And top each bowl  with grated 6-year-old cheddar from Hooks Cheese .

...(photo credit dr-hemmerts-photostream flickr)

...(photo credit dr-hemmerts-photostream flickr)

Fabulous local potatoes will stay on my menu all winter.  Vermont Valley offers them in their fall share, and Butter Mountain will be bringing them to the winter farmers market for me every week from their glorified root cellar.  “We dug a hole in the side of the hill and poured concrete on three sides with a dirt floor and put a roof on it.  It’s a passive storage facility,” John explains.

David advises that your home fridge is a perfect potato keeper, in which tubers can last for up to 6 months.  “They actually get sweeter as starch converts to sugars over time,” David says.  “They may not look as pretty, but they taste good. If they feel soft — that’s not bad.”

So some day, as spring nears, I’ll be enjoying softer, sweeter potatoes, but for now, October means crisp, juicy apples and firm, moist earth apples.

What a celebration!

“Potatoes are a magical thing for me,” says John.  “On a late October harvest day, the leaves are off the trees.  It’s all gray, and everything looks dead and brown – and then you pull this harvester through seemingly dead ground, and all these colors of potatoes appear.  It makes you feel good about going into winter. ”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s