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America's Favorite Vegetable: The Spud

by Tarla Fallgatter

Sometimes when I'm hungry for something but am not sure what to eat I bake a potato. It's always the perfect solution. Do you find that so, as well? There is really nothing better than a large russet potato, washed well, pricked a few times with a fork and baked at 400°F for about an hour until crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Just split that baby open, toss in a pat of butter, some salt and freshly ground pepper, and enjoy!


Potatoes have existed since at least 3,000 B.C. The white potato began as a wild root ball deep in the ground of the Andes Mountains in Peru, and was domesticated by the now legendary Incas. The potato has proven itself an extremely hardy and tolerant tuber; the Incas grew potatoes at an altitude of 8,000 feet above the point at which corn could flourish.

The Incas gathered hundreds of varieties of wild potatoes, ranging in size from that of a grape to a grapefruit amid the cold, wind-whipped mountains. Their potatoes also came in many shapes, textures and colors ranging from white to orange, pink to purple, blue, green, brown and black. The Incas dedicated ceremonies to the potato, and it became an object of worship and much pride. They believed the humble potato was a gift bestowed upon them. It was a secret, though, that they could not keep forever. After much trial and tribulation many, many years later, the potato would become a gift to the entire world.

Legend has it that in the sixteenth century Spanish explorers led by Pizarro in search of treasure plundered the Incas' silver mine and happened upon their potatoes-the true treasure! The potato, consequently, sailed back to Spain among the chests of other riches.

There are many theories and even more speculation as to how the potato traveled from Spain to the rest of the world, particularly to European and North American dinner tables. One of the most popular beliefs is that the potato cargo of the Spanish sailors was later cultivated throughout the world's gardens simply because of its decorative flowers; the edible virtues were realized afterwards.

The potato was not greeted with open arms in Europe. Even though it had been a major food source among the Incas, Europeans associated it with its cousin, the deadly nightshade, and developed a severe mistrust for the vegetable. The Irish were among the first to accept the potato; by the middle of the seventeenth century, it constituted a large part of the diet of the poor. Combined with buttermilk, another Irish staple, the potato proved to be a source of protein, as well as a substantial amount of vitamin C, in an easy-to-grow, easy-to-store crop.

In Germany it was not so readily accepted, and it wasn't until a government decree forced farmers to grow the potato that it became widely used. In France, agriculturist Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, who had survived on potatoes in a Prussian prisoner-of-war camp during the Seven Years' War, resorted to reverse psychology to convince his compatriots that potatoes were safe to eat. He grew them in a "secret" field that was guarded by soldiers during the day but not at night. Under cover of darkness, curious local farmers "stole" the plants and put them in their own gardens to find out what the secret was all about. Even today in France the word parmentier in a recipe title or on a menu usually indicates that the dish contains potatoes.

Today France falls closely behind Belgium in annual per capita consumption of potatoes. The average Belgian indulges in 440 pounds per year, or considerably more than a pound a day; the French citizen eats some 420 pounds per year. The market in the United States, where potatoes lead all other vegetables in sales, exceeds $4.5 billion each year, with per capita consumption hovering around 120 pounds, about half of which is eaten in processed form. The U.S. potato picture also includes the sales and consumption of the sweet potato, the tropical Latin American native that is botanically unrelated to the white, or Irish, potato.

The potato played a considerable part in the development and industrialization of Europe. Not only was it easy to grow, but it provided more nourishment per acre than any grain crop previously cultivated. Better nutrition increased the overall health of the population, leading to lower infant mortality rates and longer, more productive lives for most people.

Unfortunately the growing dependency on potatoes as a life-sustaining crop led to one of the greatest tragedies and more population shifts in modern times. By the 1840s, Ireland was virtually a one-crop country, certainly among the poorest of its citizens. In the usually warm, wet summer of 1845, the potato blight hit for the first time, virtually destroying the entire Irish crop. Before it was over, millions had died of starvation and another million or more had emigrated, mainly to the United States. While the same fungus struck in other countries at the same time, those populations did not depend on the potato as their sole source of nourishment and were able to survive until the blight had been temporarily overcome.

