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Four months ago, I opened the first farm-to-table restaurant in eastern Oregon. Besides the expected headaches of managing money (what money?), juggling staff schedules (i.e., no-shows) and equipment failures (hello, electrical fire), I’ve thought a lot about the term “farm to table,” as in, What does it really look like in action?
It’s now common for restaurants in every major city to tout local food. Some prominent chefs have even suggested that the “locavore” trend is tired. But from where I stand — in the hub of Oregon’s bread basket — it’s clear that we have a long way to go to connect eaters with their food sources. Just like the early days of recycling, if every homemaker, cook, foodie and caregiver in every household makes basic shifts in how they buy, use and prepare food, we can build a bona fide system of sustainable agriculture: the ultimate goal of the farm-to-table movement.
As a new chef, it’s dawned on me that I learned much of what I now employ to localize my menu from years of feeding my family at home. Far from what many believe, the practices I follow are not expensive, labor-intensive or terribly exotic. Distilled to five habits, they are easy and effective ways for anyone to adopt a farm-to-table way of life, starting right now.
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Buy direct on a regular basis
Sure, you can forage for wild mushrooms, fish for trout or raise your own egg-laying chickens, but leveraging local food stems from your purchasing power. While typical restaurants order everything from lettuce to pork chops from one big supplier, I purchase directly from several ranchers and growers every week. You can do the same by replacing an item or two you ordinarily purchase at the supermarket with a product from a favorite farmers market vendor, a local rancher or farmer or even via a source on the web. Here’s the key: Don’t do it just once, do it over again, weekly, monthly or annually. By becoming a regular customer, you know you’re getting great quality, and small-scale producers earn their livelihood.
Adapt every menu
Local eating involves shifting our thinking about what we prepare and when. Or, in the words of Ned Ludd’s chef Jason French, “Our menu is driven by the farm.” He has learned how sensitive family farms are to the whims of nature. “It works against us sometimes, but it connects us to the farm cycle.” The question to ask before deciding on a recipe is: What is available now? If it’s tomato season, by all means, make a BLT, but if it’s November, a kale Caesar will not only taste better but will be more economical. With practice (or a quick web search), you can readily find and learn seasonal substitutes for your favorite recipes.
Use whole animals, whole plants
One of the unexpected benefits of cooking with fresh, locally produced foods is how nearly every part of the plant or animal can be food (or compost). When Country Cat’s executive chef Adam Sappington butchers whole hogs, he masterfully repurposes the bones, meat, fat and trim. At home, you can practice whole animal eating by cutting up a whole chicken: Bones become soup, breast meat fills chicken quesadillas and thighs and legs get braised. The principle also applies to vegetables: From radish tops to beet greens, there are many edible parts for salads and sautés, and the scrapings from carrots, onion skins or corn cobs become a quick stock for the best vegetable soups.
Use your freezer wisely
Think about what’s in your freezer. Did you know you could replace the freezer-burnt contents with a quarter share of grass-fed beef, flats of strawberries or bags of basil pesto? At my restaurant, the chest freezer is like my food federal reserve. Stocked and regularly rotated, it enables me to offer more local farm-raised foods for more months of the year to more people. Freezing your food is the most convenient, no-mess way to extend the local eating season all the way through winter — although I encourage anyone to try other preserving options, including canning, pickling and fermenting.
Choose progress over perfection
Making a lifestyle from an ethic of local eating does not commit you to the 100-mile diet. Iconoclastic chef Leather Storrs builds his Noble Rot menu from a rooftop garden above the Portland skyline, but he asserts that purely local eating is a fallacy. There are times of the year when it’s downright challenging to choose what’s seasonal. In many ways, farm-to-table is an intentional effort to eat from within our own food shed to whatever extent we choose. So, start small and slow with one item you regularly buy — be it eggs, beef, bread or lettuce — and you’ve already joined the change.
Main photo: Portland, Ore., chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press
There are many good reasons to make your own homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re already a devoted pickle maker, corned beef is just another product of brining. If, like me, you’re conscientious about the source of your food, selecting grass-fed beef is the most healthful and sustainable option available for this March holiday feast.
Let’s start with the simple culinary adventure of “corning” beef. This archaic term just means salting, and it’s one of the most ancient methods for preserving meats. For today’s cooks, the brining process transforms the flavors and textures of the beef by expelling excess moisture and infusing it with salt and seasonings.
