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Potatoes, earthly delights, Part 1

October 12, 2009

“The potato is one of humanity’s most important weapons in the battle against hunger.” Carlos Ochoa

French fingerlings, Russian bananas, russets, and red potatoes

French fingerlings, Russian bananas, russets, and red potatoes

Potatoes are a subject near and dear to my heart. Maybe it is partly being born and raised in Idaho, maybe because they bring waves of bliss over me when I eat them. Either way, there is so much to share on this delicious subject that there will be two articles devoted to potatoes.

Last weekend, my mother and I skipped out to the garden patch armed with a pitch fork and gloves, and unearthed our buried treasure of hundreds of pounds of potatoes. We felt like triumphant prospectors, digging up these nuggets of goodness. I kept giggling and exclaiming, “we’re rich!”  As I dug through the earth, my mind turned to our ancestors and how potatoes were the nutritious cushion between them and starvation. But this wasn’t always true.

Potatoes appeared out of thin air, on the slopes on the Andes in South America some 7000 years ago.  Their amazing ability to grow in austere conditions and store well through the winter made them a favored food of early Andean people. The Spaniards didn’t cart them over to Europe till the late 1500’s as a botanical curiosity. Then, they were only cultivated as a cheap food to feed prison inmates and animals.

The rest of Europe wasn’t having anything to do with the potato either due to its reputation as food of the underprivileged and being from the dreaded nightshade family. This foreign tuber was considered drop dead toxic by the public. Oh, and they might cause Leprosy among other things. The French went so far as to make the cultivation of spuds forbidden.

Two hundred years later, enter stage left, the Frenchman and pharmacist Antoine Parmentier. Parmentier had developed an impressive respect for the potato while imprisoned in Prussia during the “seven years war.” He was faced with eating this “hog food” or die of starvation. He ate the potatoes. Lo and behold, he didn’t become poisoned. In fact, he thrived.

In 1772, Parmentier came back to France and took up the crusade for the modest potato. Even though he proved through scientific studies that it wasn’t poisonous, still no one would eat it. So finally, as a last ditch effort, he planted 50 acres of potatoes, right outside of the Paris city limits, and set armed guards on the “valuable” patch. These guards were instructed to take any and all bribes to share the “loot” and withdraw at night for plunders. Sure enough, the stolen potatoes spread astoundingly fast through the French countryside.

By the 1780s potatoes had become a valuable food crop through out Europe. In the United States, it was still largely a food grown for hogs till the mid 1800s, when potato blight brought about the “Great Famine” in Ireland. Ireland’s population dropped by 50% in just a few years from starvation and mass exodus. Most of these emigrants came to North America and brought their great love of potatoes with them. And that, my friends, is how potatoes became a beloved staple on the America table in just the last 200 years. Amazing huh?

Many potato dishes in France are named in honor of Antoine Parmentier. Potage Parmentier is a simple potato leek soup that we have all experienced on some level. Julia Child paid homage to Parmentier with her version of it. As Julia said, “smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make.” Here is a version much like Julia’s. Make sure a use organic potatoes, their flavor is superior.

Potage Parmentier

3 to 4 cups of sliced leeks or onions

3 to 4 cups of cubed potatoes

2 tablespoons of butter

1 quart of water

1 quart of chicken broth

1 to 2 hand fulls of chopped flat leaf parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

4 to 6 tablespoons of heavy cream

Break out your favorite soup pot and melt the butter on medium high heat. Toss in the leeks and sauté till just beginning to get fragrant, then add the potatoes. Stir till well mixed and add the water, chicken broth and parsley. Lower the heat and simmer gently till the potatoes are perfect, about 15 – 20 minutes.

Now, here is the part where Julia says to run the soup through a food mill. (A food mill!) So if you know what it is and actually have one, use it here. I used my food processor and pulsed just a few times. One could also use a good old potato masher or a blender. If you do use the blender, just pulse the soup a few times. The object is to have a few chunks and creaminess.

Return the soup to the pan and heat gently, add the heavy cream and flavor with the salt and pepper. (Julia suggested 2 tablespoons of salt, EEK!) Ladle the soup into your most French looking bowls and garish with some chopped chives and parsley. Serve with a crusty bread and Bon Appetite!

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 7:54 pm

    I have all of those ingredients! Hooray! Thanks for acknowledging the humble potato. I have a whole cupboard full of them from the past month of CSAs.

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