March 19, 2009

Homage to a “down-to-earth” vegetable

by Nate Rafn

At first glance, potatoes (also affectionately called “spuds” or “taters”) may seem a little bit dull. After all, their shape is not particularly attractive, and most of the recognizable varieties are not very colorful. Upon first taste, they strike many eaters as just plain bland.

But, add a few supporting ingredients and some cautious culinary creativity, and you’ll win the hearts of all those who doubted the potential of this modest root vegetable.

Potatoes are cultivated on six continents. They are native to South America, and over the last 500 years, have been ushered to nearly every corner of the globe. Among U.S. producers, Idaho ranks 1st in potato cultivation, followed by Washington State, with Oregon placing 8th. Oregon’s potato crop is valued at roughly $150 million, making it a substantial piece of the local agricultural pie-chart.

The nutritional value of potatoes is an important contributing factor to their advance as a major world-wide staple food. Spuds are high in complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, minerals iron and potassium, plus vitamins B and C. Most of the vitamins and minerals are contained in or just below the skin.

In the Willamette Valley, potatoes are available year-round, due to the crop’s natural storage capabilities, and to the highly controlled environment in which they are kept. Some farmers deposit root vegetables in a shed or basement, while others use a carefully designed storage facility that keeps temperature, light, and moisture in check. Sensible treatment allows growers to preserve their harvest for up to 6 months.

From a culinary standpoint, potatoes put forward unique sets of challenges and opportunities. First, potato varieties can differ in texture, thickness of skin, and their response to various cooking methods.

Desiree and Red varieties, tend to be waxy, thin skinned, and will hold their shape very well after being cooked- a good choice for potato salad. Yukon Gold, Russian Banana, and Yellow Finn potatoes sport a thin, amber-colored skin, with yellow flesh and a dry consistency- perfect for mashing. The Russet Burbank has white flesh, and fairly thick skin- great for French fries, chips, or baking whole. And if you’re persistent, you may find a local farmer who grows French Fingerling or the inexplicably-dazzling Caribe, or All Blue.

The exciting gastronomic possibilities of the potato truly reveal themselves after consulting a few adventurous cookbooks. While it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each variety, it’s equally helpful to remember that most potatoes are (in the grand scheme of things) quite similar. Substitutions in recipes are not out of the question. And with practice, they can be quite successful.

To start, find a local potato source. It could be a farm-stand, farmers’ market, your garden, or a grocery store that buys locally grown produce. Then, attempt something slightly daring, like giving potatoes the starring role in a waffle, pancake, or bread recipe. Another option would be to stay on the traditional path, with equally delicious recipes for Hash-browns, Twice Baked Potatoes, or Cream and Potato Soup. Try to incorporate ingredients that marry well with the potato’s earthy qualities, including leeks, garlic, sharp Cheddar cheese, mushrooms, cured meats, sausage, white pepper, butter, and eggs. Hunt-down a recipe for Duchesse Potatoes. You won’t be disappointed!

Make an effort to appreciate this life sustaining staple. Give thanks to the local farmers who choose to grow it. And place value on the peasant food as you would the epicurean delicacies. Potatoes excel in culinary versatility, storage ability, nutritive value, and affordability, making this humble vegetable one of our underrated agricultural treasures.

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