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I was intimidated about making my own corned beef until I understood that it was just a matter of soaking meat in salted water and then simmering it until tender.
What could be easier?
Most of the “work” involves waiting four or five days for the beef to cure in the refrigerator, then waiting again while it simmers very slowly. For your patience — with only about 15 minutes of active work time — you get a classic corned beef supper with all the trimmings of cabbage, carrots and potatoes plus leftovers for grilled Reubens, corned beef hash with poached eggs for brunch or sliced cold corned beef on dark rye with mustard.
Any way you use it, corned beef is the best entry into the wide world of cured meats, known officially as charcuterie.
The cut: Beyond brisket
Brisket is the classic corned beef cut, and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true favorite. But, in the grass-fed market, brisket is a smaller cut due to the generally smaller frame size of these cattle, and there are only two on every animal.
Given its lack of abundance, brisket can be either hard to find or relatively expensive. So, I’ve learned to use other cuts that are well suited to corned beef. For example, hard-to-use bottom round roast, also known as rump roast, in this recipe below, in particular, is remarkably good and very lean. Other inexpensive cuts, including sirloin tip and chuck roast are easy to find and will save you money. Tongue is another traditional choice with rich meat that brines wonderfully.
Step 1: Brining:
The technique of soaking meats in a salt solution — brining — is a common method to maintain moisture and add flavor to pork and chicken. The science behind this is simple, according to French food scientist Hervé This: when meat is submerged in a salt solution, the water in the cells leaves the muscle until the concentration of salt inside and outside the cells is equal. The result is more tasty protein inside and out.
Salt, sometimes used in combination with curing salt or sodium nitrite (also known as pink salt for the color it is dyed to prevent confusion with table salt), is the main agent used to prevent the growth of bacteria in preserved meats. When the meat is fully cooked as in this corned beef recipe, the curing salt is optional.
Another function of the brine is to convey other seasonings into the cells, including the cloves, allspice and coriander in the classic pickling spice, plus peppercorns and bay leaves. When you start with more flavorful grass-fed beef, then this works all the better.
Step 2: Simmering
After a quick rinse, simply cover the meat in a tight-fitting pot with fresh water. Bring it to a simmer and cook at a low and steady heat for several hours. When you can easily slide a skewer in and out of the meat without any resistance, it’s done. Or, you can slice of a piece to taste and make sure it’s tender to the bite. Cool and store the meat in the cooking liquid to keep it moist and your homemade cured deli meat is ready to eat.
The grass-fed difference
If you’ve heard that grass-fed beef cooks quicker than conventional beef, you will be in for a surprise. Although meat science states that heat penetrates the leaner muscle fibers of grass-fed faster than conventional beef, my experience is that grass-fed corned beef will take longer to cook — up to three and a half hours at a slow simmer. Moreoever, the texture of the meat will be firmer, not the melt-in-your-mouth texture some corned beef lovers expect.
For everyone who finds satisfaction in DIY creations, your own corned beef will be a triumph to share on March 17. I like to invite friends over to indulge in a generous platter of corned beef with a bounteous display of vegetables, including traditional choices of cabbage, carrots, potatoes or unconventional ones like kale and parsnips, garnished with good mustard and a strong craft ale.
Grass-Fed Corned Beef
Unlike store-bought corned beef, which is pink from curing salt, this homemade corned beef turns out pale red-brown with all the flavors of traditional corned beef.
Serves 6 with leftovers
½ cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons pickling spices
3 bay leaves, crumbled
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 (3½ to 4 pound) bottom round roast
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long rounds
1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Remove it from the heat, add the kosher salt and sugar, and stir until they dissolve. Pour the salt mixture into a 4-quart or larger glass, ceramic, or plastic container. Add 4 cups ice-cold water along with the garlic, pickling spices, bay leaves, and black pepper. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir to chill the brine rapidly or put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
2. Pierce the beef all over with a wooden skewer to help the brine penetrate, submerge the beef into the brine, and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days.
3. Drain the beef along with the garlic and spices in a large strainer and rinse it briefly in cool running water, reserving the garlic and spices. Discard the brine. Put the beef in a pot that fits it snuggly and fill the pot with cool water to cover the beef by 1 inch. Add the reserved garlic and spices.
4. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, partially covered. After about 2½ hours, add the onions and carrots, and continue to simmer until a skewer slides in and out of the beef with ease, 3 to 3½ hours total.
5. Serve the corned beef warm in thick slices moistened with some of the cooking liquid and with the vegetables on the side. To store, transfer the corned beef into a container, add enough cooking liquid to cover it, and refrigerate it for up to 4 days.
Recipe reprinted with permission from “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
Top photo: Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry
Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
Fast-and-easy puff pastry, known as “rough puff,” is one essential recipe to put in your holiday bag of tricks. Homemade ready-to-bake rough puff pastry in my freezer has saved me many anxious what-to-make moments each December.
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With this one technique, I can make any savory appetizer, including Parmesan-black pepper twists; ham, cheddar and red pepper quiches; blue cheese, pear and walnut mini-tarts; and a host of other buttery, light creations ideal for serving with any holiday libation.
Classic French puff pastry’s laid-back relative, rough puff requires no culinary degree. In fact, it’s what pastry chefs make at home because there are so few steps and big payoffs. And while rough puff is less lofty than the laborious puff pastry, it performs perfectly for every use from palmiers to empanadas.
In this video, French pâtissier and baking book author Michael Roux demonstrates how to make rough puff by hand.
I prefer to use my food processor based on a method I learned from pastry master Nick Malgieri. In this series of photos, I’ll take you step by step through the process for making your own rough puff pastry. This is an unbeatable substitute for any recipe calling for store-bought or homemade puff pastry without the premium cost or the time investment.
Once you have rough puff, the options span a world of appetizers using any cheeses, marinated or cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers, too) you have. In fact, with rough puff on hand, the only other item I need to stock for an impromptu festive gathering of friends is a stash of something bubbly.
Rough Puff Pastry
Makes 1½ pounds of dough
½ stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and roughly cut into small pieces
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and diced into ½-inch pieces
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup cold water
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1. Make sure you divide the 10 ounces of butter necessary for this recipe into two groups. Two ounces should roughly chopped and 8 ounces should be diced into ½-inch pieces.
2. Dissolve the salt in the cold water. This will allow for better distribution in the dough. Keep the saltwater chilled until ready to use. Cold ingredients are the key for easy to handle pastry that comes out flakey.
3. Put the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Add the roughly cut 2 ounces of butter and blend with 4 to 5 pulses until well combined. Add the 8 ounces of diced butter and pulse 2 to 3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is the size of hazelnuts. These larger pieces of butter are what make the dough puff up when baked.
4. Dump the mass of crumbly dough onto a smooth work surface. Use a dough scraper to collect it into a rectangle. Dust a rolling pin and roll into a rectangle about 5 inches wide and 14 inches long. Use your dough knife to keep the edges straight.
5. Use a dough knife or spatula to lift the dough and fold it in thirds, like a business letter. Match the corners and side up as evenly as you can. Turn the dough “letter” 90 degrees so the folds are facing you and roll it out once more into a 5-by-14-inch rectangle. Now, roll up the dough like a scroll and then use the palm of your hand to flatten it into an even, wide log shape.
5. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
6. Dust the work surface and the rolling pin lightly with flour and roll out to ¼-inch thick, turning the dough and dusting underneath with flour to prevent sticking. Brush off any excess flour and use a pizza wheel, biscuit cutter or a knife to cut the dough into any shape you desire. (Gather any scraps of dough and re-roll or chill for future use. They will not be as airy but are perfect for tarts, quiche or pizza.)
7. Place the pastries on an ungreased baking sheets or in tart pans or muffin tins. For immediate use, top or fill the pastries (an egg wash helps ingredients stick and makes the pastries pretty, but is optional) and chill for at least 15 minutes for best results.
Or, for future use, freeze the unfilled pastry shapes on their pans. Once firm, transfer them into labeled freezer bags. Fill them straight from the freezer with the toppings and fillings of your choice and bake right away.
8. To bake the pastries, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until golden brown (frozen pastries will take a few more minutes than chilled) and serve immediately.
Top photo: Parmesan-black pepper twists and mini-tarts with blue cheese, pear and walnuts made with rough puff pastry. Credit: Lynne Curry
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry