Tater Tunnel: Two words that struck fear in the hearts of my brother, Dale, and me when we were children. When Dale was six and I was ten years old, my father bought an old home place in the northwest corner of our county, a stone’s throw from Blue Ridge Mountain peaks. Fruit trees, berries and a spring house that protected the fresh water supply were remnants of the former sustainable, biodynamic farmstead, as was the six room home, rustically comfortable, even though there was no electricity or running water. My mother cooked meals on a camp stove while Dale and I spent hours vainly attempting to reassemble scattered parts of a Model T car. Our family planted a vegetable garden the spring after the property became Daddy’s and when Mama sent me to pull onions for an evening meal, a nearby mountain lion screamed, a blood-curdling sound that sent me running back to the safety of the house, onions scattering in my wake. Even that experience did not compare to the absolute terror of The Tater Tunnel.
Nestled in a tall bank of red clay soil, The Tater Tunnel door yawned inward, beckoning like a horror movie scene that causes viewers to cringe as unsuspecting characters advance, the stuff of which nightmares are made. When, spurred by each other’s “double dog” dares, to poke our heads inside the cavernous interior, walls became alive with movement, cave crickets with powerful jumping legs that sent us, screaming in terror, for the safety of the front porch.
Red Thumb Container Harvest
Recently, I harvested potatoes from two large containers in my backyard. The seed for this crop, Red Thumb fingerlings, came from last year’s leftover potatoes, stored in a laundry room/pantry, which, for some reason, is the best environment in my home for long-term root vegetable storage. After placing large cardboard boxes in windowless basement cabinets, stacking boxes and sacks on pallets (for air circulation) on the main basement floor and the garage, I discovered potatoes sprout fewer eyes and maintain firm texture longer when stored on pantry shelves in newspaper-lined cardboard boxes with lids. Although I know no one who still uses a tater tunnel, I wonder how that storage compares to the pantry.
Red Thumbs ready for harvest
Red Thumb fingerlings are the earliest maturing potato varieties at Heart & Sole Gardens. After planting on March 19, 2017, the containers holding Red Thumbs produced a little over two pounds of mature tubers, while the farm’s row crop, planted a weed later, is just beginning to yield potatoes. Although other potato varieties typically bloom, indicating underground tubers are maturing, Red Thumbs do not always sport blossoms, but curling, yellow leaves and withering vines are a good indication for harvest time. After removing spent plants, I added a good dose of compost to the containers and placed more seed. Who knows, with a little luck, I may pull three harvests from the same containers before winter!
Fresh spring ingredients make delicious potato salad
If you have never tasted fingerling potatoes, freshly harvested, shop for them at your local farmer’s market. The flavor difference is as striking as comparing a home grown tomato to one purchased from the supermarket. With potatoes as fresh as these, simple preparations are best to showcase delicious flavor. Slice fingerlings lengthwise, season with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil over and briefly roast in the oven until they are fork tender or try this salad recipe, perfect for a main vegetarian course or side dish.
And if you happen to know the location of a tater tunnel with a yawning door and leaping crickets, I double dog dare you to walk inside!
Fresh Fingerling Potato Salad
Scrub about one pound of freshly dug fingerling potatoes. Place potatoes, unpeeled, in a pot of water, seasoned with salt and pepper, and simmer until fork tender. Do not overcook.
While potatoes cook, place about 4 cups mixed salad greens in a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup sliced radishes, 1/3 cup thinly sliced spring onion tops and 1 cup fresh asparagus, sliced into 1-inch pieces.
For the vinaigrette, combine 1/3 cup olive oil, juice from ½ fresh lemon, 1 teaspoon spicy mustard, (We prefer Lusty Monk, produced in Asheville, N.C.) several dashes of your favorite hot sauce, (Dusty Foothills, produced in Durham, N.C., is perfect) and salt and pepper to taste.
Drain potatoes, slice into bite-size pieces and add to salad green mixture.
Pour vinaigrette over salad and toss to combine.
*Serves about 4 as a side and 2 for a main course.