Posted by: Michelle UluOla | September 9, 2010

Puttin’ Up Potatoes

~~~In Loving Memory of George~~~

September 9, 1923—May 19, 1998

My late husband’s mother, Delia, was born in Dublin, Ireland and immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. Amongst many positive attributes and genetic propensities, she passed along three special ones to George: the smiling blue eyes celebrated in Irish songs; a sense of humor that lit a twinkle in them as he regaled folks with funny stories, complete with put-on brogue; and…a passion for potatoes. He considered the four major food groups to be potatoes, salt, butter and chocolate. While my Sicilian roots had me favoring pasta over potatoes, we agreed whole-heartedly about chocolate. Still, whenever I was stumped about what to make for dinner, I knew he’d be happy as a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow if I served potatoes—in any way, shape or form. Not just for dinner, either. They were favorites on his breakfast and lunch menus, too.

After George retired, we moved from the Chicago area to rural southwest Wisconsin to a modest ranch home I designed to accommodate our hobbies. We settled happily into the slower rhythm of life on a ridgetop in the rolling hills of dairy country. We built concrete block, raised bed gardens and populated them with the 500 flower and vegetable plants I started under timer-controlled lights. January through May, I was busy at one end of the basement planting seeds and tending seedlings. George was at the other end, building additions to his model railroad layout or sawing and routing oak boards, creating furniture and gifts.

As George’s birthday approached, we made up our lists for what became a traditional, autumn shopping trip and celebration. His would include lumber and hardware for planned winter projects. Mine had skeins of yarn for crocheting, bird food and perhaps a new feeder to add to our collection.

There was also a special food list. I used our limited vegetable garden space to grow favorite varieties of cherry, cooking and slicing tomatoes; Italian sweet Super Shepherd peppers; burpless, Sweet Slice cucumbers; bush and pole beans; and Sweet Sandwich onions that grew to a pound a piece and stored well until March. Whatever we didn’t eat fresh was “put up” for later use. Come fall when bountiful supplies brought prices down, we purchased those things that take up too much real estate and/or time and effort to grow at home: potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, and pumpkins. Those were on the schedule for our hunt-and-gather.

On September 9, reminiscent of pioneers of old, we would set out early in the morning on the 40-mile drive into the nearest city to browse the big home improvement and crafts stores, followed by a quick lunch. The afternoon had us circling our wagon back toward home with stops at three big farmers’ markets where we purchased the items on our food list, including Number 1 grade, Wisconsin russet potatoes. While Idaho’s PR campaign has most people thinking “Idaho” as another name for russets, Wisconsin produces beautiful potatoes every bit as tasty as Idaho does! Then, we would top off our fun day with a special birthday dinner at one of George’s favorite restaurants.

Now the first time George plopped a 50-pound box of potatoes into our cart, I admit this Italian’s eyes glazed over. During that period, I was writing a gardening column for the weekly newspaper where I also advised readers on the best ways to store their harvests. So, I knew that potatoes like a dark, cool (40-45 degrees) storage area with 60-70% humidity, but not in the refrigerator, as temperatures that cold will make the starch turn to sugar and give the potatoes an off flavor. I also knew that no matter how carefully I stored the potatoes, two people couldn’t easily eat 50 pounds of them before a bunch start to sprout and rot…especially if one of the diners prefers pasta! When I suggested that perhaps his Irish eyes were bigger than his stomach, George laughed and said we could make soup and freeze it for winter use. I’d never seen frozen potato soup at the store, but he said years ago, there’d been a frozen brand that he enjoyed. Since George had been an industrial refrigeration engineer and expert on commercial foods’ cold storage and freezer systems, I knew he knew what he was talking about when he said we could do it. And my memory flashed back to the day years before when he’d come home with a gleaming, 22-quart, commercial-grade, stainless steel covered stockpot—it had been a thank you gift from a plant manager on a job site. While it was beautiful, I had no idea what I’d ever do with something that huge…until the potato soup plot was hatched.

On a crisp fall day in 1992, I searched through my three shelves of cookbooks for a potato soup recipe, but nothing approached what George had his heart set on. He was a purist—potato soup is supposed to taste like potatoes—no ham, bacon or cheese allowed! No hot chilies or Tabasco sauce. Nor was this going to be a “gozinit” soup of the type where you dump whatever you have in the fridge that’s beyond the good-to-eat-fresh stage. This had to be gourmet potato soup made with the finest ingredients! And so, a new recipe was born.

Despite being a former Marine, George did a grand imitation of an Army private on KP duty as he peeled and cubed the mounds of potatoes. Meanwhile, I cleaned and cut onions, celery and carrots. Once all the veggies were prepared, the cooking and processing began. From the first peel to the final kitchen cleanup, it took about six hours with the two of us sharing the work, but it was fun and yielded many a steaming bowl of soup on cold winter nights. And I confess: George won me over. I was amazed at the rich flavor of this ultimate in comfort food. The secret is using high quality potatoes.

Over the next couple of years, we tweaked the recipe until in 1994, George declared it was perfect, and laughing, signed the recipe card, “Approved” with his initials—I still have it. The magic formula is below. After the main recipe, I’ve included a scaled-down version for anyone who’d like to just make it for dinner without doing a lot of mathematical conversion. I suggest you read through the whole recipe first to determine everything you’ll need, and the order of processing, along with the special notes at the end. With a teasing laugh and a twinkle in his eyes, George would suggest you give it an honest sampling before modifying it further, if only to experience, just once, how delightful undisguised potato flavor can be.

Version 1:

George’s Favorite Cream of Potato Soup – Yields approx. 15-16 quarts

26 LARGE white (russet/baking type) potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes

20 cups water

4 LARGE white onions, peeled and chopped

15 ribs (stalks) celery, cleaned and sliced; 2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves

1 and 1/4 sticks butter (10 tablespoons)

2 pounds carrots, cleaned and sliced into rounds

5 – 12 ounce cans evaporated skim milk — or 8 cups whole milk or cream as preferred (can also add 1/2 cup powdered skim milk optional)

2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste (one teaspoon salt optional)

1 tablespoon dried dill weed

1 tablespoon dried basil; 1/2 tablespoon chives (optional)

5 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped (can use dried parsley leaves)

In very LARGE covered stockpot, cover potatoes with water, bring to a boil, and then simmer until done, approximately 30 minutes. Do NOT discard potato water.

Meanwhile, microwave onion and celery with butter in large, covered casserole on high for about 6-8 minutes, stirring halfway through; set aside.

In a separate covered casserole, microwave carrots in a bit of water on high until done, about 12-15 minutes, stirring halfway through; set aside.

(Of course, onions, celery and carrots can be sautéed/cooked on the stove, too, but should be done separately from the potatoes so that the purée has a rich, potato flavor and lovely creamy white color.)

Once potatoes are ready, purée half the cooked pieces with all the cooking water in a Vita-Mixer, blender or food processor, working in batches, being careful not to burn yourself. Empty each finished batch into a second pot temporarily. Stir the milk and seasonings into the purée. Finally, pour the purée mixture over the remaining potato pieces in the original stockpot, add the cooked onions, celery and carrots. Gently blend everything together to create a symphony of tastes behind the star ingredient. Heat the mixture to marry the flavors, but do not boil. Replenish your energy with a bowl of soup!

Ladle into microwavable containers, allowing about 1/2″ of headspace for expansion; cool and freeze. Makes approximately 15-16 quarts, depending on the size of the veggies you use. To serve from the freezer: microwave covered on high or re-heat on stovetop, stirring gently every 4-5 minutes until hot and blended back into a creamy consistency.

Notes: This recipe can easily be divided or multiplied, seasoned according to your taste. Yields vary depending on size of veggies—we used the biggest potatoes and onions we could get. We also made the recipe using 35 potatoes, proportionally increasing other ingredients, and that yielded approximately 25 quarts. Salt was left out on purpose, as that is a personal taste. The soup is low in sodium, low-fat, very nutritious and filling. For those still practicing the fine art of canning, use glass jars and process accordingly. This soup makes a welcome gift if you can pry it away from the family.

*********

Version 2:

George’s Favorite Cream of Potato Soup – Dinner for Four

4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 cup diced celery

2 carrots, cleaned and sliced

3 cups water

12 ounces milk or cream, or one can of evaporated skim milk

1/4-teaspoon nutmeg; 1/8-teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried dill weed; 1 teaspoon basil

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped, or dried parsley leaves

2 tablespoons butter

Follow cooking instructions in version one above.

*********

For anyone who might be puzzling over it, George was 26 years older than me. Those who knew us would tell you he was an ageless spirit, and we were as compatible as two people can be. We had a fabulous, 21-year run before the curtain came down on that play, and we both went on to star in other productions.

******©UluOla 2010******

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Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this today as it is a chilly day & soup is such a comfort food.Hugs to you Michelle, Doris in Tn.

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    • You’re welcome, Doris; glad you enjoyed it! Hugs to you, too! M

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  2. Guess what I am making for supper tonight?? It’s cold and icy outside but it will be tasty and warm inside :)) Thank you for sharing George’s recipe and the warmth of the love you shared with him ❤ My heart is smiling**** Love to you,Suli

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    • Oh, you’re welcome, Suli…I hope you enjoyed the soup as much as we did in the past. Hugs! M

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  3. M

    I still have, and make, the recipe you shared with me all those years ago 🙂 I have adapted it to a second version too, where I use 1/2 potatoes and 1/2 “Jewel” sweet potatoes – just as delicious. I switched off my freezer last year – it ran too often only 1/4 – 1/2 full and, was, I felt, a waste of energy. Too much gathered at the bottom and was too old by the time I had my yearly defrost. But that means that when I want some of your delicious potato soup I make it from scratch and enjoy it for as long as it’s in my fridge.

    Hugs to you today – thinking of you and George – as well all those who lost their loved one’s in 2001. Will light a memory candle this evening and put it in a window facing you, as I always do.

    Dani

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    • Thanks for the hugs and thoughts and candle, Dani. I’m sure George “approves” your version of the soup, too; sounds de-lish! And you returned the recipe-favor in kind with your luscious, make-a-wish Christmas cake that we so enjoyed, as did everyone we gifted with it.

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