Friday 17 June 2011

Don't Forget The Potatoes

Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food,
For wisdom and guidance, for all these are good.
But don’t forget the potatoes.
-John Tyler Petee

The first tiny nugget potatoes of the season have appeared in our grocery stores and farm market.  I’m happy about that.  They’re a seasonal treat that I look forward to every year.  Potatoes make frequent appearances on our table year-round but these tiny sweet early spuds hold a special place in my heart.  They are the very essence of potato-ness to me.

Nugget potatoes are so tasty that little needs to be done to prepare them.  A quick boil in their jackets, in some salted water is sufficient.  If you have a garden, you may want to pluck a sprig of mint or dill to toss in the water as the potatoes boil.  That’s all that’s needed to make a perfect dish.

Once potatoes grow past their nugget stage, they’re prepared in countless ways.  They’re so much a part of our diet that most of us rarely look to a cookbook for instruction.  We have learned from childhood how potatoes can be cooked. 

Just how did potatoes come to be such a staple?

Potatoes grow wild throughout the Americas, but most are found in South America.  There are over 5,000 varieties, 3,000 of which are found in the Andes alone, mainly in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia.  

The Spanish brought potatoes from South America to Europe in the mid-16th century.  They had an empire across Europe and used potatoes to feed their armies.  Peasants along the way adopted the crop, which was less often pillaged by marauding armies than above-ground stores of grain.[i]    

By the 19th century the potato was the most important new food throughout Europe.  It had three major advantages over other foods for the consumer: its lower rate of spoilage, its bulk (which easily satisfied hunger), and its cheapness.  Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, and eventually came to dominate the food supply. They comprised about 10% of the caloric intake of Europeans at that time.[ii]

When Europeans came to settle in North America, they brought the potato with them.  It was by that time part of almost every European cuisine, and soon became a staple of the new world diet as well.  So much so, in fact, that we now tend to take the potato for granted.

Thanks in part to low carb diets, many folks view spuds as junk food, a source of empty calories, but that’s incorrect.  A medium sized potato with its skin provides 45% of our daily requirement of vitamin C, 18% of our daily requirement of potassium, and 10% of our daily requirement of vitamin B6.  Potatoes also provide thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and zinc. 

A medium potato contains about 26 grams of carbohydrate.  The predominant form of this carbohydrate is starch. A small but significant portion of this starch is resistant to digestion by enzymes in the stomach and small intestine, and so reaches the large intestine essentially intact. This resistant starch is considered to have similar physiological effects and health benefits as fiber: It provides bulk, offers protection against colon cancer, improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowers plasma cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations, increases satiety, and possibly even reduces fat storage.[iii]

I have always enjoyed potatoes—they are comfort food to me—but I’ve viewed them as something of a guilty pleasure.  Now I understand that it’s not the potato that’s the culprit, it’s the stuff we add to it.  The 150 or so calories in a spud are nothing compared to what we get through the addition of butter, sour cream, and other fat-heavy ingredients when we prepare and serve it. 

I’m going to enjoy my nugget potatoes, boiled and without added butter, secure in the knowledge that doing so is not only good for my morale, but for my body too.


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