Despite being the No. 1 non-grain food commodity in the world and a staple in a wide range of cultures, the potato is losing ground in our kitchens. Shocking, I know. Especially when you factor in that potatoes are affordable, available year round, versatile and hearty.
They even come in an array of sizes, colors and textures: The International Potato Center has counted more than 4,000 varieties.
Nevertheless, a friend hosting a potluck a couple of weeks ago was at a loss as to how to entice someone to bring potatoes to the party. “Who would want to bring potatoes?” she lamented.
It’s not that we don’t eat them. In fact, Americans eat more potatoes than any other vegetable except tomatoes (all that tomato sauce on all those pizzas). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans consume about 110 pounds of potatoes per capita annually.
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But 64 percent of that is processed. That means we average 76.2 pounds of frozen fries and hash browns, instant mashed potatoes and canned soups and chowders per person each year.
One particularly unsettling USA Today article revealed that french fries — not potatoes themselves — account for 25 percent of all vegetables children consume today.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s we ate upwards of 80 pounds of fresh potatoes per capita each year. That was back when classic gratins, lacy potato pancakes and honest-to-goodness homemade home fries were actually made from scratch.
Now we manage only 34 pounds of fresh potatoes per person each year. Seems we’re more into concocting potato chip flavors — dill pickle? sweet onion? rotisserie chicken? — than cooking potatoes themselves.
I, however, am old school when it comes to potatoes. I cook them. A lot. Trendy grains may be elbowing out the humble potato, and french fries may be emerging as their own food group, but I am coming to the tuber’s defense.
This has been a recent development. Growing up in Kansas City, I remember we always had a bin of big russet potatoes, which continue to reign as the most popular variety in the U.S. Usually they were tossed in the oven and baked.
Sometimes they were peeled and cubed, parboiled, then wrapped up in a foil packet with green onions and butter and snuggled among steaks on the grill. On really good days, potatoes were fried in a crackling, bubbling, aromatic deep fat fryer.
I also remember gloppy potato salads, fluffy mashed potatoes (hollowed out to hold a ladleful of brown gravy) and, yes, straight-from-the-freezer Tater Tots and hash browns. My mom wasn’t a purist.
But that was just the beginning.
My potato horizons broadened dramatically when I left the Midwest. In New York City in the 1990s, I discovered rösti, the Swiss hash brown cake with enough dignity to stand up for lunch or dinner. I also experimented with pommes soufflés, which proved far too wasteful and chef-y for the home cook, and I learned to rely on Spanish tortillas when there was nothing in the kitchen but a few eggs, onions and potatoes.
I had a love-hate relationship with potato gnocchi, which can, when improperly prepared, lean toward leaden. I lunched on Jim Lahey’s unbelievable potato pizza at Sullivan Street Bakery, which he sold by the elegant, square slice. I became a master at velvety vichyssoise, and I rejoiced in the ethereal combustion of garlic, rosemary and potatoes roasted to a crisp.
The possibilities seemed endless. No wonder Europeans are the most enthusiastic potato eaters out there. (Belarusians, for the record, put away an impressive 180 pounds per capita each year.) Potatoes may have originated up in the Andes Mountains, but they took on a culinary life of their own — over the course of a couple of hundred years — in Europe.
“Tartuffos,” as the Spanish originally called them, weren’t well received when they arrived from the New World in 1565. Potatoes, after all, are hard, lumpy nightshades (cousins of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants).
Legend has it that the poor potato wasn’t embraced until the late 18th century, when French chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier recognized the potato’s potential and convinced Louis XVI to spark potato demand by giving the spud unheard of nobility: he planted a “royal” plot and protected it (ineffectively) with armed guards.
A potato black market emerged, and soon peasants all over Europe were planting and cooking their own.
My personal potato odyssey evolved as well. In 1999, I moved to the birthplace of the potato: South America. Potatoes didn’t have anything to do with my settling in Chile, but once there, my potato appreciation intensified.
For starters, my Chilean boyfriend’s side dish of choice was rice. He ate it every day. In order to get him to swap out his beloved arroz, my potatoes had to be good. Lucky for me, this wasn’t too difficult because Chileans traditionally keep potatoes simple: They boil them and squirt a blob of mayonnaise on top.
But I had to learn how to cook different types of potatoes: Russets were nowhere to be found.
Russet Burbanks, as they are officially known, and Idaho potatoes, as they are unofficially known, are made-in-the-USA, high-starch potatoes. Those starches expand when cooked and result in soft, dry deliciousness on the inside and crunch on the outside. Arguably they outperform all other potato varieties when baked or fried.
Red or white-skinned potatoes, on the other hand, are low-starch. They don’t fluff up when cooked but instead hold their shape and stay dense. That’s why they are great with salads or in stews.
When in doubt, go Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn or any of the other yellow-fleshed potatoes. These are middle-of-the-road in terms of starch content, so they work well, buttery almost, under any treatment.
Here in KC, in the land of swanky grocery stores and farmers markets, one can purchase the perfect potato type for each recipe. In Chile, I was at the mercy of whatever potato was available. I usually had a choice of round reddish ones and slightly larger round reddish ones.
So I never strategized with my potato recipes; I just cooked with what I had and racked up some potato-cooking tricks. Dare I say, more than once my lowly potato dishes stole the dinner party show.
