By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Fresh, tender and delectable. Any number of sweet young things from the garden warrant such praise, such as peas straight from the pod or the first tiny carrots. But few people know the heightened flavor of fresh-dug baby new potatoes. It is a fleeting taste, and one that you don't get from mature tubers.
The potato's fame, like that of rice, is as a nutritious year-round staple. A good gardener may go years without a potato gap, always leaving a few of last season's spuds in the cellar when the new ones are ready to eat. That's a triumph of sorts, but for me the new ones can scarcely arrive soon enough. Here are tips for urging them along:
First, buy new potato seeds from a grower of certified, disease-free stock. Choose an early variety such as Dark Red Norland or Red Gold. (I also like Rose Gold, which is harvested a bit later but has golden flesh and a superior taste.) Then sprout the potatoes before you plant them. This time-honored process, known as "chitting," gives them a head start and often increases your eventual yield. You can plant potatoes about two weeks before the danger of frost has passed, but to pre-sprout them, you'll want to have them on hand four weeks before that, so now is a good time to order. Sources include Wood Prairie Farm in Maine (http://www.woodprairie.com) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia (http://www.southernexposure.com).
Spread out the potatoes in a single layer in a pan, in a spot with good air circulation and bright but diffused lighting. A temperature of 70 degrees seems to encourage the growth of multiple shoots, which is what you want if your goal is lots of small, early potatoes rather than large, late ones. Notice that a potato's eyes are more or less clustered at one end, called the crown. Set the potato so that the crown points up. I've also found that moistening the potatoes daily produces stronger shoots.
One of the benefits of chitting is that you can watch the sprouts develop and throw out any potatoes that don't sprout, or sprout weakly, so that there will be no surprise gaps in the row. And it is so heartening in early spring to watch the sturdy little protuberances appear. I plant potatoes whole, 12 inches apart in the row at the depth of my fist. Before too long, little clusters of muscular stems and wrinkled foliage poke up through the soil. At that point the row gets a mulch of spoiled hay, for moisture retention, and a sheet of floating row cover to keep away Colorado potato beetles. Then it's just a matter of waiting for the first potato flowers to bloom, a sign that tubers of a size worth gathering lurk below.
The first to be dug are simply slathered in butter while still hot. But if the young peas are coming in as well, the two will soon meet in a potato salad with homemade mayonnaise, the perfect late-spring treat.