The Humble Potato; and my wonderful Roasted Potatoes

7 Nov

The humble potato

The Potato is one of the staple foods of modern Western Civilization. It can be classified as both a starch and a vegetable. From its roots in the Andes Mountains to its domination of the farms of Idaho, the potato has been both a sustaining force and a culinary delight. The potato continues to grow in popularity, especially on the Asian continent.

In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C. The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them. They even buried potatoes with their dead, they stashed potatoes in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine, they dried them, and carried them on long journeys to eat on the way (dried or soaked in stew). Ancient Inca potatoes had dark purplish skins and yellow flesh. The Incas called the potato “papas,” as they do today

Western man did not come in contact with the potato until as late as 1537 when the Conquistadors tramped through Peru. And it was even later, about 1570, that the first potato made its way across the Atlantic to make a start on the continent of Europe.

Though the tuber was productive and hardy, the Spanish put it to very limited use. In the Spanish Colonies potatoes were considered food for the underclasses; when brought to the Old World they would be used primarily to feed hospital inmates.

Europe would wait until the 1780’s before the potato gained prominence anywhere. About 1780 the people of Ireland adopted the rugged food crop. The primary reason for its acceptance in Ireland was its ability to produce abundant, nutritious food. Unlike any other major crop, potatoes contain most of the vitamins needed for sustenance.

When potato plants bloom, they send up five-lobed flowers that spangle fields like fat purple stars. By some accounts, Marie Antoinette liked the blossoms so much that she put them in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole, inspiring a brief vogue in which the French aristocracy swanned around with potato plants on their clothes. The flowers were part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to eat this strange new species.

The Irish Potato Famine:  The “Great Famine” or also called the “Great Starvation” in Ireland was caused because the potato crop became diseased. At the height of the famine (around 1845), at least one million people died of starvation. This famine left many poverty stricken families with no choice but to struggle for survival or emigrate out of Ireland. Towns became deserted, and all the best shops closed because store owners were forced to emigrate due to the amount of unemployment. Over one and a half million people left Ireland for North America and Australia. Over just a few years, the population of Ireland dropped by one half, from about 9 million to little more than 4 million.

Today, the potato is so common and plentiful in the Western diet that it is taken for granted. We seem to forget that the potato has only been with us for a few hundred years.

Are potatoes nutritious? Indeed! Potatoes are low in fat and calories and high in vitamin B6, C and potassium. If you serve them in the skin, they are also a good source of dietary fiber. It’s best to store potatoes in a cool dark place. Take them out of any packaging so they don’t sweat or start sprouting and if they do have the odd sprout, or green patch (this can be piousness), make sure you cut those bits out before cooking them.

Potato varieties

Bintje

An Old Dutch variety, Bintje is the most popular yellow-fleshed potato variety. Small to medium sized tubers long oval shaped with pale cream/yellow skin flecked with brown spots. Cream/white flesh, firm texture, low sugar.

A Good cooking and processing potato: commonly used for chips and fries, also great in potato salads

Available all year, and having a Long shelf life providing they are kept in the dark

Nicola

Small to medium sized tuber, long oval shaped with light brown/yellow rough skin with large, light brown spots, creamy yellow flesh with a firm texture after cooking, buttery flavor, excellent for cooking, especially boiling , mashing ,salads and also great for home-made gnocchi, available all year

Desiree

Large, oval shaped tuber with pink/red skin and dark spots creamy yellow flesh with firm texture .Good for boiling, mashing and frying; does not discolor after cooking and available all year

Pink Eye

This variety has a creamy yellow flesh that tends to be waxy with a nutty flavor. Best for salads, boiling, steaming and baking.

 

Purple Congo

Also called Congo, Blue Congo and a host of other names, irregular long oval shaped tuber with very distinctive dark purple colour ,Dark purple flesh with light purple flecks, great for baking, good for boiling and mashing , has a Long storage life, available all year

Charlotte

Charlotte is a small, deep yellow fleshed potato with a firm texture and is often used in salads. Great for roasting, boiling, steaming or sautéing, they’re also good eaten hot or cold.

Now for my Perfect Roasted Potatoes

Ingredients

200g/ goose or duck fat , this give such an amazing flavor (if not available use olive or rapeseed oil)

50g/ salt

500g/ Bintje/ Nicola potatoes, cut into 6 pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

4 sprigs thyme

2 sprigs rosemary

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

Preparation method

1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

2. Place the goose fat in a medium sized heavy based roasting tray and place in the oven. It is essential that you preheat the fat in the oven as the potatoes will instantly start crisping and cooking when placed in the oven. The hot fat will give a wonderful crust to the potatoes and a rich golden colour.

3. In a medium saucepan on a high heat, bring two litres of water and the salt to a boil. This may seem like a lot of salt, but you want the water to season the potatoes at this early stage.

4. Carefully add the potatoes to the water and boil over a high heat for 7-8 minutes or until the outside of the potatoes starts to flake. By boiling the potatoes fiercely you ensure that you only cook the outside surface, allowing them to be fluffed up. The easiest way to check that they have been boiled enough is to push the tip of a sharp knife in to them; the tip should only go in 5mm.

5. Drain the potatoes in a colander and allow to stand for two minutes. Shake the colander gently for one minute or until the outside of the potato pieces are ruffled and slightly fluffy, creating hundreds of little nooks and ridges that will crisp when placed in the hot fat, Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

6. Carefully take the roasting tray with goose fat out of the oven and using a spoon with a long handle or a pair of tongs, place the potatoes in to the hot fat , add the thyme, rosemary and garlic. Shake the tray to ensure that the potatoes are in an even layer.

7. Roast in the oven for 40 minutes, turning the potatoes over half way through.

8. Scoop the potatoes into a warm serving dish and serve alongside dish of your choice , I like to serve mine with a delicious garlic, rosemary and anchovy encrusted  roast shoulder of lamb.

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