potato harvest

One of the joys of gardening is that it sends you back to childlike thrills: buried treasure, mud pits, Easter Egg hunts. Potato harvesting combines all of these.

Our backyard garden is currently fallow, but last year we had a potato-harvesting bonanza. I tell you this now, in February, because here in California planting season has nearly arrived. And despite the recent blizzard throughout the Northeast, spring will be whispering wildflowers and blooming magnolias before you know it. It’s prime time to plan your garden.

We didn’t build a fancy potato box as suggested by several gardening websites; we simply buried the seed potatoes deep in a planter. Then added more dirt. Nothing happened. But by March the taters sent messy shoots skyward, splaying left and right, a sign things surely were growing in the right direction. We could finally see the alchemy of root vegetables visible above the topsoil.

digging up new potatoes

freshly harvested potatoes

The world’s love affair with the potato has deep roots. Today it is the fifth most important crop globally, after wheat, corn, rice, and sugar cane. According to Diane Morgan, author of Roots, an authoritative compendium on tubers of all sorts, “the greatest diversity in wild potato species occurs in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia, where it is speculated potatoes were domesticated between seven and ten thousand years ago.”

History’s circuitous journey brought the spud from the Andes Mountains to our dinner table, passing hands between wayfaring Spanish conquistadores and unlucky Irish immigrants along the way. Here in America it’s officially the nation’s favorite vegetable, if you can call French fries a vegetable.

But last spring my husband’s love affair with growing potatoes had just begun. He dug up the first batch in late April, and by the mud-streaked, giddy expression on his face, he was hooked. In May, he persuaded my dad to help him dig up the last of the cool season plant.

I had expected the new potatoes to be roly-poly marbles, and some were, but others were hefty red potatoes, the kind I would usually reserve for oven fries. We ate the first batch of taters within several hours of harvest from the galvanized steel tub in our backyard. The creamy flavor was off the charts.

There are two approaches to preparation when you have such high caliber of produce: purist and lavish. This recipe embraces the latter. While usually I would opt for minimal accoutrements and letting the vegetables do the talking, the cream and cheese enhanced the potatoes’ creaminess.

Swiss cheese and potatoes

The catch: Use good cheese. Buy yourself some solid Swiss cheese—maybe a Jarlsberg? And you won’t look back. This is not a recipe for the meek, or the lactose intolerant.

As for planting potatoes, a few tips:

  • Timing: Plant potatoes two weeks before the last frost date.
  • Method: There are a variety of approaches, from raised beds, to straw mounds, to dumping them in a trashcan. Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News can talk you through the options.
  • Considerations: Buy certified organic seed potatoes if you can find them. Potatoes are on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” for crops with the most pesticide residue. If you’re growing your own, start with clean potatoes.

potato gratin

Mikey’s Potato Gratin

7 to 9 small or medium red or yellow potatoes (new ones if you can find them; try the farmer’s market)

1½ to 2 cups quality Swiss cheese, shredded

¾ cup whole milk, half-and-half, or cream

salt

pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Wash and scrub the potatoes well and slice them thinly, aiming for ¼-inch thick or less. Use a mandoline if you own one. Toss the sliced potatoes in a bowl with a few generous pinches of salt and freshly ground pepper.

Pour half the milk in the bottom of a casserole dish. Add a layer of sliced potatoes, enough so that you can’t see the bottom of the dish anymore. Then a layer of grated cheese. Repeat until you reach the top of the dish or run out of ingredients. Pour the remaining milk over the concoction, and top with a final hearty layer of cheese. Cover with foil.

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Test a potato for doneness with a fork; it should mash easily. Remove the foil and flip on the broiler and cook for another 5-10 minutes, until the top of the potatoes are golden brown.

potato gratin closeup