The uber tuber

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Potatoes — whether fried, baked or boiled — have been on the Bell family’s plate for three generations.

Years ago, before the development of modern harvesting machinery, potatoes were dug by hand with a potato fork and loaded into barrels. The barrels were put into a cart, covered with hay to protect them from the elements and pulled by horse to market, where they would be sold.

Now, says David Bell of Bell Farms in Auburn, “we’ve got conveyors and trucks.” And according to Ray Bell, his brother and partner, “12 people can do the work of 12,000,” roughly speaking.

The Bell brothers, along with other members of the Bell family, are local potato growers. “We’ve been growing potatoes all our lives,” says Ray. “Since we could reach the pedals on the equipment,” adds David. “We know what it takes to grow a crop, but we also know how to maintain the equipment.”

The Bells’ grandfather was of French Arcadian heritage, immigrating to Auburn from an area with a longstanding tradition of farming potatoes. Three generations of Bells have grown potatoes in the Androscoggin River valley, with many living into their 90s. “Three generations,” says David, “is a lot of years.”

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In the 21st century, Bell Farms continues to be a family operation. “My father worked until he was 88 years old,” says David, and most of the current employees at Bell Farms are family.

Peak harvest for potatoes begins in mid-September and runs though mid-October. “If the weather is bad (the harvest) takes longer and, as a farmer, you never want to leave anything in the field,” says David. Ray adds, “Between mud and freezing temperatures, the weather can delay the harvest.”

This year, Bell Farms is harvesting two varieties of potato – a white known as Norwis and a yellow.

Norwis, explains Jennifer Zanca, who lives at the farm, “makes the best chip and does well French fried.” When she first came to the farm, Zanca spent a summer working at the farm store to help supplement her work as a registered nurse. She also wanted to make a contribution to the list of things that the farm has to offer, so she started making potato chips, which she now sells locally under the label Jenny’Z Chips. “It was kind of my niche,” she says, noting that demand for her chips is growing.

The science of why the Norwis makes a good chip is complicated; Zanca says “it has to do with the moisture content and the sugars (when it comes to) chipping and French frying,” and the potato must be sliced and cooked within a certain time frame post-picking.

According to David, “The Norwis has been a good one for us – it’s a good eating potato and (in many ways) it’s a good all-around potato.” And for Bell Farms, “It’s the right potato for the market.”

In addition to Jenny’Z Chips and the French fries made with Bell’s Norwis’ at many local eateries and fairs, the Norwis lends itself well to recipes, such as Zanca’s hearty potato cheddar soup – prepared for our interview — into which Zanca sneaks vegetables like carrots, celery, beans and peas as a way to get her kids to eat more vegetables. “They love it,” she said at the recent tasting, and all present agreed as Ray scooped himself a generous second helping.

Ray’s wife Pat’s scalloped potatoes with sausage is a big hit at home and around the farm. The original recipe for “potato sausage casserole,” admits Pat, came from The Madison County Cookbook. “I’m a recipe hound, and bought the cookbook at an airport about 20 years ago because I needed something to read on the plane.”

Though she generally likes to follow a recipe, she often “tweaks” it and takes “bits and pieces from other recipes” to make them her own. With this recipe, she prefers to use dried onion rather than fresh. “It’s easy to make,” she says, and she shares her recipe with us today.

Additional recipes have been provided by both Zanca and Karen Bolduc from nearby South Auburn Organic Farm.

The potato is a “living, breathing thing,” says David, and “there are so many variables” when it comes to producing a good potato.

“Every state is different,” explains Ray, and Maine is especially suitable for growing potatoes because the soil in the Androscoggin River valley is fertile and slightly acidic, and the summers are warm.

“We’ve gotta know our soil and varieties,” says David. “There’s so much to this: soils, growing plants, testing soil and leaves, regulating fertilization. . . . How you feed it, what you feed it and how you manage your crop allows it to grow, keep well and cook good.”

“Soil,” he says, “is like your bank: You need to know your soil before you can know what you need to do with it.”

According to Ray, in the course of a four- to six-week harvest, Bell Farms will dig roughly 45,000 to 50,000 pounds of potatoes per acre from the ground. With about 150 acres planted, that translates to a lot of potatoes to keep fresh. The new potato house at Bell Farms holds 5 million pounds and is currently being used to store the Norwis variety of potato. The original potato house, which holds less, stores other varieties.

In addition to potatoes, Bell Farms — with fields in Lewiston, Auburn and Durham — grows sweet corn, pumpkins, cucumbers, beans and grains for feed. “It’s all locally grown, close to home and we’re diversified,” says Ray, explaining they also produce firewood, loam, sand and gravel.

Though Bell Farms sells its potatoes and other vegetables at the roadside stand on the farm, that’s just a small fraction of what it distributes. “We can supply local markets and (commercial) kitchens year-round,” says David, “but we also sell all around and outside of the state as well.”

Jenny’s potato vegetable cheese soup

From Jennifer Zanca of Bell Farms in Auburn

2 cups diced potatoes

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1/8 cup sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

2 cups water

6 chicken-flavor bouillon cubes

1/4 cup margarine or butter

2 cups milk

1/2 cup flour

3 cups (12 ounces) shredded cheddar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup beer

Combine veggies, water, butter and bouillon and bring to boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes.

In a small bowl bowl combine milk with the flour and dry mustard. Blend into the simmered vegetable mix. Add cheese.

Cook and stir until cheese melts. Add beer.

* Can substitute many different veggies, including peas, green beans and zucchini.

South Auburn organic shepherd’s pie

From Karen Bolduc of South Auburn Organic Farm

Serves 4-6.

2 pounds of ground beef, pork or venison

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup chicken or beef stock

2 potatoes, boiled

Carrots, corn, peas, or green beans, as desired, diced and cooked

1/2 of a sweet dumpling squash or other small winter squash, peeled, cut into chunks and boiled till tender

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mash cooked potatoes and squash together with a little milk, butter and salt (not included in the ingredients above) to taste. Set aside, covered. Make a roux (pronounced “roo”) by heating the 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and continue whisking for a few minutes. Gradually add in your stock. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir frequently until gravy reaches desired consistency. Saute onion in a little olive oil. Add garlic and saute a minute more. Add ground meat and brown it. Add gravy and mix evenly. Butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish and pour in the meat/gravy mixture. Layer in vegetables. Cover with the potato/squash mixture. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Top with a bit of grated cheese before baking, if desired. We serve with homemade ketchup.

Corn salsa potato crisp appetizer

From Karen Bolduc of South Auburn Organic Farm

Serves 6-8 appetizer portions.

1 medium potato or 2 new potatoes, sliced

1/2 cup corn, cut from cob, raw or cooked

1 small onion, diced

1/2 large heirloom tomato, diced

Green pepper or hot pepper (if you like,) diced

1/4 cup sour cream

In a medium bowl, combine corn, onion, tomato and pepper. Salt and pepper to taste. Fry potatoes in olive oil over medium-high heat for a few minutes on each side until dark golden-brown. Drain. Place potatoes on serving plates, pile each with a large spoonful of the corn salsa and top with a teaspoon of sour cream. A baby basil or mint leaf works as a nice garnish. Eat in one bite!

Potato & sausage casserole (a variation of scalloped potatoes)

From Pat Bell of Bell Farms in Auburn

1 pound pork sausage (I use Mailhot’s breakfast sausage)

1 can cream of chicken soup

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup chopped onion (or dried onion flakes)

4 cups sliced raw potatoes

A cup or so of grated cheese

Brown sausage and drain well. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and layer raw potatoes in the bottom. Crumble sausage. Mix soup, milk, sausage and onion, and spread over the potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 1.25 to 1.5 hours. Add a layer of cheese when the potatoes are almost done and cook until bubbly and golden on top.

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