Potatoes (#2 What Can I Do With…)

… I’m back. After eight (okay, more than eight) weeks of eating, drinking, traveling, and trying to help someone fight for justice from possible hospital negligence. Oh, and did I mention that my best friend (she of flying yellow pepper fame) delivered twins?

The humble spud

The humble spud

When the rain forces me to roll myself out of my hammock, I will get round to sharing with you reviews of restaurants dishing up Bengali, Parsi, and Navyati cuisines, as well as a peek at my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant and simple ideas for the dinner table. For now, though, since I have been in couch potato mode, I thought I’d ease back into work with exactly that: the potato.

History and geography

This humble and ubiquitous tuber probably originated in the South American Andes, where archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C. The Incas not only ate them; they also worshipped them as sacred and life-giving, and buried potatoes with the dead for sustenance in the afterlife.

The Spanish Conquistadors did not think so highly of the potato, however, relegating it to the kitchens of the lower classes. There are mixed theories on how the potato made its journey to Europe, but once it did, it slowly but surely established itself as a hardy, inexpensive, nutritional goldmine – especially in Ireland, a country with a primarily rural populace. Ireland became so dependent on the potato as a food source that when a fungus wiped out the country’s potato crops in the 1840s, over a million people died from the resultant famine – and an equal number emigrated.

What it’s got

Nutritionally, potatoes have got it all – they’re low in fat and cholesterol, loaded with complex carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamin C, minerals, and more protein than you’d expect. The trick to retaining their nutritional value is to buy them fresh, store them properly, and prepare and cook them correctly.

Buying And Storing

Green patches - not good for you

Green patches - not good for you

Take a close look at the potatoes you’re buying. Choose firm, dry potatoes with unbroken skin that are free from sprouts and green patches. Uneven surfaces and “eyes” cause no real harm;  they simply make preparation time longer because you have to take them out. The eyes are tubules, from which roots will sprout if the potato gets too old. Green spots and patches, however, are another story entirely.

The potato is a member of the nightshade family (its leaves are poisonous). Green spots on potatoes result from excessive exposure to light. The green color indicates the presence of chlorophyll, which in turn could indicate the presence of solanine, a toxin that  not only tastes bitter, but also causes vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches in humans when ingested in large quantities. If you do find small green patches on your potatoes, cut them out. If they’re large, discard the potato without a second thought.

The best way to store potatoes is unwashed (and dry) in a dark, cool, dry place. They should never be refrigerated (except for new potatoes). Store them away from onions – together, potatoes and onions produce gases which speed up spoilage. Once potatoes begin to sprout, show green patches, or go soft, they should be discarded (or, if you’re a gardening enthusiast, plant them or use them for composting).

Potatoes can be frozen for up to three months: peel, wash, and slice; plunge into boiling water; rinse thoroughly in cold water; dry and pack into a plastic bag or airtight container and freeze.

Cooking techniques

How can you cook a potato? Let me count the ways…

To begin with, if you are peeling them, do so as evenly and thinly as possible. Vitamins and minerals are stored in and just below the skin. Next, when dicing or slicing, ensure that the pieces are approximately the same size to ensure even cooking.

Now take your pick:

Remember to keep the water

Remember to keep the water!

Boil: Rule of thumb… allow 40 minutes (whole), 20 minutes (quartered), 12 minutes (diced). Cook potatoes in a small quantity of boiling water to avoid loss of nutrients. Retain the cooking water to make vitamin-rich soup or dal. More vitamins and minerals are retained if you boil potatoes in their skins.

Bake: Place potatoes directly on a rack in the oven or in a baking dish with a little oil or butter. Allow approximately one hour at 400°F (200°C). Excellent means of retaining nutrients.

Pressure cook: Desi favorite, and a great way to retain color and nutrients. Takes about one third of the time it takes to boil potatoes.

