Yale’s quest for a better potato
Potatoes get a bad rap.
Perhaps due to the humble root vegetable’s association with French fries or as a gravy-swamped side, many people think of it as unhealthy. But potatoes are actually a smart nutritional choice, said James Benson, director of culinary excellence at Yale Hospitality, who oversees recipes, training, menus, and product development. They’re lower in carbs and calories than white rice or pasta; they’re fat free (as long as they’re not fried or filled with butter); and they’re a good source of potassium and fiber.
And now, Yale has a potato to call its own — two, in fact, and both varieties are already appearing in Yale dining halls.
Through a partnership with Netherlands-based potato seed company HZPC, a Connecticut farm is growing special, nutrient-dense potatoes for the university that are tailor-made for the state’s climate and soil. The Jennifer potato, with its white skin and creamy texture, and the Maggie potato, with its yellow skin and buttery taste, are the first Yale-specific potatoes being grown from these seeds, at Cecarellis Harrison Hill Farm in Northford, about 10 miles east of New Haven.
“These are the first potatoes of their kind grown in the state of Connecticut,” said Benson. “The seeds were developed through traditional breeding techniques that are customized to complement our local growing conditions while producing a high-yield crop.”
On a recent sun-drenched fall day at the farm, members of the Yale Hospitality team and produce distributor Freshpoint helped to harvest the potatoes by hand as a tractor made its way down the rows, turning over the soil. Some potatoes were washed, boiled, and pan-fried to be sampled on site.
While students could not attend the farm trip due to COVID-19 restrictions, Benson said connecting students with the origins of their food, sustainable growing practices, and healthy eating are all part of Yale Hospitality’s “Better for You” menu philosophy.
“Our team was grateful to share the potato-harvesting experience through social media for the time-being,” said Christelle Ramos, senior manager for marketing and communications for Yale Hospitality. “The amount of views and engagement got me excited about the prospect of someday bringing students along to connect to where their food comes from in-person.”
Fortunately, students have been able to taste the new Yale potatoes, which have been incorporated into dining hall dishes like golden shepherd’s pie, cremini mushroom and potato soup, and roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes. Yale Hospitality remains focused on plant-forward menu options. And the culinary team is excited at the prospect of testing new recipes inspired by this year’s crop, highlighting how potatoes can play an important role in a nutritionally balanced diet.
“These initiatives represent a true consumer-farmer partnership and collaboration,” Benson said. “By supporting our local farmers, we are influencing the quality of produce that is grown in our region, and it provides us with seasonal produce that packs more flavor and delivers higher levels of vitamins and nutrients.”
Eight additional Yale potato varieties are currently in development, and due for planting in the spring of 2021.