A humble family stable, the potato is one vegetable that will never go out of fashion. Even with bad press from new food trends and diet fads the potato has held it’s ground, with an even more popular come back as the “food for the future”.
Facts and History
The potato belongs to the Solanaceae family, or better known as the nightshade family of flowering plants. Despite similarities, the potato is not related to the sweet potato or jerusalem artichokes, which span from the sunflower family. What these varieties all share however is that they are a tuber vegetable and have a considerable amount of starch.
The potato is in fact part of the same family as eggplants, tomatoes, capsicums and chillies.
Potatoes are the most widely grown tuber crop, and are the fourth most important food crop in the world after wheat, maize (corn) and rice. More importantly the potato is the only one of these four that is a non-grain food commodity.
Potatoes have a substantially long history, and are thought to have been consumed over 10 000 years ago in the Andes region, near modern day Peru and Bolivia.
The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the 16th Century where it soon became an important food staple. Although the potato flourished in Europe due to the lack of cultural diversity only a few species were brought to European shores, and thus the crop was highly susceptible to disease.
In Ireland potatoes flourished in the peaty soil, and very quickly the population obtained a diet of potatoes and milk from the family cow. In 1739 however, when severe frost caused crop failure, one third of the population in Ireland died causing what is known today as the Great Irish Famine.
While potatoes remain to be an essential crop throughout Europe, in recent decades potato crops have spread across the globe in areas such as Southern and Eastern Asia. Today China is in fact the largest potato growing country.
The geographic shift in potatoes generally over the years has been towards countries with lower incomes. Potato crops are ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant; dominantly developing countries.
The potato has been recognised as such an important crop that the UN have named this year, 2008, The International Year of the Potato.
The International Year of the Potato is raising awareness for the important role that this humble tuber has in agriculture, the economy and world food security,
While food prices soar worldwide, concerns are growing over the risk of food shortages and instabilities in low income and third world countries. The potato however, could be the solution.
The potato unlike cereals produces a nutritious food more quickly and on less land, for example the potato plant is 85% edible by humans while only 50% of cereals can be consumed. Potato crops are proving popular in low-income countries, and are now amounting for half the globes harvest.
Potatoes: the food for the future
Despite diet fads such as the Atkins diet and other low carbohydrate diets, the potato has proven to remain a favourite. The diet of an average person is 33 kilos of potatoes per year.
Potatoes are in fact good for you and are being labelled the food for the future. They are a high in carbohydrates, making them a fantastic source of energy as well as satisfying the appetite more efficiently. They have the highest protein content out of all tuber and root crops as well as being rich in vitamin C. One medium sized potato contains half your daily recommended vitamin C intake.
Potatoes are high in starch and absorb sauces and fats quickly. However Potatoes alone are not at all fattening, what makes them unhealthy is rich flavourings such as creams and butters.
How to Cook
In Australia we have more than 25 varieties of potato. With such a choice they should be bought according to variety to boil, mash, steam, fry and roast.
When boiling potatoes make sure to start in cold salted water, other wise you will have potatoes that are watery and mushy on the outside and perfectly cooked on the inside. Starting in cold water will allow the potato to cook evenly and will reduce wateriness.
Some popular varieties are:
Desiree – Originated in the Netherlands and is quite waxy, for this reason it is ideal for mashing, roasting and salads as it holds its shape well after cooking.
King Edward – Originated in Europe, it is one of the oldest varieties. It is characterised by its fluffy texture and is ideal for roasting, baking, chipping and gnocchi.
Red Pontiac – Originated in the USA, and is characterised by its smooth reddish skin. It is best for baking, boiling, mashing however it is not suitable for frying due to a higher content of sugar.
Kipfler – Originated in Germany, this potato is characterised by its long finger like shape. The kipfler is best steamed and used in salads.
Olive oil mashed Potato
A delicious and healthier variation on the classic mashed potato. It is great served with anything from fish to steak.
500g potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup milk
In a large shallow pan add the potatoes, and cover with the water, butter, olive oil and garlic clove. Cook on a high heat for 20 minutes, or until the water has evaporated.
Mash the potatoes and fold in the milk. Season with salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil.
These pikelets are great for brunch or made into canapés. Serve them with crème fraiche, dill or smoked salmon or rare roast beef and horseradish.
1 potato, peeled and chopped
1- 2 tablespoons plain flour
2 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
In a food processor blend together the potato, egg and sugar. Add the flour and continue to process until smooth. Fold in the cream and parsley and season with plenty of salt and pepper.
Fry spoonfuls in a heavy based pan with either olive oil or clarified butter until both sides are a golden colour.
Serve with your choice of accompaniment.
Note these pikelets can be made in advanced and kept under a damp tea towel.