THE POPULARITY OF THE HUMBLE POTATO has waxed and waned with varying degrees of drama over the course of its 2,200-year history. It was revered in ancient Peru, where slices of potato were used to treat broken bones and to prevent rheumatism. Upon introduction to Europe in the 1600s, it was blamed for leprosy and thought to be poisonous (the French listed it as a dangerous aphrodisiac). In Ireland, crop failure due to potato blight was one of the causes of a mass migration to America during the mid-1800s (and of the loss of over a million lives). During the Alaskan Gold Rush, potatoes were so highly valued that they were traded for gold; a hundred years later, the low-carb diet craze caused Americans to shun potatoes in any form. In recent years, potatoes have begun to win back some of their lost honor, to the delight of Hudson Valley farmers, who have always grown them. If there’s anything that history shows, it’s that potatoes have staying power.
According to the Empire State Potato Board, New York farmers cultivate approximately 20,000 acres of potatoes (fourteenth in the nation for potato production), a figure that largely reflects the “processing” market—potatoes destined for a deep fryer or to become dehydrated flakes. A closer examination of the region’s farms would clearly show a deeper truth: Nearly everyone grows potatoes. Most do so on a small scale (to add diversity to their market stand, CSA share or kitchen table), but even those farmers who have become known for their potatoes tend to view them as just one crop among many. In the Hudson Valley, potatoes are truly a crop of a diversified farmer.
Though the Irish potato famine, which made potatoes infamous in the 1800s, was devastating to a nation, it was not a reflection of the inferiority of potatoes as a food source. (Irish farmers were able to feed their families on a diet of potatoes, supplemented with buttermilk and seasoned with salt and sometimes fish, for decades, and were actually far healthier than their English counterparts, who subsisted on less nutritious bread). What the potato blight exposed was the danger of monoculture: Irish tenant farmers grew almost nothing else, and when the blight, which did not affect other vegetables, struck their fields, it spelled disaster.
Though chemical pesticides and farm subsidies now ward off any major potato disasters that could affect American farmers, monoculture remains a concern. In potato regions like Idaho, farmers grow almost exclusively one type of potato—Russet—on thousands of acres, with little crop rotation and no diversity. To farmers like Bob Kiley, of RSK Farm in Prattsville, it’s a shame. “Taste is not a qualifying issue for those farmers,” he explains. “With Russets, like anything you buy in the store, the variety of whatever it is you’re buying has been grown because it produces a large volume. If you’re growing potatoes for someone else to process, you’re not worried about a tender, tasty little potato—you want tons of potatoes.”
It’s the opposite for most farmers in the Hudson Valley, who grow a diverse array of potato varieties intermingled with other crops. Joe Schwen and his wife, Rebecca, of Common Ground Farm in Beacon, grow up to 10 varieties each year, including All Blue (which remain blue throughout, even after cooking); Chieftain (a typical red-skinned, white-flesh variety); and Carola, Yukon Gold and Kennebec (yellow varieties good for mashing). “I can’t grow just one variety,” Schwen chuckles. “That’s not any fun. They do take a lot of space, but everyone wants potatoes. They’re one of the easiest crops to grow if you have the right equipment.” (Schwen spent last winter creating a special tractor attachment for weeding his potatoes.)
Though most may believe that a potato is a potato is a potato, “There’s a real difference in taste,” says Daryl Mosher, who grows 10 varieties of potatoes on five acres at Brittany Hollow Farm, in Rhinebeck. “People come up to our stand from Ireland or parts of Europe, and they say ‘This is the first time in 20 years I’ve had a real potato.’ It’s nothing like your standard white supermarket potato.”
Cooking, of course plays a large role, though there are no hard and fast rules. Traditionally, “starchy” potatoes like the Yukon Gold have been used for baking, mashing, fries and chips, while “waxy” potatoes are recommended for roasting and boiling. In Kiley’s experience, it all comes down to personal preference. “I’d recommend the starchier potatoes to roast because they’ll taste like a baked potato, but a lot of people like to roast waxy potatoes, like the reds. It all works.”
For mashing, the Carola is fast becoming the gold standard. The more you do to them the more you screw them up.
