Enjoying potatoes easier than growing them

March 18, 2001|By Rob Kasper

I COME TO PRAISE the potato, not bury it.

I have long been a fan of the cooked potato. I like it mashed and mixed with celery root. I liked it sliced and sizzled in hot peanut oil, a process that yields one of the world's greatest and messiest treats -- homemade potato chips. I crave baked potatoes on Sundays, fried potatoes on Fridays and crisp potato salad on summer afternoons.

Every year around St. Patrick's Day, I try to talk myself into planting potatoes in my garden. Yet each year I say "No." I lose my potato-planting courage.

There are several reasons St. Patrick's Day gets me thinking about potatoes. The obvious one is that the Irish have a longstanding fondness for the vegetable. In many Irish-American homes, potatoes are a standard part of every major meal.

Historians report that Spanish sailors probably brought the potato to Ireland. The Spanish found the plant in Peru, which they captured in 1536. Potatoes quickly became cheap food for Spanish sailors, who carried them to all the lands where their ships touched port.

If I were engaging in historically correct thinking, a steaming bowl full of baked potatoes would make me think of Peru. It doesn't. Instead it reminds me of Sunday suppers with relatives who, while they left Ireland years ago, never lost their attachment to potatoes.

I also think of potatoes this time of year because some gardeners have told me that mid-March is a good time to plant spuds. One fellow told me that if you get your potatoes planted by St. Patrick's Day, you can enjoy a potato harvest by mid-summer.

So this March, I considered honoring my Irish roots and becoming a potato planter. Then I backed away. First of all, I didn't have seed potatoes. Unlike crops that grow from packets of seeds, potatoes grow from pieces of the tuber that contain "eyes" -- tiny depressions from which sprouts grow. Store-bought potatoes won't work. Instead you have to buy certified seed potatoes at a garden store, get them to sprout and then plant them.

In other words, becoming a potato planter is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It requires some forethought. Moreover, it requires a commitment. Almost everyone I know who grows potatoes sings their praises, but they also say once you put plant them in your garden, you have got them for life. You may think that you have dug up all your potatoes, but you always miss a few. The next year they are back, staking their claim to the ground that is now supposed to belong to eggplant.

Last weekend on a bright, crisp day, I inspected my community garden plot in Druid Hill Park. The soil was still wet, but potentially workable. Instead of picking up a shovel, I went home, picked up a potato peeler and cooked some steak fries. I am still more comfortable eating potatoes than growing them.

Steak Fries Without the Fryer

Serves 4

3 tablespoons oil (olive or vegetable)

1 teaspoon paprika

1 / 4 teaspoon ground cumin

3 / 4 to 1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine the oil, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper in medium-size bowl. Stir to mix. Cut the potatoes into quarters lengthwise, and then cut each quarter crosswise in half to form wedges. Transfer the cut potatoes into bowl of seasonings. Mix well to coat the potatoes evenly. Space the potatoes on ungreased baking pan without overcrowding. Bake until well-browned and fork-tender -- about 30-45 minutes. Serve right away.

--From "Steak Lover's Cookbook" by William Rice (Workman, 1997)

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