The Commons
Food and Drink

Understanding the potato

Hint: It’s all about the starch

Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).


BRATTLEBORO—I have just finished steaming a handful of fingerlings, those miniature banana-shaped potatoes that are so golden, tender, and creamy as to need only a smidgeon of olive oil to complete their journey to my table.

Spuds. I love ’em, and I’m not alone. We are a nation of potato eaters: baked, boiled, mashed, souffléd, scalloped, transformed into salad, browned and crispy and nestled around our roasted meats, made into chips, pan fried, home fried, and most especially French fried.

The humble potato is a remarkably adaptable plant that quickly yields more nutrition on fewer acres and in a greater variety of climates than any other major crop.

* * *

First domesticated in South America 7,000 years ago in an area of the Andes that borders Bolivia and Peru, Solanum tuberosum was a vital crop and crucial piece of the culture to the entire region.

Units of time were measured by how long it took to cook a potato. The Incas developed the first freeze-dried potato, a precursor of instant mashed, called chuñu.

Small potatoes were selected from the harvest, then spread on the ground and allowed to freeze, trampled on during the day to flatten and dry in the sun, and then left to freeze again.

Thus treated, the potatoes could last for years and were ground into flour or reconstituted in soups or other traditional dishes.

In 1532, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru looking for gold. They managed to destroy Inca civilization in the process but somehow saved the potato and brought it back to Europe. Like the tomato and other members of the nightshade family, the potato was viewed with suspicion and fear.

In the American colonies, the potato was introduced in the early 1600s. Thomas Jefferson served potatoes in the White House, but the general population still looked on them with skepticism.

* * *

Widespread domestic cultivation of the potato did not take place in Europe until the late 1700s, when Europe was deep in the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars.

Food was scarce and resources few. An acre of fertilized potato field can produce up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with some leftovers for the pigs.

You could eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a bit of fatback thrown in now and then — repetitive and uninteresting, perhaps, but nonetheless nutritious. Potatoes soon became the crop of survival.

In 1845, the same fungus as the one that we Vermonters sometimes see on our tomato plants struck potatoes across Europe and hit Ireland with a vengeance hard to imagine.

The Irish poor relied on the potato for 80 percent of their daily caloric intake. The “late blight” that infected the potato crop in the mid-1800s was devastating in its completeness. The leaves of the plants turned black, withered, and dropped.

Once-generous stores of potatoes were turned into wet and moldy ruins. More than 1.5 million Irish men, women, and children starved to death between 1841 and 1851: one person out of every 45.

As a consequence of this disaster, partly caused by the vulnerability of the plant to disease, scientists developed hardier, more productive varieties.

While the cost of growing grains continues to rise world-wide, potatoes can be raised easily where land is limited and labor is not. They take three months to grow from planting to harvest.

A single medium-sized potato contains more than half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C, more potassium than a banana, more usable iron than any other vegetable, large amounts of fiber and complex carbohydrates, and fewer calories than a grapefruit.

* * *

One thing that has stumped me for years was differentiating between potato varieties, choosing the potato that was right for what I was cooking. I would merely “cook potatoes” and end up with varied results for my efforts.

As it turns out, starch is the key.

A freshly dug potato is 80 percent water and 20 percent dry matter. Of that dry matter, 60 to 80 percent is starch, depending on the variety. Owing to their starch content, potatoes fall into three main categories: floury, waxy, or all-purpose.

Floury potatoes are those with the most starch. One classic example is the Russet, sometimes called the Idaho. Russets fall apart when cooked, losing most of their moisture content, making for terrific mashed potatoes because they can absorb lots of cream and butter.

When baked, the Russet’s thick skins get crispy and the insides become flaky and dry. Don’t use them for potato salad. Instead of lovely chunks that hold their own, you’ll end up with a bowl of mush.

Waxy potatoes have a lower starch content and more moisture, which is retained when cooked. In the store, these red- or white-skinned potatoes are sometimes referred to as “boiling” potatoes, and in general they have thin, shiny skins and a wetter interior than the floury varieties.

