Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What do we think of when we think Baked Potato?

Sadly, what most of us must think of is, number one, BIG. Humongous! Tasting mostly of the butter (or margarine, if that’s our mindset) and sour cream (probably the oxymoronic low-fat) with which it’s slathered instead of complemented; the flesh, which should be tasty in itself, obscured by the condiments; the skins, especially in the summer, flabby and thin because they were wrapped in aluminum foil the way so many people think they must be. Which, of course, only defeats the purpose of a tasty, crisp skin, and dry and mealy flesh (the better to absorb the moist and unctuous toppings) and was originally employed simply to steam the potatoes on the grill or in the oven to hasten the cooking. Might’s well boil ‘em!

And then, expanding on that mind-set, the potatoes not eaten for themselves, but as an accompaniment to a thick pound o’steak – industrially raised, got from the supermarket, probably flabby in itself, and watery, having been grilled ON TOP of aluminum foil! What strength of will I showed the last time I saw this desecration taking place by not shoving aside the griller, grabbing the spatula and ripping the foil from under the steak! Then we wonder why that baked potato – and that steak, too, if we stop to think about it – was not the treat we anticipated.

But let’s forget the steak for now and concentrate on that baked potato.

I’m thinking back to the article in Sunday’s Herald (8/3/8) by Gordon Dritschilo about the Ethnic festival and the baked potatoes served at the Republican booth. Senator Hull Maynard was quoted as saying, “I’d like to say these are locally grown, but I don’t think at this time of year we’d have potatoes this mature.”

Well, Senator Maynard, although a very nice and knowledgeable man in many ways, with a GREAT sense of humor, I fervently hope, was wrong, of course. There are wonderful little russet potatoes – not large, but mature – grown by Don Heleba at his Center Rutland potato farm. I’ve had them – a lovely starchy meat to them, with a crisp and substantial brown skin. And man! do I like my baked potato skins, filled with real butter, salted and peppered, sprinkled with chives. The best part of a baked potato, I’ve always thought, and these are the best of the best!

But perhaps the Senator, though a Republican – that party that attempts to take responsibility for Vermont’s Buy Local movement – had not been to the Farmers’ Market – an absence that, in itself, would be a shame – and seen the extraordinary number of varieties of freshly dug potatoes that Don and his wife Diane offer their patrons at their booth that, along with Spring Lake Ranch and Bear Mountain Bread, pins down the southern edge of the Market. Or perhaps the Senator HAS been there, but to his eye none of those smaller potatoes leapt up and shouted BAKED POTATO. And really, who could blame him? You’d need two or three of these beautiful and modest little guys to make one industrially raised potato.

Now perhaps someone in the planners for this event suggested that it would be nice to serve locally grown potatoes. That little voice in the wilderness would have been quickly shushed, because ‘although local is nice, it is not essential’. And that is not just a Republican mindset! I can’t tell you how many times I have been shushed with the words, from the mouths of admitted liberals, when I’m working on any of the food-related things I’m involved with, “Oh, Sharon, not EVERYTHING has to be local.” But ‘Not Everything’ becomes ‘Very Little’, then ‘Why?’ and a blank look, and then totally fades from mind.

But buying and eating locally SHOULD be essential! Especially when it comes to potatoes, for industrially grown, non-organic potatoes are among the worst offenders in absorbing chemical fertilizers and pesticides and passing them on to us. And, besides, they can be tasteless, and watery. And, besides, the buying of them does not benefit our local farmer and/or our local economy. And besides, serving industrially-grown potatoes does not make the point that the Republican party is conscientious in its aim to ‘Buy Local.’ But then that just proves the old axiom, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

... Many words will not fill a bushel ...

It reminds me of stopping by the supermarket one day in early summer in search of a particular kind of mango grown in India that I’d read about. Dennis, the Co-op produce manager, had not been able to find them. There at the supermarket I met two very good Co-op customers with their carts piled high with industrially grown vegetables and fruit and meats. “Well, you can’t buy EVERYTHING at the Co-op,” they sputtered somewhat shamefacedly, and one continued, shoveling little red potatoes into a bag, “especially those dried-out little spuds the Co-op’s got just now.” Well, admittedly this was before spring veggies were very prolific at the Co-op and Farmers’ Market, and we were still buying over-wintered potatoes and beets and turnips and what have you. At the very end of the season, just before Don began to dig new potatoes, those over-wintered potatoes tended to put out sprouts very quickly. But I remembered buying freshly imported carrots at the Co-op, attracted, if guiltily, by their smooth, fresh, orange skins, choosing them over the hulking, scabbed, over-wintered, local ones, and finding them absolutely insipid in taste and watery in texture while the over-wintered ones were sweet and substantial.

In comparison, the aisles and aisles of fresh-from-California produce at the supermarket were very tempting in that early-season time. But, though I was tempted by the aisles of fresh-looking produce from California or South America in the supermarket that day, I also remembered the old saying, ‘Many words will not fill a bushel’ and, since I did not find the mangos I was looking for, I stood by my darn-tootin’ scruples and left empty handed.

...chinese potatoes and native American rice...

But getting back to potatoes: when I was growing up in the Midwest we had potatoes every night, and mostly they were peeled and quartered and boiled. You were meant to fork them up, mash them, butter and salt and pepper them, and eat them down. I hated them. I liked the mashed potatoes my grandmother made, that she served onto your plate and then, with the gravy ladle, made a crater in the volcano and filled it with gravy. I could stand baked potatoes but really wanted only the skins, and I hated the potatoes my mother fried with bits of bread. I spent hours sitting in front of a greasy plate at a table otherwise emptied, under the admonition to clean up my plate! Children in China were starving to death. I wondered how many potatoes Chinese children were forced to eat?

