In the Andean Mountains of Peru and Ecuador where potatoes were born, it is not unusual for family farmers to plant a dozen different kinds of potato in one field. As shown in this beautiful photo essay from National Geographic, many of the varieties valued by Peruvian farmers are what we would call fingerling potatoes – small elongated tubers with a bit of a curl. People have been growing fingerling potatoes for around 8,000 years, so they have stood the test of time, and I think I know why. Sturdy fingerling potatoes always make a crop, and they are wonderful to eat. And, because they are expensive to buy, growing fingerling potatoes can save you money, too.
Which fingerlings should you try first? I often plant purchased fingerlings that I especially like, which is a great way to explore varieties. For many years I have grown and replanted white-fleshed 'Russian Banana,' and recently I added a nameless pink-fleshed variety to my collection (it looks somewhat like 'Red Thumb'). I also grow a few 'French Fingerlings,' which mature later and store better than other fingerling potato varieties, but I would not call them heavy producers.
Indeed, every fingerling variety tends to have pros and cons. Historical varieties like Pink Fir Appledeliver on nutty flavour, but the tubers often have so many knobs and branches that they are hard to handle in the kitchen. Popular European varieties like 'Anya' and 'Ratte' have more uniform shapes, with smoother skins. In the US, research from the University of Wisconsin suggests trying the 'French Fingerling' or 'Red Thumb' varieties, as well as 'Papa Cacho', a landrace from Peru that produces long, skinny tubers; 'Papa Cacho' foliage also shows some resistance to late blight.
Growing Fingerling Potatoes
Growing fingerling potatoes is easy, because they are more adaptable than many varieties that produce large spuds. I have grown fingerling potatoes in many types of soil, and in beds comprised of compost and leaf mould, and I have rarely been disappointed. That said, two years ago I planted my fingerlings in a bed that had been liberally amended with rotted sawdust in preparation for strawberries. Deer ate the strawberries, so I planted fingerlings there instead. The results were amazing - it was biggest, most beautiful crop I have ever grown.
I like to harvest potatoes in a range of sizes, so I space plants about 12 inches (30 cm) apart in double rows. You can crowd plants to 8 inches (20 cm) apart if you want mostly finger-sized potatoes, and many commercial growers do this. Do use double rows when planting a patch of fingerlings, because double rows have been found to increase productivity by 35% while making weed control easier.
Fingerling potatoes need to be hilled and mulched just like other potatoes, and varieties with long tubers like 'Russian Banana' need extra hilling to keep the ends of the shallow tubers from turning green. Don't worry if the foliage of fingerling potatoes seems thin and floppy compared to the tall, upright branches of all-purpose potatoes growing nearby. Fingerling potato plants often have fine leaves and vine-like branches; some strains never produce flowers.
You can start harvesting fingerlings as soon as the vines begin to fail. At harvest, I separate the tubers by size – small, medium and large. Tubers about the size of an unshelled peanut are perfect for replanting, so these get stored in a box in the basement through winter, and I plant them the following spring. Unfortunately, the fingerlings for eating never last that long.
Fingerling Potato Recipes
My, what a difference an ocean can make. In the US, the top fingerling potato recipes involve roasting them whole with a coating of olive oil, herbs and salt. In the UK, fingerlings are celebrated for their superior salad characteristics – firm, waxy flesh and thin skins that peel off like silk. Everyone is right, of course, and I have found that I like to roast the smaller specimens and boil the bigger ones.
Because fingerling potatoes have thin skins, you should protect them from light at all times and wait to scrub them until just before cooking. Also plan on fast cooking times, whether you are roasting or boiling your fingerlings. Fresh fingerlings cook faster than stored ones, too.
Fingerling potatoes have a nutty flavour that should not be hidden, so use a light hand with spices when flavouring fingerling potato salads and other dishes. I would never drown them in a cheese sauce or bury them with bacon, but the concept of smashed fingerling potatoes deserves consideration: boil or roast fingerlings until done, then smash them into two-bite ovals on a buttered pan. Brush with butter, sprinkle with salt, and briefly bake until crispy. I think most Peruvians would approve.
By Barbara Pleasant