Potatoes are more than a food crop . They have been used in wartime to make fuel for machinery. The starch is used in cosmetics, glues, paper, medicine and absorbent materials, as well as for machine lubricant and animal fodder. The potato is also the main ingredient in vodka. Like the peanut, the potato seems to have nearly unlimited uses.

Today the potato is the most important vegetable crop in the world, and the third most important food crop. The power and popularity of the spud is well established. Potato consumption is very high in many countries, and still increasing. There are many rediscovered varieties of potatoes that now exist but, though they are reminiscent of the first Andean potatoes and their rainbow of colors, the potato has been improved; it now has more flavor and better resistance to disease than in bygone centuries.

There is almost nothing you cannot do to a potato. It can be boiled, steamed, braised, baked, roasted, fried or grilled. It can be sliced, diced, mashed , grated or pureed; it can be cut into matchstick strips, thick sticks, balls, egg shapes, curlicues or ruffles. Put potatoes into soups, stews and casseroles, cook them around roasts, or serve them on their own, sauced or not, depending on your whim.


Floury (Starchy)

Starchy potatoes are food for baking and frying, and make light, fluffy mashed potatoes. They are high in starch and low in water. The most readily available starchy potatoes in the United States are the Russet Burbank, usually marketed as Russets or Idaho, no matter where they are grown, because that state leads in national production of potatoes. These were developed in California by Luther Burbank at the end of the nineteenth century and have become the most widely available Idaho-grown potato. Baking potatoes have thick, dark brown skins that are slightly rough to the touch, some with a meshlike pattern on the surface; the rougher the skin, the better the baker.


Waxy potatoes are excellent for boiling, as well as for frying and cooking in soups, stews, gratins and casseroles. However, they become gluey when mashed and do not bake up well. They are low in starch and high in water content, and are the perfect choice if you like creamy, smooth mashed potatoes. There are dozens of varieties of waxy potatoes; the most commonly found are round whites, which have either brown or red skins.


These elliptical, somewhat flat-sided potatoes are frequently called California long whites because they are grown primarily in the Golden State and in Arizona. They have fawn-colored, thin skins and almost invisible eyes, and are best for boiling and steaming. Varieties include "White Rose," "Kennebecc," and "Sebago." Like anything that claims to do everything, they don't do anything extremely well. They do not contain enough starch to fluff up well as a baking or mashing potato, nor are they as waxy as you would really want in a boiling or salad potato.

Yellow Finn

Variety of semi-starchy potato excellent for soups and mashed potatoes.

Yukon Gold

Delicious fine-grained medium starchy potatoes; best used for sautéing, in mashed potatoes and in soups.


Several varieties of potatoes are called fingerlings in reference to their fingerlike shape. Fingerling potatoes are best cooked like new potatoes, simply steamed and crushed with a little butter.

Peruvian Purple

Also called All Blue, they have deep indigo blue skins and blue flesh. They are sort of all-purpose potatoes that can be both baked and boiled.


True new potatoes are not a separate type of potato, although some farmers do grow certain varieties specifically to lift early. Generally, they are simply any potato that has been dug up before the normal harvest time. Sometimes they are tiny, like marbles, sometimes almost as large as the full-grown size. The key is the skin. New potatoes have a very thin papery skin that peels off in rolls, especially when rubbed. Once the potato is fully developed, the skin thickens slightly and clings tightly to the flesh. New potatoes are often dirty, with dried earth clinging to them, indicating that they have not been prewashed and have been shipped without passing through a storage facility. Real new potatoes are delicious, especially when boiled or used in salads. They are generally only available for a short time at the beginning of each crop.

Sweet Potatoes

These irregularly shaped, oblong roots can be divided into two groups: those with dry, pale flesh, less starch and a subtly sweet flavor; and the moist, deeper-hued, starchier, and sweeter-tasting varieties sold as "yams". Although I usually suggest the yam varieties because of personal preference, either group may be used in recipes that call for sweet potatoes.

Sold year-round by almost every produce vendor coast to coast, sweet potatoes outsell even their white counterparts in the deep South. Interest in the sweet, yellow-to-orange fibrous roots is not limited to southern cooks. Sweet potatoes have long been important in the cooking of the Southwest and in country kitchens coast to coast; they now appear on trendy restaurant menus from Manhattan to Seattle. As with white potatoes, Spanish sailors spread sweet potatoes in all directions, north to the American colonies, home to Europe, and across the Pacific to the Philippines, and from there they were introduced to the rest of Asia.


