Martin Schaffner

Basel, Switzerland

Roesti and Risotto or Neither Core nor Fringe

When I met Sidney Mintz first in the Seventies, I was very interested in the history of the potato, especially within the context of nineteenth century Irish history. There is no better way to thank him for many stimulating discussions than to encourage him to cook the following potato dish. Better than anyone else Sid understands, why this is not an Irish but a Swiss recipe.

Swiss Fried Potatoes—Roesti

2  pounds potatoes, boiled in the skins
1  tablespoon salt
3-4  tablespoon shortening

Peel and shred potatoes (special roesti shredders are available!) or slice by hand. Sprinkle salt over potatoes. Mix. Heat shortening in skillet. Add potatoes and brown about 30 minutes over low heat while turning occasionally with a spatula. Toward end of frying time compress the potatoes into a solid mass with the spatula and continue to fry until a firm crust has formed. Shake loose or use spatula, turn onto roesti plate. There are, of course, many variations and refinements to this basic recipe, and nearly every canton has its own special roesti. They make a good side-dish for many meals as well as an excellent main course with a salad.

As Sid and I share many memories of some informal meetings of anthropologists and historians interested in food that took place in San Pietro di Stabio (Cantone nel Ticino) I would like him to remember those days while cooking a rice dish typical of the region.

Rice with Chestnuts

The Urner had rice, corn and chestnuts in the pantry as early as the Early Middle Ages, since the old Gotthard Pass had put them in the right position for extensive trading with the South. Many local citizens were totally dependent on the traffic across the pass; it gave them work and a livelyhood. They transported merchandise safely and surely from one side to the other. The edible fruits of the chestnut tree, also called maroni, have been used since the 16th century as medicine (diarrhea), but have been able to maintain their popularity among gourmets up to the present day.

1/2  pound dried chestnuts
5  cups bouillon or saltwater
2  cups rice (3/4 pound)
1 1/4 cup mountain cheese or Sbrinz; shredded (if desired, sauté one large thinly slice onion in 4-5 tablespoon butter)
2-3  cloves garlic, chopped

Soak dried chestnuts overnight and cook in the bouillon until half done. Add rice and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until done. Before serving, stir in the cheese and garnish with the onion rings which have been sauteed until golden brown in butter. Or, more piquant, sauté the onion rings until golden brown, add chopped garlic, dust over with flour, add bouillon. Bring to boil and pour over the chestnut rice mixture.

Although I have taken these recipes from an interesting book (see below), I am very familiar with both of them, as my mother (of German origin, born in 1910) and my grandmother (of Italian origin, born in 1880) passed them on to me and taught me how to properly prepare roesti and chestnut risotto. It will be interesting to know in which way Sid will further develop this tradition.

Peter Widmer and Alexander Christ, Switzerland. A culinary tour, Kuenzelsau: Sigloch Edition, 1996.