A potato's best friend

A potato's best friend

Microwave: This is the most nutritious way to cook potatoes. If cooking them in their skins, prick them first to prevent them exploding from a build-up of steam and heated juices. When cooking more than one potato at a time, arrange them in a circle on a paper towel or in a microwave safe dish, and rearrange them from time to time to ensure even cooking. Choose similar sized potatoes so they take the same amount of time to cook.

To boil potatoes in your microwave, divide into “new” and “old” potatoes. Do not peel new potatoes. Prick with a fork and place in a shallow dish with 2 tbsp of water. Old potatoes should be peeled, cut into quarters or slices then placed into a dish with 4 tbsp of water and a pinch of salt. Cover dishes with plastic wrap, rolled back at one edge. Stir once during cooking. Microwave on high until tender. Leave new potatoes to stand 5 minutes and old potatoes for 3 minutes.

Steam: This method also preserves color and nutrients but takes longer than boiling. Place a a small amount of boiling water in a pan, and arrange potatoes in a colander or steamer above the water. Cooking time depends ingon the size of the potato, and whether it is whole or quartered. If quartering, parboil it briefly first, so it doesn’t break apart.

Oven Steam: Pour a small amount of water into a pan, place potatoes on a rack over the water and cover. This method takes about one hour at 400°F (200°C).

Perfect fries

Perfect fries

Fry: Two choices here: pan-fry or deep fry. Be aware (like you’re not!) that both methods add obscene amounts of cholesterol and fat to the potato. If pan-frying, slice potatoes thinly and use at least 1 inch (2.5cm) of oil or 1 tbsp of butter, then fry on medium heat, turning frequently for at least 20 min. Add a little water if potatoes begin to stick.

Deep frying is an art. For perfect french fries, the key is to twice-fry:

  1. Cut the potatoes into 1/4″ batons. Rinse them thoroughly in water until the water runs clear.
  2. Soak them in water and ice with a dash of vinegar, in the refrigerator, for 20 minutes to an hour.
  3. Pat thoroughly dry. Heat oil in a wok until the oil “shimmers” (okay, to 350ºF, if you’re being fussy), and fry the potatoes in small batches on medium-high heat until they go limp (6-8 min). Note that you are only precooking, and NOT trying to serve the fries at this point. Drain on paper towels, cool, and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
  4. Heat the oil again, pop in the blanched taters, and fry in small batches until puffed and golden brown. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot.

Works every time.

Of course there’s a whole lot more you can do with the spud. My faves:

Use a potato masher for more texture

Use a potato masher for more texture

Mash it: Boil potatoes, then stick ’em in the food processor with milk, salt and butter, and give it a whirl until it’s creamy. For variety, I add freshly ground black pepper, or mint, or garlic, or grated cheese, or thyme… or any combination thereof. If you like your mashed potato with more texture, leave the skins on, and mash by hand with a potato masher. I call these “smashed potatoes.”

Stuff it: Bake ’em, cut ’em in half lengthwise, scoop ’em out, then mix the potato flesh with bacon, peppers, mince, mushrooms… anything that catches your fancy. Use your imagination. And your leftovers. Put the mixture back into the potato skin, top with grated cheese, and bake until the cheese is melted. Serve with a salad and fried chicken.

Potato frittata - omelette with potato in it!

Potato frittata - omelet with potato in it!

Frittata: Peel and cube three biggies. Dice one large onion. Heat two tbsp olive oil in a large skillet. Add potatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for a minute or so, add onions,  fry until potatoes are golden brown and just tender. Transfer to a bowl. Break six large eggs into the bowl, add two tbsp of grated parmesan (more if you like!), put another two tbsp of olive oil in the pan, and cook the egg-potato mixture over low heat until the underside is cooked. Slide onto a plate, add a little more oil to skillet, then invert the plate over the skillet and finish cooking the frittata. Sounds more complicated than it is. It’s just an omelet with potato in it. I promise.

What are your favorite potato dishes? Share.

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