My reader has sent me a question, so I thought I’d answer it. The question:
“I planted some potatoes this year. The plants are now enormous and very exciting. Before I hacked up the seed potatoes, dried them out, and planted them, I listened carefully to the lady at the garden store. Then I forgot what she said about harvesting them. So, I'll ask you. When do I know it's okay to dig up the potatoes? Once dug up, do I have to let them rest? Fashion a root cellar? Make a bunch of potato salad?”
The way I answer my mother this would read:
1) when they’re ready.
4) no it’s fattening.
Now I’ll answer it the way I answer things in a blog: circuitously.
The potato is a much maligned vegetable in our anti-carb world. I suppose if you eat too many they’ll make you fat. But that’s true of anything. For instance, if you eat too much ice cream it will make you fat. Mostly I like to think of ice cream as a healthful dairy staple.
Potatoes were staples for Andean farmers, for the Irish and for eastern Europeans. By staple I of course mean they used them to hold paper together. Used this way, they will not make you fat.
In this country treat potatoes are essentially embryonic french fries. According to the USDA’s annual outlook on potatoes in the US, roughly 33% of our potato crop is turned into french fries. Another 20% or so goes into other processing applications (chips, canned, dehydrated etc.). Source.
Treated this way, potatoes are pretty fattening. If you put enough oil, sugar and salt on it, it won’t be good for you. Moderation in all things, especially moderation.
In my household we eat potatoes in a lot of soups, with beans, but up in eggs and as what we call “fries.” Our fries are actually just potatoes cut to look like fries then baked in the oven with a bit of oil and salt. They’re super delicious.
I do so love potatoes, so this year I planted a goodly amount as I described earlier. Mine have started to flower and so I know that little potatoes have started to form (underground, not in the flower). In my experience, they’re still too small at this point to do anything except flick them at children and unwanted guests (what’s the difference really?).
I usually wait at least until some fruit has formed then I’ll start digging around the base of a few plants. This will yield some awesome itty-bitty-ickle potatoes. Cook these fresh for just a flash -- they cook fast.
Your larger harvest will come later when the plants start to turn brown and die. You can leave the tubers in the ground for a few weeks and they will continue to mature. The potatoes cluster around the base of each plant so be careful when digging. Use a fork and start a good bit out from the plants (maybe a foot or so). Dig pretty deep (a foot or so) and then lift. Your potatoes will come tumbling out like a bunch of oddly weighted rocks. It’s always a surprise.
Protect the tubers from light as much as possible as this will cause them to turn green.
You can eat your harvest right away, though I do recommend washing them. For storage potatoes, it’s a good idea to “cure” them in a high humidity spot that’s pretty cool (say 50 degrees). You can then store them at around 40 degrees for a good long time. In practice, I find they’ll do well in my basement for a long time.
This year my potatoes made it into March. If the children begin eating mashed potatoes they won't last as long next yaer.