Travel is good for the soul. When we travel, we open ourselves to new experiences, to meeting new people, and if we're lucky we learn something new about ourselves.
One of my favorite parts of travel, no big surprise here, is the food. It's entwined in its culture, rituals, and stories.
Take the potato.
The potato is deeply embedded in more countries around the world than any other I can think of. As far as we know, potatoes were first grown in Peru and Bolivia. They traveled from there to Spain with the Conquistadores, and over time circled the globe. Today it's the #1 vegetable in the world. Somewhere along the way, they found their way to Idaho and thrived on the volcanic ash soil and the cool nights. This is the home of the Russet Burbank potato. When baked, they're incredibly fluffy and have the best flavor around.
I was lucky enough to travel to Idaho last month with the Idaho Potato Commission for the 2016 Idaho® Potato Commission Harvest Tour. Yes, just like wine, there's a potato harvest in the fall in Idaho (although harvests happen all through the year depending upon where you are in the world), and it's a big deal here. Kids get out of school for two weeks to help with the harvest, as it's a time for all hands on deck. Huge harvesters turn up fields to unearth sleeping potatoes, followed by another tractor whose job is to scoop up the potatoes and cart them back to a facility that readies them for cold storage.
For four days, around 25 of us toured farms - most of which have been in the family for several generations - and witnessed their stories. The Hoff Brothers' Farm, in Idaho Falls, is run by a 4th generation family member, and nearby Wada Farms was started by Frank Wada, who emigrated from the west coast to avoid internment in the early part of WWII. Starting with 160 acres of rented land, Wada Farms is now one of the largest fresh potato packing facilities in the country with 30,000 acres of crops. It was inspiring to listen to the current owner reminisce about the path his family carved. The trip was rounded out with a visit to a couple of processing plants - Lamb Weston, a leading supplier of frozen potato products to both restaurants and consumers, including McDonalds famous fries - and Idahoan, one of the world leaders in dehydrated potatoes. We gorged on potato snacks and tasted thin sheets of potatoes coming off a dehydration line, sheets that looked just like filo. And before heading to the eastern border that nudges against the backside of the gorgeous Tetons for our final night, we stopped at the Idaho Potato Museum for some fascinating history.
There was a thread that connected the trip beyond potatoes. It was a strong sense of community. The community that binds together farming families, and the connection they feel to the land and growing food for us all to enjoy. The quiet pride that stems from this work to serve many, every single day. Their willingness to drop their labor for part of a day to welcome us into their circle, and share their enthusiasm for what they do. And the feeling of community that the Idaho Potato Commission wrapped around us. By the end of the 4 days, new bonds were formed, and ideas for helping each other were shared. We were all enriched by the experience.
Here are five facts about Idaho potatoes you might find interesting:
- The first substantial potato farming in Idaho was by Mormons who moved there to create a new colony a few years before the state of Idaho was even organized. And similar to the orchards in California, the rapid growth in potato consumption in Idaho came thanks to the discovery of gold in its hills around 1860. Potatoes were used to feed the miners.
- If potatoes are stored too cold, their starch turns to sugar. This means they'll burn more easily when fried. MacDonald's, famous for their fries, specifies exact temperatures for storing Idaho russets destined for their restaurants for this reason. For you at home, potatoes store well in a cool, dark place around 45˚F, but generally the refrigerator is too cold for them. Instead, think root cellar or basement.
- Potatoes are naturally gluten-free, and it's likely (so far) that your potatoes are GMO-free. The genetic nature of potatoes makes them difficult to modify, but there are potatoes coming down the road genetically enhanced with genes from wild potatoes, designed to dramatically reduce food waste. This will make for an interesting debate, I'm sure, since the reduction of food waste is paramount if we're going to feed the world in the future.
- It also bears mentioning that some percentage of the food waste generated at both the farm and processing plant is currently sold off to feed cattle, so our potato farmers and processors are already hard at work at reducing unavoidable food waste.
- Take away the fat of what so many of us add to potatoes, and you have an exceptionally health-promoting food. It's low calorie, high fiber, and offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer. It's a great source of vitamin B6, a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and other nutrients, and contains phytonutrients that boast antioxidant activity. So be judicious in what you add to your potatoes next time you serve some up.
That said, I wanted to share with you my version of the Swiss hash browns, called Rösti. They're crispy on the outside, and soft and buttery on the inside. I took some liberties with it, as I often do, and added in some thinly sliced leeks and chopped broccolini. Additionally I jazzed it up with one of my favorite spices - Pimentón Smoked Paprika.
Rösti are typically made from cooked potatoes that are then grated, but I took some liberties here as well. I decided, since it's a well established fact that I love my spiralizer, that I would spiralize a couple of raw potatoes instead, do a quick sauté to soften the potato 'noodles', and bake them up.
Baked Pomme Rösti
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup thinly sliced leeks white and light green parts only
- ½ cup chopped broccolini
- 2 russet Idaho® potatoes peeled and spiralized
- ¼ cup 2% milk
- ¼ teaspoon Pimentón Smoked Paprika
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- Chives for garnish
- Melt the butter in a large sauté pan. Add the leeks and chopped broccolini and sauté for 15 minutes.
- Add the spiralized potatoes, and toss into the leeks and broccolini until thoroughly mixed. You can use either tongs or a metal spoon to do this. Stir the milk, paprika, salt and pepper into the potatoes. Continue to cook until the liquid is absorbed, tossing the potatoes occasionally to prevent them from sticking too much to the pan, about 10 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400˚F, placing one rack on the bottom and one rack on the top. Butter an 8" or 9" cake pan along the sides and bottom. Line with parchment paper - including the sides - and slide onto the bottom rack. Heat for 10 minutes. Remove and pile in the potato mixture. Smooth and press down firmly to thin. Slide back into the oven on the bottom rack and cook for 30 minutes, or until well browned around the edges.
- Move to the top rack and broil for 2 minutes. Remove and flip the rosti out. Turn over and slide back into the cake pan. Slide back under the broiler for another minute. This can also be done with an oven-safe pan.
- Garnish with thinly sliced chives, and serve warm.
Disclosure: The Idaho Potato Commission paid all my expenses to attend the Idaho® Potato Commission Fall Harvest 2016 tour, however I was not compensated to write this post. I just happen to love potatoes, and wanted to share a little bit about their history, some highlights from my trip, and some potato nutrition facts we often overlook!