We love potatoes now, eat them weekly, and once in a blue moon we have a supper of just baked potatoes. Take two or three – or one, if you’re being abstemious – small Heleba russets apiece, rinse them off, thread them onto metal skewers (or potato nails), and put into a hot oven or on a non-flaming grill until they are perfectly fork tender. Roll them over often if you’re grilling them. While they’re cooking, prepare a potpourri of toppings – I like garlicky olive oil or butter, sour cream or crème fraiche, chopped scallions or shallots, chives, crumbled bacon, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, caviar, fresh, steamed broccoli... the sky’s the limit. When they are fork tender – and don’t rush this, there’s nothing worse than anticipating a good baked potato and finding it hard as a rock – roll them on the counter to mush them up inside, make a shallow cut through the skin of one side lengthwise and pinch the ends towards each other to open a place for the toppings. Let each person add their own favorite toppings. Now don’t make a pig of yourself.

...elsewhere at the ethnic festival...

At the same time the Republicans were baking industrial potatoes, the Dems were selling bits and pieces of pastry. I can only hope that they were made by a local baker, of as many local ingredients as possible, but I wouldn’t know, as I hadn’t time to get to either booth. I was volunteering at the Co-op, first cooking up a storm in the new kitchen with Susan and Annabelle and Carol – and that was FUN, the first time the kitchen had been used that way, and with all the attendant bustling and gossiping that goes along with four women in a kitchen, with a pleasant deadline – and then selling, and sometimes giving away, our product at the Co-op booth. Our theme was Native American, and our offerings were a Wild Rice Pilaf and Corn Cakes. The wild rice, of course, came from that wonderful Orwell farmer who plants it in the shallow grassy southern tip of Lake Champlain! Well, no... possibly from Minnesota, but probably not industrially raised.

We were asked for the recipes by several people, so I’ll give them to you here. I believe that all the ingredients are available at the Co-op:

Sunflower Seed Wild Rice Pilaf:

* 4 cups veggie bouillon or broth
* 1 cup wild rice
* 1 3/4 cup bulgur
* 1 cup sunflower seeds
* 1 cup dried cranberries
* 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
* 1/2 cup cilantro &/or parsley, chopped
* 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
* 1/2 cup chopped almonds (we omitted these, but missed them)
* Zest from 1 orange (we wanted to add the orange segments, too)
* 2 tablespoons olive oil
* salt & pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Add wild rice, reduce heat & cook, covered, for 50 minutes or so, being careful not to overcook. Remove to a large bowl. In the meantime, cook the bulgur in about 1 1/4 cups boiling water; simmer 15 minutes and let rest another 15 minutes. Add to rice and combine with all other ingredients. Serve at room temperature.

Corncakes With Fresh Corn and Chives

* 1 ear fresh corn
* 2 tablespoons flour
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon sugar
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup boiling water
* 1 cup yellow cornmeal
* 1/4 cup milk
* 1 slightly beaten egg
* 1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
* Butter for frying

Cut corn kernels from cob. Reserve. Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Stir boiling water into cornmeal to make a stiff mush; add milk and blend until smooth. Stir in everything else, adding the dry ingredients last, stirring until just combined. Drop batter by rounded spoons into hot butter, or a mixture of olive oil and butter. Fry until golden on the bottom, and top is solidifying. Turn once and brown till golden. Transfer to a serving platter and keep warm.

...more platitudes, axioms, metaphors, etc...

You know, we can talk up eating and buying locally, but if we don’t follow it up with action, if we allow those slips ‘twixt cup and lips’, then it doesn’t matter how many words we utter – they won’t fill up the basket. And beyond that, and as I hope I’ve shown, bigger is not better when it comes to most things, even potatoes. So how do I put this? Eating locally is no big potatoes – it matters! Or, maybe, the Devil’s in the Details.

...starring indian food...

If you’re a fan of Indian food, don’t miss Dr. Sanjukta Ghosh, professor of cultural and women’s studies at Castleton State College, who will be the guest chef on the next edition of What’s Cookin’ Rutland on PEG TV, sponsored by Chaffee Art Center on August 18.

Dr. Ghosh, who writes and lectures widely on South Asian issues, grew up in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir and Kumaon, and in New Delhi, India. She will speak with host, Whitney Lamy, of some of the dilemmas and delights of Indian food while she prepares a peak season stir fry of eggplant and tomatoes called Baigan Achari, a Bengali Chicken Curry, and Jeera Pulao, a rice pilaf.

What’s Cookin’ Rutland is taped at PEG TV Studios in Howe Center starting at 6PM. Doors open at 5:30 for the seating of the live audience. A $10 donation is suggested, and reservations may be had by calling Chaffee Art Center at 775-0356.

You can watch Sanjukta and Whitney here: http://www.pegtv.com/ipegvideo.html . Look for What's Cookin' Rutland, and choose any show you like.

Twice Bitten columns are archived (sometimes with added information and recipes) at www.thriceshy.blogspot.com Thanks for your comments and questions, emails and calls. They reach me at the Rutland Herald, P.O. Box 668, Rutland, 05702 or by email at snimtz@gmail.com

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