Food trucks have become an important part of the US city food landscape for a few years now. Whole websites, TV shows & smartphone apps are dedicated to finding them. Literally hundreds of Twitter feeds point drooling foodies and people on their lunch breaks out to some strange corner they wouldn't normally go to at 12: 17 in the afternoon. And wouldn't you know it: Portland, Oregon, seems to be at the center of it all.
State Nicknames: The Beaver State
Admission to the US: February 14, 1859 (#33)
Capital: Salem (3rd largest)
Other Important Cities: Portland (largest), Eugene (2nd largest), Gresham (4th largest)
Region: Northwest, Pacific; Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Salmon, Pinyon Nut
Bordered by: Washington and the Columbia River (north), Idaho (east), the Snake River (northeast), California & Nevada (south), the Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: beaver (animal, though they are generally no longer eaten), milk (beverage), Dungeness crab (crustacean), Chinook salmon (fish), Oregon grape (flower, bearing an indigenous fruit that was once gathered and eaten), pear (fruit), Pacific golden chanterelle (mushroom), hazelnut / filbert (nut - they're the same thing)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Northwestern and Pacific foods, including: Pacific seafood (salmon, Dungeness crab, etc), hazelnuts, pears, marionberries (first grown in Oregon), huckleberries, blueberries; Portland is an epicenter of the American food truck industry
Karen Brooks of The Oregonian, as far back as 2009, said that Portland is "the new face of America's maverick food cart movement" . Sure we have our food trucks here in our own city, and so many cities now do. But as noted by Dieselboi and Cuisine Bonne Femme, who own and operate the Food Carts Portland webpage, Portland has taken it a step further. They point out that they are a great bargain, can set up everywhere - Portland has a few dedicated areas just for food trucks, unlike other cities that have tried to limit them (**cough cough DC cough cough**). And you can wind up eating a variety of foods all day every day. From their website:
Set up in parking lots, sidewalks, and even parks (sometimes in large groups and sometimes solo), one might nosh on a fresh tortilla Baja fish taco one day, a rib-sticking bowl of traditional goulash the next, have a coffee and pastry for an afternoon snack, and then take home a giant Indian combo box for dinner. [Cuisine Bonne Femme & Dieselboi, 2009].It is futile to try to chronicle the depth and breadth of the food truck movement in Portland in this small space - even in two posts (yes, there will be two Portland food truck posts). So I won't even bother. Instead I will direct you to sources such as the aforementioned Food Carts Portland webpage, and (of course) the Google Maps Portland Food Cart site.
Or you could take a flip through the book Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels  by Heather Shouse (note: Shouse visited Mid Day with Dan Rodricks in April of 2011. Listen to the podcast here). Shouse's compendium is not just about Portland and its varied food truck scene. It chronicles food trucks from all over the United States (none from Baltimore, though there is a Washington, DC, section). The section on Portland features maps of the different parking lots (or food truck "pods") where Portland's food trucks cluster together. It gives some more dedicated information about the origins of the mobile kitchen scene there. And of course, it offers recipes from various food truck chefs in Portland. Shouse's task was a difficult one: she points out that this is no city featuring a mere handful of food carts (upwards of 300 circulate the city by her estimates), nor is a recently started passing fad:
Encouraged and supported by the local powers that be, the nunber of food carts in Portland has hovered in the high three hundreds since the early 2000s. When 2009 saw a spike of nearly a hundred new carts hitting the streets, it was pretty clear that Portlanders considered this industry integral to their experience. So much so that when the Portland Plan launched in 2010, the twenty-five year city plan included food carts among topics like economic development, historic resources, and sustainability. [Shouse 2011: 68]Dang, these food trucks really are ingrained into the fabric of the city!
Shouse showcases five recipes from four of the hundreds of food carts: Potato Champion (gourmet fries), Nong's Khao Man Gai (one of many Thai food trucks in the city), Tabor (a Czech food truck), and Moxie Rx (a juice truck that closed down last year to start a new venture). I chose two of the five Portland recipes to test out for the next few posts. I went with the first two (and will have to try out this chicken paprikash from the Tabor truck at a future date, or if I ever get to Portland).
Potato Champion is run by Mike McKinnon, who was inspired by the vlaamse frites of the Netherlands and Belgium on a trip in 2001. As he told Shouse, "'I always bitched about it with my friends, "Why doesn't Portland have a fry place?"'" [Shouse 2011: 71]. The rest is food truck history: his twice-fried fries - only made from Russet potatoes, and only fried in rice bran oil - are served with one of nine different dipping sauces, everything from mayo to, ahem, "rosemary truffle ketchup". The recipe that McKinnon provides (on page 73 of Shouse's Food Trucks book) is for that Québecois classic, poutine.
