This versatile vegetable began its journey in Peru, where potatoes in their vast variety have been an integral part of the Inca diet for more than 7,000 years. (The panoply of colour, size and shape staggers the imagination.) Humble as it may seem today, the well-travelled potato has infiltrated almost every corner of the world.
Brought from South America to Europe by conquistadors in 1536, the potato was slow to be accepted in Europe until, as one story has it, Sir Walter Raleigh took the tuber to Ireland.
By 1650, the potato had found safe harbour on Irish soil. It flourished, not because it was novel or especially delicious (although potatoes can certainly be both), but because of nefarious economic, political, even religious, influences of the time. Potatoes fed Irish tenant farmers and their livestock for almost 200 years, becoming their single staple food: a nutritious-but-homogenous diet. This was a hardy, prolific and easy-to-grow crop, and with only a cow for milk, subsistent farmers could feed their large families while toiling for their masters. But when a catastrophic blight sped through much of Europe in the 1800s, the Great Famine of 1845-1849 killed a million people in Ireland alone and scattered millions more across the globe.
Although this is a dark page from culinary history, potatoes have more than redeemed themselves since. There are thousands of ways to prepare and use potatoes. Sweet or savoury; fried, boiled or baked; scalloped, mashed, sauteed or deep-fried; pastas or doughnuts; hot or cold; breakfast, lunch or dinner… potatoes could be the most adaptable vegetable in any kitchen.
Though the varieties are too numerous to list, three essential types of potato have found their way into today’s kitchens.
Starchy potatoes are low in moisture with a creamy white flesh and a floury texture. They’re great for baking and frying, but not ideal for something like a potato salad. Russet and King Edward are two good examples of starchy potatoes.
Waxy potatoes have less starch, more moisture and sugar. Firm and moist, they’re perfect for soups, gratins, and salads – anywhere it’s important that
they keep their shape. Pink, purple and fingerling varieties are usually waxy.
All-purpose potatoes are, well, all-purpose, and hit somewhere between starchy and waxy. They hold together well and can be applied to just about any recipe. Yellow-fleshed varieties like Yukon Gold and red-skinned Pontiac are easy to find.
Sweet potatoes, related to morning glories, are tubers too, but not actually potatoes. Solanum tuberosum, the common potato, belongs to the nightshade family and are cousins of tomatoes, eggplants, tobacco and petunias.
Look for potatoes that have no blemishes or cuts. Avoid any that are green, wrinkled or sprouting. Don’t wash them before storing; keep them in a dark, cool, well-ventilated spot away from anything that gives off ethylene gas like tomatoes, apples and bananas. Also keep potatoes separate from onions,
the association will cause premature sprouting on both sides.
Now that we can have our ovens on again, here’s a great way to get crispy potatoes with a little fun thrown in. By fun, I mean smashing things.
Boil several whole unpeeled waxy or medium-waxy potatoes (like Yukon Gold, Elba or Red Pontiac). The size of a big-ish lemon is ideal, but smaller ones work as well. Cook them in salted water until they can be easily pierced with a knife and drain. Let them cool a little so you can handle them or even keep them in the fridge and use the next day or three. On a slightly oiled foil or parchment-covered baking sheet, set out several of the potatoes and with the help of a flat-bottomed saucer or bowl, gently press down on the spud until it has flattened to about 1-2 cm ( ½ to ¾ inch). Don’t go too far; try to keep the potato more-or-less intact but cracked open and with some flesh exposed. Drizzle the potatoes with a generous amount of olive oil and/or melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 25-30 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes, in a hot oven (200 C or 400 F) or until they become golden and crisp.
Check these posts for more potato recipe inspiration!
Harvest Scalloped Potatoes
Harvest Mashed Potatoes
Root Vegetable Gratin