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Potatoes: Explore Your Humble Roots

Updated on May 31, 2010

Potatoes have had a pretty exciting history - for a vegetable. They've been thought to be poisonous, but also considered an aphrodisiac. They've fed the rich and the poor, yet were the cause of a great famine. It turns out that the British weren't exactly kind to their Irish colony so when most of the potato crop was wiped out by a plant disease, they figured that the Irish could eat cake, and left them to their own devices. Within a few years, most of Ireland was empty, either because the Irish had starved to death or they figured out a way to get out of there and onto a ship sailing across the ocean to the Americas. The history of post-Renaissance Europe is tied into the history of the potato. All this only in the last 500 years, since Europeans came across potatoes in South America and introduced them to the rest of the world. You say poe-tay-toh and I say po-tah-toe and who cares how you pronounce it, it's always delicious.

What's all the fuss about this most prosaic of vegetables?

The potato is a tuber. What's a tuber, you might ask? It's the enlarged tip of a rhizome. What's a rhizome? It's an underground stem, a place where plants store nourishment. Essentially, potatoes are just deposits of plant food.

The potato isn't a nutritional wasteland, as it is sometimes portrayed. A 6-ounce potato has about 110 calories, 23 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein, no cholesterol, and almost no fat. It's also a good source of many vitamins and minerals including, surprisingly, vitamin C (one potato has about half the vitamin C of a Valencia orange).

The potato's skin, by weight, contains more nutrients than its flesh. If possible, don't peel the potatoes when cooking. If you or your family are just too fastidious for potato peels, however, don't take this item off your list - the flesh is still an excellent food.

The array of potatoes is bewildering. They vary from the size of a marble to a soda can, and can have brown, red, gold, or purple skin. Some of them have pedigrees and fancy names. But size and color are mostly cosmetic, and flavor doesn't vary much - although some people may disagree. The only really important difference in potatoes is the texture. Some are mealy (the kind that breaks up easily and has a grainy texture when cooked) and some are waxy (the firmer kind that sticks together and has a - you guessed it - waxy texture), and some are in between. The texture of the flesh corresponds roughly to the potato's starch content; the starchier, the mealier.

Let's face it, "mealy" and "waxy" are rather unfortunate terms to apply to food. Waxy suggests one of those decorative candles you see at craft shows, and mealy brings to mind one of those end-of-season nectarines you throw away after the first disappointing bite. But these are the time-tested terms, so we've stuck with them.

Large, brown potatoes (often labeled Russet or Idaho) tend to be mealy, and the small, smooth-skinned (often labeled red or new) potatoes tend to be waxy. The smooth, medium-size yellow-white ones such as Yukon Gold or White Rose are somewhere in between.

Use the mealy kind for baking, frying, and mashing, and the waxy kind for gratins, roasting, steaming, or making potato salad.

Potatoes: Explore Your Humble Roots Part 2


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