The Recipe: Potato Champion Poutine
To make McKinnon's poutine fries the way he does it, you will need the following:
* Russet potatoes, which McKinnon recommends because they have the right sugar to starch content (I cut down the recipe by a few, which still yielded me a nice amount of fries. The potatoes were about $1.50 per lb at Harris Teeter)
* rice bran oil, which McKinnon recommends for its flavor, its high smoke point and its ability to last longer (at first I had no clue where to find this. I looked in a few health and natural food stores. But I could not locate rice bran oil until I hit up H Mart for some thin and dark Thai soy sauces - for the next post. Sure enough, there were jugs of rice bran oil in the oil section, for $10 for a large bottle. Had I not found any, I was going to go with peanut oil, which is the most similar type of oil in terms of nutrition info and smoke point. A recent "Rehab Recipes" episode of Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen confirmed this. Nadia was making, of all things, poutine)
For the poutine gravy you will need:
* butter and flour (yes, first you make a roux)
* shallot (I used half of one from Harris Teeter)
* yellow onion (also Harris Teeter)
* garlic (had it)
* chicken broth (it turned out I needed more of this. Fortunately I had extra duck broth in the freezer. Unfortunately, I needed more broth for the following post. You will read about that in a few days)
* balsamic vinegar (had it)
* salt and ground pepper (same)
McKinnon also suggests queso fresco or cheese curds to serve on top of the fries and gravy. I forgot to put them in the photo, but I did purchase queso fresco for $5 at Harris Teeter. I will be finding many ways to use this cheese in order to get my money's worth.
Fill a deep fryer (or in my case, a deep cast iron skillet) with the rice bran oil.
Now to make those potatoes into fries. I busted out the french fry cutter that I bought last month in Rehoboth Beach and set it to work.
I used the thick fry setting.
Rinse off the fries in cold water, to get rid of as much starch as possible.
Then dry off the fries with paper towels while the oil gets to 325°F.
Time to multitask. Mince the onion, shallot and garlic.
Brown the onions in a saucepan, with balsamic vinegar and pepper.
In a separate pot, melt the butter...
...and add flour to make a roux.
Stir constantly and take it off of the heat when it is a light brown color.
Add the roux to the onions...
...and then add the broth(s). Let it reduce over low heat for 30 minutes.
Back to the fries. McKinnon fries his twice - the first time quickly, here only five minutes at 325°.
When time is up, pull the fries out of the oil...
...and let cool down for 30 minutes.
Let's see how that gravy is doing. Yup, looking much thicker and gravy-like.
When the fries have sat for 30 minutes, add them back to the oil, this time heated to 375°F. Leave them in until lightly brown and crisp.
Now to prep the fries, which McKinnon would serve in a paper cone. First salt the fries.
Next, add the poutine gravy
Finally, add the queso fresco or cheese curds.
I haven't had poutine before, and I don't often get freshly made (not out of a bag) fries. These are a meal in and of themselves, the tangy poutine gravy smothering the lightly crispy fries. This is even better with slightly melted cheese on top.
Brooks, Karen. "Portland's top 10 food carts". Posted October 8, 2009 (The Oregonian), reposted August 6, 2011 (OregonLive.com).
Cuisine Bonne Femme & Dieselboi (blog authors). "About" (About Page for Food Carts Portland". Copyright 2012 Food Carts Portland, all rights reserved.
Lewis, Nancy (recipe author). "Marionberry Cobbler". Information page for the episode "A Cuisine of Our Own" from the television program Oregon Experience, 2010. Copyright Oregon Public Radio 2010-2012, all rights reserved.
Mersinger, Monica. "Marionberries: A Delicious Part of Salem's Past". Salem Online History, 2006. Copyright Salem Public Library, 2005-2006, all rights reserved.
Oregon Public Radio. "A Cuisine of Our Own". Information page for the episode "A Cuisine of Our Own" from the television program Oregon Experience, 2010. Copyright Oregon Public Radio 2010-2012, all rights reserved.
Porges, Brad. "Hazelnut Salmon with Apple and Pear Compote". Posted on the Oregon Food website, date unknown. Copyright Travel Oregon 2009-2012, all rights reserved.
Shouse, Heather. Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels. Random House: New York, 2011.
World Culinary Institute. "James Beard". World Culinary Institute, date unknown. Copyright World Culinary Institute, all rights reserved.
Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Oregon" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Oregon".