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The potato: inauspicious roots for an indispensable tuber

In an eloquent forward to ``The Potato Book'' (1972), by Myrna Davis, Truman Capote described the only way he would ever eat a potato -- steamed, and topped with sour cream and ``the biggest, greyest Beluga caviar.'' The modest potato hasn't always been dressed in such extravagance, eaten with such celebration, or written of with such a pointed pen.

Times were tough for the tuber when Spanish conquistadors first brought potatoes from South America to Europe in the mid-16th century.

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A Pope denounced the potato as the ``apple of love,'' and warned sternly against its use. Scottish Presbyterians wouldn't eat them because potatoes weren't mentioned in the Bible.

Rather inauspicious beginnings for what is now considered by many as the most important vegetable in the world.

Historians credit Antione Auguste Parmentier for popularizing the splendid spud in France. Louis XVI gave the royal nod to Parmentier, who had asked permission to grow potatoes on some barren land outside Paris.

Parmentier, the story goes, had soldiers guard the fields during the day and withdrew them at night. This was more than the villagers could bear. With cat-like curiosity they stole into the fields at night and ``discovered'' the potato.

Myths about potatoes still exist today. The one the potato industry is most anxious to mash is that potatoes are high in calories. Hardly the case, they say, with a vegetable that's 80 percent water. The bad press goes to the butter, sour cream, and mayonnaise or oil that often accompany the ubiquitous spud to the table.

Of the 400-odd varieties of potatoes grown worldwide today, about a dozen varieties are grown commercially in the United States at one time.

Potatoes are grown under specific names, but few are sold under them. Many are simply named for their location: Idaho, Maine, California, or Long Island. Some are sold as ``all-purpose,'' ``baking,'' or ``new'' potatoes.

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``New'' potatoes are not a variety themselves but have merely spent a shorter time underground. They are lower in starch, somewhat waxy, and best steamed or boiled -- with or without skins -- or served in potato salads and casseroles.

Baking or ``old'' potatoes are drier, higher in starch, mealier. They tend to disintegrate when boiled and are considered best baked or French fried.

Potatoes should be stored in a cool (40 to 55 degrees F.), dark, semi-dry, and well-ventilated area, and certainly not in the plastic bags they sometimes come in.

For all the elegant ways potatoes may be served, I've never met the gardener who didn't favor marble-sized new potatoes steamed or boiled and served with butter, salt and pepper, and perhaps a little sour cream.

Potatoes, like rice, pasta, and other bland starches, are not colorful or necessarily exciting. They have survived because they are a compatible food -- happy alone but also sociable with other vegetables, able to mingle well in soups, and comfortable under a variety of sauces. Scalloped Potatoes With Garlic and Cream 2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced. (Do not soak potatoes for this dish. Starch is necessary for binding.) 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 2 cups milk 2 small garlic cloves, minced to pur'ee 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon white pepper Pinch of nutmeg Butter 1/2 cup grated Swiss or Gruy'ere cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Place sliced potatoes in large saucepan. Add cream, milk, pur'eed garlic, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and bring slowly to boil stiring to prevent sticking.

Pour mixture into large buttered baking dish. Top with grated cheese and bake until nicely browned and potatoes are tender, about 1 hour. Let dish cool for 15 minutes before serving.

In her book, ``Old American Favorites'' (Barrons, $4.95), Phyllis Hanes, food editor of this newspaper, gives her recipe for a classic potato favorite. Old-Fashioned Potato Salad 3 pounds new potatoes (about 7 of medium size) 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped celery 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley 1 cup mayonnaise Salt and pepper to taste 6 large lettuce leaves 2 hard-cooked eggs for garnish

Cook potatoes in boiling water with a pinch of salt until tender when pierced with a fork but not soft, about 20 minutes.

Drain and run potatoes under cold water. Peel, then slice or dice.

Combine vegetables with potatoes and bind with mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley. Place lettuce leaves on a platter, add salad, and circle with slices of hard-cooked eggs.

The following recipes come from the Maine Potato Commission. Roast Baby Maine Potatoes With Garlic 8 small Maine potatoes with skins 2 heads garlic, papery skins removed, husks left on, and separated into cloves 1/2 cup chicken stock 3 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper

Boil potatoes whole for 5 minutes. Fit them snugly into roasting pan. Add stock and butter to pan and scatter garlic over potatoes.

Season with salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 1 hour, turning potatoes and basting with stock and butter every 20 minutes. Potatoes will be brown and garlic will pop out of husk and be soft and mellow without any `bite.' Lite Potato Puffs 1 cup cottage cheese 1 large egg 3 cups plain mashed potatoes 2 teaspoons chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon baking powder Salt and pepper to taste

Beat egg and cottage cheese in blender, food processor, or electric mixer. Pour into a bowl and beat in remaining ingredients. Spoon in six mounds onto greased baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes (or until lightly browned) in preheated 350-degree F. oven.

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