My initial potato triumphs were all variations on the standard roasted potato: precooked, smashed and doused in vinegar; chunked extra-large and then tossed with a Spanish-inspired garlicky-mayonnaise dressing; and sliced wafer-thin — but still intact — to result in golden splayed “potato-chip” potatoes, as my kids used to call them. I made my own potato pizza with varying degrees of success.
I tried mashed potatoes countless ways: with milk, with cream, with celery root, with garlic, with leeks, with goat cheese, with water.
I did my own french fries, the real way (with a topping upgrade of gremolata instead of ketchup) and the healthy way (baked in the oven).
I even made papa a la huancaína, a creamy, rich Peruvian potato salad. I pulled off gratins (maybe the ultimate in comforting potato dishes) for holiday dinners, and I made my version of Tater Tots. Mind you, no one in Chile (at least no one I was with) had any kind of history with Tater Tots. They ate them, and they liked them, but no one was half as excited as I was.
Now I’m back at home, thinking too much about potatoes. Does any other vegetable do so much?
If only potatoes weren’t such a high-performance vegetable, if only they didn’t take to processing so well, maybe there wouldn’t be 55 types of potato chips in the Lay’s arsenal.
Now, with summer coming, I have potato salads on my mind. Surely I am not the only one. Granted, potatoes rarely take center stage on the plate, but often they quietly outshine the main event.
Connie McCabe is a former editor for Saveur magazine. She recently returned to her hometown with her husband and children after living in Chile for several years.
Makes enough for 2 large pizzas
I like to make this the night before and let it slow rise in the refrigerator. I think the flavor is better. Sometimes I don’t plan ahead, though, and just pull it together in the afternoon. In that case, set dough aside in a warm place to rise for 11/2 to 2 hours instead of overnight, then punch it down and let it rise a second time.
1 (1/4-ounce) packet yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
3 3/4 cups all purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups cold water
1/4 cup olive oil
Stir yeast and lukewarm water together in a bowl. Add 1/2 cup flour. Mix well. Let sit until bubbly, about 30 minutes.
Combine remaining flour and salt in another bowl. Add to yeast with cold water and olive oil. Mix well to form a dough.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead with hands until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Or use a mixer with a dough hook, and knead about 5 minutes.
Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat all sides with oil. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in refrigerator overnight until doubled in size. Punch dough down, and let rise another 45 minutes.
Divide dough into 2 equal disks and let rest 30 minutes before shaping. Lightly flour a work surface. Using your fingers or heels of your hands, stretch the disks out to 10-inch shapes.
Per slice, based on 8 per pie: 138 calories (24 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 23 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 134 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 1 pizza
3 to 4 large red potatoes, scrubbed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 disk Pizza Crust (see recipe)
2 garlic cloves, smashed
8 ounces fresh mozzarella (or goat cheese or feta)
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Arugula (one bunch or 1 large handful)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Thinly slice potatoes (with a chef’s knife or mandolin). Toss with about 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt in a bowl. Arrange potato slices in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake until edges begin to turn golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Increase oven temperature to 475 degrees.
Shape pizza dough on pizza pan. Brush with olive oil and pre-bake 10 to 15 minutes or until crust begins to crisp. Remove from oven and rub all over with smashed garlic cloves. Slice mozzarella cheese and arrange in a single layer over crust. Top with one layer of potatoes. Scatter rosemary over potatoes, then top with Parmesan cheese. Bake on pizza stone or on tray on lowest rack in oven until crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add arugula and toss. When pizza is done, scatter arugula on top. Serve hot.
Per slice: 306 calories (41 percent from fat), 14 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 347 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Inspired by Jim Lahey's pizza from Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City
Makes 6 servings
6 large Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed
6 tablespoons butter, softened, divided
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place one potato at a time on a wooden spoon and use a sharp chef’s knife to slice as thin as possible but not all the way through. (See photo.) Continue with remaining potatoes.
Smear each potato all over with one tablespoon butter. Try to work a little butter in between slices. Generously sprinkle each potato with salt.
Place potatoes, cut sides down, on a baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes, then turn right side up and bake until potatoes are open up and are crisp around the edges, another 40 minutes.
Per serving: 172 calories (60 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 122 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 cloves garlic
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes
Generous 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scrub the potatoes clean, place on baking sheet and roast in oven. About 20 minutes in, add the garlic cloves. Potatoes are done when fork-tender, 35 to 50 minutes, depending on size of potatoes. Remove potatoes and garlic from oven and allow to cool about 20 minutes
Once cool enough to handle, grate potatoes (skin and all) on the large holes of a box grater. Place shredded potatoes in a large bowl. Peel and finely chop roasted garlic, add to potatoes. Mix in cheese and salt.
Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil and increase oven to 425 degrees. Pinch off about one teaspoon of potato mixture, gently form into 1-inch cylinders. Place on baking sheet and repeat with remaining potato mixture. Bake about 35 to 40 minutes, turning once or twice.
Serve hot. Kids like them with ketchup.
Note: Tater Puffs can be baked ahead of time and warmed in a hot oven (10 minutes) before serving.
Per serving, based on 4: 251 calories (17 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 41 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 229 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Adapted from a recipe at food52.com