"What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow." A. A. Milne (1882-1956)
Who knew that Winnie the Pooh’s author was fond of potatoes? But who isn’t? How much we take our potatoes for granted after mashing, cutting, frying, baking, hashing, roasting and all the other spud permutations of culinary necessity and art. I dare say McDonald’s is more popular for its shoe-string fries than for its burgers; at least, I’d like to think so. I know they were James Beard’s favorite, and pretty much the only fast food critics and the public alike could agree on. The potato is the meat of the earth, the plain, scruffy but robust starch that makes it possible to live a plain but robust life. What would we do without it? We are now insisting on a world that restricts trans fats, but what would we do if a perfectly healthy, nay necessary, foundation of our daily diet was taken from us? There are people on our planet who did have it taken, who suffered beyond description and comprehension when the fungal blight came and destroyed the humble, stalwart crop and broke the Irish during their infamous famine.
There is another potential famine afoot now, one not borne of agricultural mishap, but of the mishap of human greed and callousness. The “terminator seed” is not a figment of a silly, violent Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but it does have the potential to violently wreck cultures, agrarian peasant cultures who are highly dependent on the potato as a staple of their diets. Agrichemical corporations are busy in laboratories genetically mutating seeds from a variety of plants to render harvested seeds sterile for replanting in subsequent seasons unless a chemical is purchased and applied to these bad seeds to restore their germination. How many poor farmers do you know who can afford these chemicals? Among those particularly at risk are South American farmers, who do not have the political clout like the collective powerhouses of the European Union.
South America has many basic, bountiful and beautiful dishes of aboriginal comfort and pride. Locro de papas, featured in the February 2007 issue of Gourmet Magazine, is a classic Andean recipe. I am not the first blogger to highlight the richly warming potato porridge, anointed with annatto oil and curried with cumin. And I do not want to be the last blogger to pay tribute to the humble, hearty potato and the people who have depended on it since they sprung of the same earth that bore them both.
Locro de papas – Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, February 2007
2 teaspoons annatto seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ½ pounds baking potatoes
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black ground pepper
7 cups water
1 cup whole milk
6 ounces ricotta salata (hard ricotta), ½ coarsely grated, ½ shredded with wide-edge grater
2 small ripe but firm avocados
In a small saucepan, heat annatto seeds in olive oil. Swirl pan, bring to simmer, then remove from heat and let steep 20 minutes.
While oil steeps, peel and cube (approx. 1 inch) potatoes, reserving ½ the cubes in a bowl of cold water. Strain infused oil from seeds, discarding seeds. In a large (approx. 8-quart) pot, cook ½ the potatoes and all the onion in the oil until onions are transparent, stirring occasionally. Add cumin, salt and black pepper, stirring to mix. Add all the water and bring to boil, scrapping the pot to release any stuck vegetables. Cook partially covered over low-medium heat until potatoes are very soft (approx. 25 minutes). Mash the softened potatoes into the broth and add remaining cubed potatoes (drained), maintaining heat and cooking until potatoes are tender. Add milk and the coarsely grated cheese, stirring gently to mix. Allow to simmer, then remove from heat.
Peel, pit and cube avocados. Ladle soup into serving bowls, dividing and scattering reserved shredded cheese over top of each bowl. Top with avocado cubes.