I’m partial, I’ll admit it. I have favorite farmers at the farmer’s market. The guys or gals who recognize you from 40 paces, smile, and welcome you to their stalls with news of their goats, updates on their plantings, stories of brave battles with tomato hornworms. Today I was so sad to learn of the passing of my A-number one favorite farmer, Gene Thiel. Gene grew astoundingly great potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms on his farm in Joseph, Oregon. He made the 5 hour trek from Eastern Oregon once a week to Portland to supply restaurants and the public from his Portland Farmer’s Market booth for years. Everyone in the business called him “Gene Gene the Potato Machine,” such was his gift of growing a great spud.
I’m pretty shy when it comes to farmer’s market chit chat, but Gene always had a way of drawing me out of my shell…he’d ask me what I was cooking, tell me how he made his wild mushroom powder, inform me about the differences between types of potatoes, or we’d talk about the history behind the Irish famine, whatever he was thinking about that day. I always bought more potatoes, carrots, and other gnarled roots than I could carry, and I never regretting lugging them home; they were always the most ridiculously delicious vegetables at the market. Fortunately Prairie Creek Farm lives on, Gene’s son Patrick will be carrying on the family business, and he’s a very friendly man, to be sure. But the market won’t be the same without Gene.
In honor of Gene Thiel (1936-2013), I’ve torn a page from my Farm to Table Cookbook (Sasquatch Books, 2008) wherein I tell my favorite anecdote about Gene. The recipe is for lovely twice baked potatoes stuffed with caramelized onions, kale, and cheddar. You will be missed, Gene. Thanks for the spuds.
Twice-Baked Irish Potatoes with Stout Onions and Kale
“What’s your favorite potato story?” Gene Thiel, the spunky potato farmer nicknamed “ Gene the Potato Machine,” asked me one crisp November morning as I chose from his table of russets. I drew a blank. “Everyone has a potato story,” he assured me. It finally dawned on me: colcannon. My grandmother used to make the satisfying mash of kale or cabbage and potatoes for me when I was a kid. She said its origins came from necessity when times were tough in Ireland. Women would add kale, cabbage, or even seaweed to their mashed potatoes to stretch the meager harvest;– the greener the colcannon, the tougher the times. Gene was happy to hear that he was right again, we all have a potato story. What’s yours?
4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed (8 to 10 ounces each)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
3 cups thinly sliced onions (about 2 medium)
1 cup Irish-style stout
1/2 bunch lacinato kale or Russian kale(about 3 ounces)
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated cheddar cheese.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Rub the potatoes with 1 teaspoon of the oil and place directly on the oven rack. Bake until they squish easily when gently squeezed, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently until they begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Add a splash of the stout and scrape up any browned bits. Continue to cook, occasionally deglazing the pan with the stout until the onions are deep brown and all the stout is used, about 45 minutes total.
Tear the tough ribs and stems away from the kale and discard. Roughly chop the leaves and add half the kale to the onions, tossing with tongs to wilt the leaves. Add the remaining kale, toss, cover, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
With a serrated knife slice off the top quarter of each potato. Use a soup spoon to scoop out the flesh, leaving a 1/4-inch-thick shell on the bottom and sides. Mash the flesh with the buttermilk, butter, and mustard powder. Gently fold in the onion-kale mixture and season with the salt and pepper. Mound the mixture into the potato shells, sprinkle the tops with the cheese, and place on a baking sheet. Bake until the cheese is melted, about 20 minutes, and serve warm as a side dish or a vegetarian main course. —From the Farm to Table Cookbook, by Ivy Manning, (Sasquatch Books, 2008), all rights reserved