When I was growing up, there was a potato bin in our basement. It was eight feet long, six feet wide and about seven feet high. Trust me when I say that it held a lot of potatoes and that filling the bin explains why I hated potatoes for a few years.
Not to eat them of course; we ate lots of potatoes and I still love them. But planting them, weeding them, digging them, picking them, bagging them and helping haul them from the potato patch to the basement tainted my attitude to the tubers. And guess who had the late winter job of removing the sprouts from the three or four hundred pounds of potatoes left in the bin?
We kept my grandparents in potatoes, gave some to other family members and shared a few with neighbors. Wisconsin is good potato country. When Dad was growing up, Wisconsin was the third ranking potato producer in the United States, and Grandpa Rang’s farm had the right soil for growing potatoes.
Potatoes were a cash crop that helped Grandpa support his family. My father told me that the field between the house and the road was so productive that Grandpa bought a 1929 Ford touring car with the profit earned from that one small field, and we have a photo of the proud family with the car.
Thanks to Grandpa Rang, Dad was a perfectionist when it came to potatoes. In early spring we would visit two or three different farmers to buy good seed potatoes. We planted Triumphs, red potatoes with thin smooth skins for eating as new potatoes, and Russets, big brown potatoes that kept well over the winter.
Dad was proud of his potatoes. Once when we were visiting after Jerri and I were married, he showed me a huge potato he had grown in the garden at the house. He no longer had a large potato patch, but he still planted some Triumphs and grew enough russets to last for much of the winter.
As I recall that big potato weighed over three pounds. They were Dad’s potatoes, but I’m sure that Mom talked to the garden every day. When I asked her what she did to rejuvenate the sick and dying flowers people brought to her, she said she just talked to them. “I just try to be friendly and encourage them. Plants are like people and need that.”
Her technique worked with other plants too. Once someone gave her a little yellowed palm tree that she nursed back to health. It turned green and got so tall that she sold it to the local bank where it would have a good home.
I can almost hear her tell Dad’s potato plants, “You’re looking good. Now just keep getting bigger to surprise Harry.”
One of the ways Mom used Dad’s potatoes was to make potato soup. Hers was a simple cream sauce spiced with salt and pepper. Jerri uses onions and celery in her recipe. It is still an easy soup to prepare, but I think the result is terrific.
Here’s how to make six servings of Jerri’s potato soup.
3 cups diced potatoes
About 4 cups water
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
5 T butter, divided
4 T all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt, divided
1/2 tsp. white pepper
6 cups milk
Peel and cut the potatoes into a half inch dice. Clean and chop the onion and celery fine. Chop any celery leaves on the stalks as well, as they have lots of flavor.
Put the diced potatoes into a medium sauce pan, add a teaspoon of salt and cover them with water. Bring the potatoes to a boil and cook them so they are tender but not soft. Drain them in a colander.
While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the onion and celery and make the sauce. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small skillet and sauté the onion and celery over low heat until the vegetables are tender but not browned.
To make the sauce, melt four tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add four tablespoons of flour and stir with a wooden spoon for three or four minutes to cook the flour. Stir in a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of white pepper.
Add three cups of milk and stir continuously until you have a smooth sauce, then add the rest of the milk, potatoes, celery and onions. Simmer the soup for five minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve alone for a light lunch or with salad and sandwiches for dinner or supper.
NOTES: Whole milk makes a richer soup, but 1% and 2% low-fat milk work all right. We have not tried using skim milk. We use russet potatoes for this soup, but other varieties should work fine too. Garnish with parsley for a gourmet presentation.