Food & Drink Ode on a tuber

The potato is noble root vegetable with a grand history and real food value

The potato is at once the most humble and the most majestic of food sources. It would be difficult to identify a more versatile, adaptable, generally nutritious, and frankly, yummy vegetable. It is one of the most important food crops world wide, providing basic nutrition for both humans and livestock. It is an important source of vitamin C, especially in poor countries, and contains high protein content for a vegetable, virtually no fat, and an array of trace vitamins and minerals. Potatoes grow in almost any climate, store easily, and there are thousands of different varieties. As both a staple crop and culinary wonder, the potato is truly indispensable.

First cultivated in Central and South America some 4,000 years ago, entire cultures are defined by association with the miraculous tuber. The Incas are the first documented culture to be identified with it, and Peruvian cuisine is still characterized by the range of flavor, color, and consistency provided by numerous ancient and new cultivars currently in use. Part of its success lies in the ability to grow at elevations up to 15,000 feet, very handy in the Andes.

The Spaniards brought the potato to Europe in 1570. It was adopted quickly in some areas, notably England and Ireland by 1610, but in other areas it took a while. It wasn't introduced as a staple crop in North America until the 1720s, primarily through Irish and English immigrants. France was distrustful, believing potatoes caused everything from leprosy to syphilis, until pharmacist A.A. Parmentier convinced Louis XVI of its value in the 1780s. Germany, which now has one of the most potato intensive cuisines on the planet, was also reluctant. In 1744, Frederick the Great distributed free seed potatoes to his peasants to plant as a famine prevention crop. When farmers resisted, a royal decree was issued and enforced by posting soldiers in the fields. Once established, the potato quickly became King.

Botanically, all potatoes are classified as Solanum tuberosum, part of the family Solanaceae which includes eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Potatoes are typically categorized as root vegetables, although in fact they are not roots but specialized storage organs at the tips of underground stems which, in turn, give rise to roots and shoots.

Potatoes can be grown from seed but are best grown from "seed potatoes". Those potatoes sitting in the corner for two months that started sprouting? That's a seed potato. You can also purchase specially sorted and stored ones. Potatoes are planted in the spring and are generally categorized as "Earlies," "Second Earlies," or "Main Crops" depending on when they are harvested. Earlies are typically harvested after 100-110 days in early summer and have thin, delicate skins. Main crops aren't harvested until late summer after 125-145 days. Unless you know of an esoteric specialty market or grow them yourself, what you buy at the store are probably main crop potatoes. They have higher yields and store well under specific conditions, often several months.

If you want to plant your own, there are plenty of books, manuals, and tips on the market and the Internet to guide you. The main problem is that San Antonio doesn't have very deep soil, and you need at least 6 inches above and below to make it worthwhile. The best bet for this area is raised beds or large containers, depending on how much of a crop you intend to raise. The flowers are pretty, but remember that they are members of the nightshade family and the entire plant, except for the tuber, are poisonous. Watch children and pets carefully.

Another handling issue is the infamous (and debated) alkaloid poisoning. Alkaloids form in potatoes when exposed to light, along with chlorophyll. Never eat a green potato, and remove any "eyes" or sprouts. Alkaloids are not altered by cooking and must be physically removed. They don't concentrate much below the skin so as long as you peel or trim the green away, you'll be just fine. You might occasionally notice a black discoloration in cooked potatoes, officially known as "stem end blackening." It has to do with iron ions in reaction to certain enzymes. It's completely harmless, but if it offends your sense of aesthetics make the pH more acidic by adding 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar per pint of cooking water when the potatoes are half done. This is the same enzyme action that turns cut or peeled potatoes brown when they sit for a while. As one of my sources puts it, "If you like to be organized and peel potatoes in advance - don't." It makes them ugly and strips them of almost all traces of vitamin C.

From a culinary perspective, there are two basic categories: dry mealy textures for baking and mashing, and moist waxy ones for boiling, braising, etc. Scientifically it's a difference in starch and molecular structure. From a cooking standpoint, it's a matter of taste and common sense. When in doubt, make a brine of 1 part salt to 11 parts water. Waxy potatoes should float, starchy ones should sink. As for recipes, the possibilities are limitless. Pick up any good cookbook and you'll find something you want to make, or just make something up. Boiled, baked, fried or roasted, the potato is without doubt one of the most versatile foods around.

A word about sautéed potatoes: It takes a little practice and a lot of attention, but mainly it takes a good pan. A perfectly seasoned, well-used iron skillet is the best option. Potatoes absorb flavors beautifully, so experiment with different fats. Rendered poultry fat (the fat you drain off of roasted chicken, turkey, or duck) is the best for seasoning a skillet; olive oil and unsalted butter are tasty and readily available. Potatoes have almost no fat on their own, so as long as the rest of your diet is relatively healthy, splurge here.

There is one problem. The potato has survived blights, fad diets, and marketing ploys, both for and against it. There are thousands of varieties that have been grown for thousands of years. Why, then, do we consider ourselves lucky to have access to maybe five different versions in the gourmet markets? And why are they so expensive? They are supposed to alleviate poverty, not create it. There are huge seed banks and agricultural agencies that exist solely to create stronger, more productive varieties and to maintain varieties that are no longer in mass production. Many of those storehouses are in the U.S., yet very few are available in stores. The good news is that all potatoes, whether you buy culls in sacks for 10 cents per pound or the exotics for $3 per pound, they're all good. They're good for you, too, no matter what the fad diets try to sell you.

By Diana Lyn Roberts

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