They can be cut into uniform cubes and will retain their shape, thus making them perfect for salads. They are also great for roasting in the oven. They contain a high amount of sugar and caramelize beautifully.

Their texture is smooth and creamy, not fluffy. When they are made into mashed potatoes, I think they are a bit gummy.

“All-purpose” potatoes fall in between these two categories. Yukon Golds are the favorite here. The combination of their versatility and their attractive yellow flesh make them a popular choice. While not as fluffy as a Russet or quite as creamy as a boiling potato, they can be used for mashing, salads, frying, or baking.

Then there are potatoes like my fingerlings. For the most part these are “heirloom” potatoes, old varieties not hybridized for commercial markets but bred for flavor and thus not suited for all climates or growing conditions.

There are dozens of fingerling varieties; the Banana, the French Fingerling, and the Rocky Rose” are some of the best of them. Look for unique varieties at the farmers’ market.

For the table, nothing really beats those simply prepared fingerlings I described at the start, but here are two classic potato recipes that never fail to please.

The Galette goes with everything and can be made into a fancy meal when served with smoked salmon and sour cream, but it is best eaten on its own with a green salad and a great cheese.

The Gratin is a huge, creamy indulgence, not to be eaten on a regular basis. But at the end of a dull, cold, and rainy Saturday in November, it provides not only a whole lot of calories but also a bit of solace from thoughts of the inevitability of winter.

* * *

Potato galette

Serves 4 to 6, or maybe just 2 depending on the weather.

2 pounds peeled Russets (for a drier, crisper galette) or Yukon Golds (for a creamier galette)

¶3 local eggs, lightly beaten in a medium bowl

¶{1/2} cup finely chopped fresh herbs: chives, tarragon, parsley, your choice

¶salt and pepper to taste

¶1-2 Tablespoons olive oil

Grate the potatoes into a bowl using the small holes of a hand grater. Working over the sink, take small handfuls of the grated potatoes and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place the dry, squeezed handfuls into the bowl with the eggs. Add the herbs, salt, and pepper. Blend well.

Heat half the oil in a 10-in. nonstick skillet until a small piece of potato placed in the oil sizzles immediately. Spread the mixture evenly in the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium low. Do not cover the pan. Cook for about 8-10 minutes until the bottom of the galette is nicely browned.

Take the pan off the heat. Using potholders or a thick kitchen towel to protect your hands, place a dinner plate slightly larger than the skillet over the top, grab the side of the skillet and, with one quick motion, turn the whole thing upside down, so the browned side is on top.

Place the empty skillet back on the stove, add the rest of the olive oil, and gently slide the galette back into the pan, uncooked side down.

Bravo!

Cook for another 8-10 minutes, uncovered, until brown on the bottom.

Slide the finished galette onto a serving plate and eat as soon as possible. You can either cut the galette in a civilized manner much like a pie or just rip it into lovely large shreds.

Potato Gratin with Gruyère and Cream

Serves 6 to 8.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

¶3 lb. russet potatoes or Yukon golds

¶2{1/2} cups heavy cream

¶1 teaspoon salt

¶a few good grinds of black pepper

¶pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

¶2 cups finely shredded Gruyère cheese

Peel the potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water. Smear a baking dish thickly with butter. Classically this dish should be around 14” in diameter and only 2” deep. It’s important that it not be too deep.

Using a mandoline slicer or a very sharp knife, slice a few potatoes at a time very thinly and spread them on the bottom of the pan, overlapping them to make one layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and some cheese. Slice a few more potatoes and make another layer. Continue in this fashion, seasoning each layer, until all the potatoes are used and there is about {3/4} cup of cheese remaining.

Pour the cream over the potatoes and tilt the pan to distribute it well. With your hand, push down on the top layer to even out the pile. The cream should just barely cover the potatoes. Add a little more if necessary.

Dot the surface with the butter, then cover the dish tightly with foil and put it in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the foil, top the potatoes with the remaining cheese, and return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes or so to brown.

Remove the gratin from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

A green salad helps to cut the richness of this fabulous dish, as does a glass or two of red wine. Humble never tasted so refined.


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