Wednesday, September 29, 2010

One Potato, Two Potato

It wasn't dinner unless we had potatoes. Many of us were raised on a diet that included a daily serving of boiled or mashed potatoes. Many families raised potatoes in the garden, which were stored in the cellar over the winter. They were used for all potato dishes from baked to boiled to mashed. Today the lowly potato is coming into its own. Chefs around the world are creating magnificent dishes with this lowly tuber.

The native home of the potato is in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia where they are grown in many colors, textures and flavors. Spanish explorers introduced this tuber to Europe in the mid 1500's. It was first cultivated for its delicate blossoms. Sir Walter Raleigh, an advocate of the potato, gave several plants to Queen Elizabeth I; her chef served the tops instead of the tubers - and the tops are a bit poisonous. No wonder it took a while for potatoes to catch on.

Potatoes have also helped shape our history. Between 1650 and 1840 the potato became a vital part of the basic food supply in Ireland. When a blight disease wiped out the crop on the late 1840's, many Irish immigrated to America.

Today the potato is still a staple in our diets. Over 100 varieties are grown in this country. In the store there are often several varieties to choose from. To know which variety to choose, consider the desired use. The starch content determines how potatoes work in recipes. The high starch varieties, sometimes called mealy potatoes make great fluffy mashed potatoes, baked potatoes and fries. Low starch potatoes have a higher moisture content with a firm, waxy texture. These are better for boiling, sautéing, and potato salad.

There are several basic types to choose from in the store:
  • Russet potatoes are the most popular mealy type and are great for baking and fries, and mashed. Their high starch gives them a fluffy texture when mashed which absorbs all the butter and milk that is added.
  • The waxy varieties have a high water content. They hold their shape when cooked, thus are good for roasting, steaming and boiling. They do not absorb liquid well and do not get fluffy when mashed. Round reds and round whites are some examples waxy potatoes. These varieties have thin, smooth skins. "New" potatoes are a waxy variety.
  • The third basic type is the all purpose potato. This is an in-betweener. The starch and water content falls somewhere between the waxy and mealy types. It can be used for most purposes. Long, thin skinned whites are one variety, Yukon Golds, which have a yellow flesh, and a buttery flavor have gained popularity lately, are also an all purpose potato.

In the last few years we have been seeing more specialties on the market, such as Russian Banana, blue-skinned and blue-fleshed varieties, red-fleshed varieties, and even candy striped potatoes. These are only a few of the many varieties. Watch for some in the stores.

Select firm, blemish free potatoes that do not yield to gentle pressure. Avoid ones that are wrinkled, cracked, or have sprouting eyes, these have probably been in storage too long. Something else to avoid is green potatoes. They have been exposed to sunlight and contain mild toxins.

Last, we need to consider personal preference in potato selection. Many people like the texture they remember as a child. Others demand the unusual.

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