By Carolyn Binder
A Garden Treasure Hunt and a Recipe for Leek and Potato Soup
The potatoes that we planted in the fall were ready for harvesting this weekend. Fresh potatoes have a wonderful, snappy texture and flavor that I have never found in store bought potatoes. They are such an easy and rewarding crop to grow. Here in the south, we plant our seed potatoes in November in raised beds that are rich in compost and healthy organic matter. Check with your local extension office to determine the best time to plant in your zone. Once the vines grow a few inches, we give them a good 4-6 inches of mulch to keep them cool and protect them from the sun. Other than that, regular watering is about all that is needed to encourage potatoes to grow strong and healthy. An occasional, maybe monthly, feeding with compost tea or manure tea helps, too. We use Moo Poo tea, as it is natural, easy to use, and good for the soil.
How does one know when to harvest potatoes? Well, the plants tell you. As long as the potato vines look healthy and green, the potatoes are still growing deep in the soil. During this time, you may harvest baby “new” potatoes if you would like. This year, I left all of my potatoes in the ground for a main harvest. Potatoes take about 120 days to fully mature, depending upon the growing environment, weather, watering practices, and other elements. Once the vines begin to flower, the tubers underneath the soil begin to swell. Shortly thereafter, the vines will slow down, and begin to turn yellow and brown and fall over. They don’t look nearly so pretty. This is natural, and a sign that the taters are ready. Hallelujah!
Several days before you plan to harvest, discontinue watering the potato bed. This is a big help in harvesting, as it’s much easier to dig through light, dry soil than through heavy, muddy soil. To begin the harvest, remove any mulch, and pull up all the potato stalks. They are great to add to your compost pile. Then, the fun begins. Most people use a flat tined fork or pitchfork to harvest potatoes, but because I plant a small crop in raised beds, I start the treasure hunt for those beautiful tubers by putting some gloves on and searching through the soil by hand. This does take a little more time, but I enjoy the hunt, and it has a major advantage in that my gentle hands won’t damage the delicate skins of the tubers. If the skin is damaged, the potato will not store well.
Once I have worked my way methodically through the entire bed and found all the potatoes I can, I go back through it again with a pitchfork, slowly and methodically. I dig section by section, getting the pitchfork as deeply as possible into the soil, carefully turning it over, and piling it on the previous section. This process serves two functions. First, I find the rest of the potatoes that are deep within the bed, and second, I begin to prepare the soil for a new crop by removing any debris and weeds and turning over the soil. Once I have removed every last potato, I finish preparing the soil by adding compost and organic starter fertilizer, turning it into the soil, and smoothing out the bed. Now the bed is ready for a new crop.
Once you have harvested all your gorgeous, fat tubers, you will probably want to celebrate and enjoy some of your harvest immediately. I always do, and last night I made a lovely leek and potato soup, rich with home-cured pancetta, cream and fresh thyme from the garden. I made enough to freeze a batch for later, too. The remainder of the crop should be cured for storage. Gently wipe off most of the remaining soil, and spread the taters out in a cool, dark and dry area that has good ventilation. Examine the tubers for any damage, as damaged ones will not store well. I don’t throw these away, but I do cut away any damage and use them immediately (I used these for my soup). Unblemished potatoes should be cured for a few weeks, and then stored in well, ventilated sacks in a cool, dark place. Properly cured, they will store well for months. It is not recommended to store potatoes in the refrigerator, as the cool temperature encourages the starch to turn into sugar. However, that’s where I store mine, as we don’t grow enough to store for longer than a few months.
Leek and Potato Soup with Pancetta
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup of diced pancetta or bacon
4-6 leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise, thinly sliced (about 4 1/2 cups)
2-3 large potatoes peeled and diced
4 1/2 cups (or more) organic chicken stock
1-2 cups half and half
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (for garnish)
Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until beginning to crisp. Add leeks; stir to coat with butter. Cover saucepan; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add diced potatoes. Cover and cook until potatoes begin to soften but do not brown, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes. Add cream and thyme, and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Remove thyme sprigs (the leaves will have fallen off ).
Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth and silky in texture. Or transfer the soup in batches to a blender to puree. Thin with additional stock if soup is too thick. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.) Bring soup to simmer. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with chives and serve.