Is there anything more that we possibly could ask of the potato? We bake it, mash it and roast it. We sauté and gratiné it, steam and boil, fry and chip it. The potato makes dumplings and gnocchi for us, salads and pancakes. Dehydrated and flaked or ground into flour, it thickens or binds and even fashions such things as single-use forks, straws and bags.
And vodka. Prost, potato.
Let’s return the favor and eat more of it, if only because it’s both so delicious and so good for us. I was surprised to learn that, gram for gram, potatoes sport more potassium than bananas and, except for dried beans, pack more protein than most any other vegetable.
But, note, just as it is, not as processed and packaged frozen fries or potato chips or many other forms of remade potatoes — by far, alas, the most common way that we eat potatoes.
Just as is, the potato is a marvel all by itself.
It is the fourth-largest food crop on the globe, behind wheat, rice and maize (corn). However, of those four, it is the healthiest and most nutrient-dense. It grows most anywhere (and at much higher elevations than the other three) and its only major disadvantage is that it cannot be stored in one piece from year to year except, like them, in dried form. (For the potato, that means dehydrated and flaked. Historical note: That way to preserve potatoes was developed more than 2,000 years ago in the dry, frigid high mountains of South America.)
The plain potato is simple and straightforward, though its name is not. The Spanish conquistadores confused the Peruvian (specifically, Quechuan) “papa” with an altogether different but similar-looking vegetable, the Caribbean sweet potato, “batata,” resulting in the Spanish word “patata” (and our English “potato”).
Initially, the Italians thought it a ground truffle, calling it a “taratufflo,” hence the German “Kartoffel.” Nowadays the Italians, like the Spanish, call it “patata.” Got that? By the way, the nickname “spud” derives from the Irish and British potato-digging spade.
When the potato landed in (well, underground in) Europe, Protestant religious fundamentalists condemned it because the Bible does not mention it as a plant (or otherwise). Around the same time, in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Irish were not about to cast aspersions on their favorite food so they sprinkled holy water on their seed potatoes and planted them each year on Good Friday.
I asked RJ Harvey, the culinary director of Potatoes USA (located right here in Denver) about the common bifurcation of the cooking potato into “starchy” and “waxy,” one being preferred over the other depending on the cooking method. (For example, “starchy” russets for baking or “waxy” Yukon Golds for boiling.) Harvey said that that division was “antiquated,” given the modern proliferation of potato crop breeds.
“Differences in potatoes are in different moisture contents,” he said. According to Harvey, we’re blessed overall with seven varieties of potato, “russet, blue, fingerling, petites and red, yellow and white,” higher moisture levels found in these latter three.
You will find a very handy chart (online and downloadable in PDF form) detailing the seven varieties and their suitable cooking methods at potatogoodness.com, under the “Potatoes and Nutrition” tab.
This recipe looks forward to St. Patrick’s Day and is Ireland’s answer to the Jewish or deli latke, an Irish turn on the potato pancake.
From Chef RJ Harvey at potatogoodness.com. Serves 8. You may see the plural of “boxty” as “boxties.” Harvey’s recipe also spells the plural as “boxty.”
- 2 pounds yellow potatoes, peeled
- 3/4 cup cultured buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tablespoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces (1 stick or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1 cup sour cream, optional
Warm the oven to 200 degrees. Take half of the peeled potatoes and place them in a pot filled with cold water. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the potatoes for 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain the potatoes and mash them in a ricer, food mill or by using a potato masher. Allow the potatoes to cool slightly.
Grate the remaining raw potatoes on the fine grating side of a box grater. Place the grated potatoes in a clean dish towel and squeeze out as much moisture from them as possible. Make sure to complete the grating step as quickly as possible so the potatoes do not change color.
In a large bowl, combine the mashed potatoes, grated potatoes, buttermilk, egg, flour, baking soda, salt and pepper until a thick pancake batter consistency is achieved. In a large nonstick skillet or griddle, melt a little butter and place scoops of the batter for your desired-sized boxty.
Cook the boxty for about 3-4 minutes over medium heat or until they are golden. Carefully flip them over and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Repeat this until all the boxty are cooked, keeping the finished ones in the warming oven while you prepare the rest.
To serve, place them on a plate and enjoy with more butter, sour cream, smoked salmon, eggs, broiled tomatoes or salted cod.
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