As Mosher points out, “Potatoes taste like the ground,” and New York seems to have good ground for potatoes, reflected in the success of the dozens of heirloom varieties now widely available. Green Mountain, Austrian Crescent, La Ratte, Rose Finn Apple, Katahdin and German Butterball all are grown by New York farmers. And, Mosher, who sells to several area restaurants and caterers, says there is an increased interest in local potatoes among Hudson Valley chefs. “I’m really finding that chefs are seeking out local products a lot more,” he says. “They’re learning that it’s important.” It’s been a similar experience for Kiley, who delivers his 12 varieties, including five types of fingerlings, to a growing number of restaurants in Schoharie and Ulster Counties. “I like watching what the chefs are doing in the kitchen,” he says. “They all do something different. But to me, just the fact that they’re using my potatoes and putting them on their plates is a good thing for both of us.”
For their part, chefs seem to understand it doesn’t take much to make a good quality potato taste good. “They know they don’t need to do a lot with my potatoes,” Kiley says. “They pretty much cook ’em and serve ’em, and that’s fine with me.”
A typical chef’s technique, which most farmers endorse, involves boiling potatoes (especially fingerlings) until just tender, then finishing in the oven. The result, a nice, crisp skin without the shrinkage that can come from roasting them for an hour, looks good on the plate and tastes even better. For mashing, the Carola is fast becoming the gold standard. “Until someone can show me something that’s better, I think they’re the best potato on the planet,” Kiley says. “The more you do to them the more you screw them up. A little salt and pepper, a little butter, some milk or cream, and you’re done.”
On the other side of the culinary coin is the fried potato. Today’s fast-food culture has taken one of nature’s most complete foods—rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins such as riboflavin and Vitamin C—coated it with cheap oil and transformed it into two of the most unhealthy foods available: mass-produced french fries and potato chips.
But New Yorkers need not give up the fry and the chip altogether. For starters, many Hudson Valley chefs are reclaiming the french fry from its soggy, oily fate. At Dragonfly Grill, in Woodstock, the “Dragon fries” are cut from RSK’s Adirondack Blue potatoes, resulting in a blue french fry. Many others restaurants feature hand-cut fries—quality potatoes, often local, sliced to size in the kitchen (not pulled out of a plastic bag from the freezer). It’s a trend the region’s farmers would like to see continue.
Green Mountain, a variety that dates back to the 1840s and which holds a place on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, once among the most popular potatoes for baking, now is known among purists as a top choice for frying. Kiley picked it up last year as an answer to the Russet. “Everyone was buying my fingerlings and then picking up a case or two of Idahos for their fries,” he says, shaking his head. “So now I’m growing these. They’ll never have the volume of a Russet, but boy they make a phenomenal fry.”
It’s harder to make a case for the potato chip, but at least you can go local there, too. The potato chip was (supposedly) invented in Saratoga Springs in 1853, when a cranky diner, after complaining that the potatoes were tasteless and soggy, was presented with thin, heavily salted slices of potato, fried to a crisp. They soon became a Saratoga delicacy. Even for the health-conscious consumer, the allure of the potato chip can be hard to resist—we seem to have an inherent taste for salt, and everyone likes food with a crunch. For the discerning, there are plenty of traditional, kettle-cooked varieties, some sprinkled with top-quality sea-salt, others dusted with aged cheddar. If you want to keep it local, try North Fork Potato Chips. Made on a family farm on Long Island, the chips are sliced from the farm’s Andover, Marcy and Norwiss varieties, then kettle-cooked in sunflower oil. (Incidentally, the farm machinery there is powered by the biodiesel fuel that is produced by the chip-making process.)
Summer is the season for french fries and potato chips, so easily tied to burgers and barbecues, but as temperatures begin to drop and sweaters come out of storage, boiled, mashed and baked potatoes (perhaps the ultimate comfort foods), will begin to appear on restaurant plates and kitchen tables.
When you come right down to it, potatoes may have had a complicated history, but they remain one of the simplest foods in the eyes of consumers, and for good reasons: They’re healthy (unless heavily fried); they’re versatile in the kitchen; and, as the saying “meat-and-potatoes” suggests, they’re the traditional side dish for almost any meal, not the least of which is the upcoming Thanksgiving feast.
Just do local farmers and your family a favor—this year, make it a farmers’ market Carola and leave the sack of Russets at the supermarket.