Mucho Guide to Potatoes
Scraping the surface of the stupendous potato-verse…
Quick word of advice: refrain yourself from ever doing research on potatoes if you have browser-tab-phobia. Why? Because after fifteen minutes of research, the shrinking size of the tabs in my browser made me realise I could only scrape the surface of the stupendous potato-verse. Here’s my attempt.
Let’s start off with three simple facts about potatoes: firstly, the kidney-looking veggie, although fabulous, is not the prettiest one (I presume this to be an uncontroverted fact and I had to get it off my chest); secondly, they are pretty much the only vegetable that can poison you if eaten raw and thirdly, they are stem tubers, which means that they are actually plant reserves of nutrients that grow underground.
The historical relevance of potatoes cannot be overstated. Not only do they happen to be the world’s third largest food crop trailing just behind rice & wheat, but they’re also considered to have been the fuel that fed the European empire and are closely entwined with the creation of the modern industrial agriculture. Talk about a political veggie!
Believed to have originated in the surrounding area of the Lake Titicaca (giggle) in the Andean region of South America, crops of potatoes can be traced back to 6,000 BC. Flash-forward to the early 15th century when potatoes became the cornerstone of the Inca civilisation and were cultivated in much wider varieties; they were called the people’s food and the Incas even measured time by how long it took to cook a spud — which I think is pretty reasonable suggestion for you all.
Reluctantly eaten by the Spanish invaders (because of their looks), they were exported back to Europe in the 15th century and, somehow, the first spud made its way to Cork, in Ireland where someone by the name of Sir Walter Raleigh cultivated the continent’s first crop. Potato crops then rapidly propagated due to their high yield and ended centuries of periodical famines as they allowed Northern Europe to feed itself for the first time. This in turn led to more stable governments and, alas, kind of influenced them into looking elsewhere and colonising new territories.
* the irony sinks in *
Although today we may see 10 varieties of potatoes (at most!) in our local supermarkets, there are over 7,000 varieties of potatoes and 4,500 of these are native to the Andean region. In fact, in Colombia, there is a rediscovery of native potatoes underway (just browse away through those lush pictures) which kind of makes me regret my professional statement of introducing them as unfortunate-looking vegetables a few lines above.
People get a bit nervous around potatoes in our low-carb era. Fear not. They’re actually a low-fat source of carbohydrates (one fourth of the calories of bread) and have amazing nutritional value. Especially now when people are turning to more vegetarian diets, potatoes (which could be seen as more than as side dish) provide an excellent alternative for healthy lifestyles for they contain fibre, potassium, folate, magnesium, copper and zinc.
In practical terms, this means that potatoes prevent high cholesterol and blood pressure, assist in the proper functioning of the nervous and immune systems, increase energy levels and are great for your vision, skin, hair, nails… Phew! And don’t get me started on the sweet potato. This tasty root, which despite the name is completely unrelated to potatoes, is denser with nutrients, lower in calories and packed with vitamins A, C and B6.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, potatoes not only happen to be good for us but also for the environment. According to the International Potato Centre (it exists, people) potatoes produce more food per unit of water than any other major crop and are up to seven times more efficient in using water than cereals. Is that a vegan’s sigh I hear?
Let me start with storage and why it’s important. You may have seen sprouts and delightful tones of green in your potatoes even shortly after purchasing them. If this is the case, avoid washing them and remove any moist or mud from them to prevent mould from forming. Although taking a toll on freshness, our kidney-shaped wonders could potentially last for months as long as their kept in a cool, dark and dry place. Think in your pantry or under the sink. Also, try & identify if you’ve bought early potatoes (the cuter and smaller varieties that grow much faster) as they have a shorter shelf life.
Potatoes are incredibly versatile and can be mashed, baked, roasted, boiled, fried, chipped, grated — you name it. It all depends on the texture and it’s important to keep in mind where the potato falls within the waxy / starchy spectrum when purchasing them. Starchy ones, as the name well indicates, have a higher content of starch and tend to break up through the cooking process. Because of this, starchy or floury potatoes like the classic Idaho or Russet tend to be best when roasted, mashed or baked. On the other hand, waxy potatoes such as Red Bliss and New Potatoes maintain well their shape through the cooking process and work best with salads and layered potato dishes.
Here are some ideas (with easy to get potatoes!):
· Boiled: Try boiling Baby New Potatoes and mix ’em up with veggies. Oh, sí.
· Fried: The cure for hang-overs and broken hearts. This is the Spanish way, brrrravas!
As varied as the types of potatoes are, check out just how folkloric the names of potatoes can be. England’s popular varieties include the Duke of York, Epicure, Lady Christl, British Queen, Casablanca and Desiree whereas other native types in the more mystical Andes are called Mariposa Morada de los Andes, Corazon de Fuego and Utopia, translating to Purple Butterfly of the Andes, Fire Heart and Utopia. Like I said, a total potato-verse.