Regardless of whether you are buying starchy baking potatoes or waxy boiling potatoes, look for firm, plump specimens with shallow eyes and no sprouts. Do not buy any that are soft to the touch, wrinkled, or have spade cuts in the surface. Avoid any with black spots or that show signs of mold.

Stay away from potatoes of any kind that have even a slightly green tinge to the skin color. The green is a chemical called solanine, which is the result of improper storage and overexposure to light. In large quantities it is poisonous and, at the very least, can cause nausea, cramps and other stomach distress if one is sensitive to it. If you find green-tinged potatoes at home, I suggest you discard them altogether.

Unless you serve large quantities of potatoes daily, it is probably no more expensive to choose them one at a time than it is to buy them in bulk. Buying potatoes in sacks or bags often results in finding several that have begun to spoil and must be thrown out, or the sizes may be so varied that it is difficult to control portions.

Choose uniformly sized potatoes for baking so they will all be cooked at the same time. Count on two-and-a-half to three pounds of potatoes for six people; if you are combining the spuds with other ingredients, then a quarter-pound per person is usually enough.


Under the right conditions, potatoes are long-lasting vegetables. If you have a room that is cool and dry, where the temperature remains around 55°F, unwashed potatoes will store well for up to three months. The longer you store potatoes, the more flavor and vitamin C they will lose. That is why they seem to taste so good in September right after they have been harvested, and appear to become blander as the winter wears on. A good rule is to use potatoes as quickly as you can after buying them.

Never put potatoes in the refrigerator. The moisture speeds up the spoiling process, and the cold turns their starch to sugar, giving them an unpleasant sweet taste. Do not store potatoes and onions in the same bin. The proximity tends to make them both spoil quickly.

When tightly covered and refrigerated, cooked potatoes last up to three days and cooked sweet potatoes can be kept up to a week. Mashed or pureed cooked potatoes or sweet potatoes can be successfully frozen for up to two or three months.


Do not wash potatoes until you are ready to prepare them. Scrub the skins with a brush and cold water. Remove any deep-set eyes and cut out any portions that seem black or otherwise discolored.

For the most part, don't peel potatoes before cooking, unless the dish calls for raw potatoes that have been sliced or cut up. Cooking with the skin on retains more of the vitamins and minerals-and starch. These tend to leach out into the cooking water if the potatoes have been peeled. Cooked potatoes can be peeled very easily; in fact, their skins will almost slip right off.

Once they are cut, potatoes immediately begin to oxidize and turn dark. If they are not going to be cooked right away, this process can be slowed down by soaking the cut potatoes in water. However, soaking also tends to leach out some of the starch. This effect is good when you are making chips or fried potatoes because it will lessen their tendency to stick together in the deep-fat fryer, but it can be a problem when you are making potato pancakes, for which you want the potatoes to retain a compact shape. The best solution is to prepare the potatoes just before cooking.

Cutting with a carbon-steel knife or cooking cut potatoes in an aluminum pan can also turn them an unappetizing shade of brown or gray. Use stainless-steel knives and nonstick or enameled cookware to eliminate this problem.

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.

Real Mashed Potatoes

2 lb. russet or Idaho potatoes, washed well, peeled if desired and cut into 3-4 pieces each

1 stick unsalted butter, soft

about 1/2C cream or whole milk, heated


freshly ground pepper

Place the potatoes in a pan, add cold water to cover by about two inches. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until just tender when pierced with a fork, about 15-20 minutes; do not overcook. Drain, return the potatoes to the pan over heat, and shake the pan until excess moisture evaporates and the potatoes are dry to the touch. (Peel them now if they are still unpeeled.)

Press the hot potatoes through a vegetable mill or ricer into a large bowl. Stir in the soft butter, cream or milk, a little at a time (you may not need it all), salt and pepper to taste. Using a wooden spoon or wire whisk, whip the potatoes until light and fluffy, adding additional warm cream if required to form desired consistency, but avoid making the potatoes too thin. Serve immediately or keep warm in a partially covered container set over warm water.

Makes: 6-8 servings


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