Is there anything more that we could possibly ask of the potato? We bake it, mash it and roast it. We sauté and gratiné it, steam and boil, fry and chip it. The potato makes dumplings and gnocchi for us, salads and pancakes. Dehydrated and flaked or ground into flour, it thickens or binds and even fashions such things as single-use forks, straws and bags.
Let’s return the favor and eat more of it, if only because it’s both delicious and good for us. I was surprised to learn that, gram for gram, potatoes sport more potassium than bananas and, except for dried beans, pack more protein than most any other vegetable.
Those nutrients, combined with its native humility, make it the perfect food for periods of fasting, such as Lent (for most Christians, until Easter this year on April 9) or Ramadan (for Muslims, March 22-April 23, 2023).
However, please note that the potato is healthiest as is, not as processed packaged frozen fries or potato chips or many other forms of remade potatoes — by far, alas, the most common way that we eat them.
Yes, just as it comes from the ground, the potato is a marvel.
It is the fourth largest food crop globally, behind wheat, rice and maize (corn) — however, of those four, the most nutrient-dense. It grows most anywhere (and at much higher elevations than the other three), and its only major disadvantage is that it cannot be stored in one piece from year to year except, like them, in dried form. (For the potato, that means dehydrated and flaked — as a historical note, a way to preserve potatoes developed more than 2,000 years ago in the dry, frigid high mountains of South America.)
The plain potato is simple and straightforward, though its name is not. The Spanish conquistadores confused the Peruvian (specifically, Quechuan) “papa” with an altogether different but similar-looking vegetable, the Caribbean sweet potato, “batata,” resulting in the Spanish word “patata” (and our English “potato”).
Initially, the Italians thought it a ground truffle, calling it a “taratufflo,” hence the German “Kartoffel.” Nowadays, the Italians, like the Spanish, call it “patata.” Got that? By the way, the nickname “spud” derives from the Irish and British potato-digging spade.
When the potato landed in (well, “underground” in) Europe, Protestant religious fundamentalists condemned it because the Bible does not mention it as a plant. Around the same time, in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Irish were not about to cast aspersions on their favorite food, so they sprinkled holy water on their seeds and planted them each year on Good Friday.
I asked RJ Harvey, the culinary director of Potatoes USA (located right here in Denver), about the common bifurcation of the cooking potato into “starchy” and “waxy,” one being preferred over the other depending on the cooking method. (For example, “starchy” russets for baking or “waxy” Yukon Golds for boiling.) Harvey said that that division was “antiquated,” given the modern proliferation of potato crop breeds.
“Differences in potatoes are in different moisture contents,” he said. According to Harvey, we’re blessed with seven varieties of potato, “russet, blue, fingerling, petites and red, yellow and white,” higher moisture levels found in these latter three.
You will find almost anything you’d ever wish to know about using and cooking potatoes, storing them and obtaining their nutrients at potatogoodness.com, especially under the “Nutrition” tab (at the dropdown, click on “Potato Nutrition”).
RJ Harvey’s boxty recipe here looks forward to St. Patrick’s Day in March and is Ireland’s answer to the Jewish or deli latke, a Gaelic turn on the potato pancake. The Cod and Potato Bake recipe has a Lenten staple, fish.
From Chef RJ Harvey at potatogoodness.com. Serves 8. You may see the plural of “boxty” as “boxties.” Harvey’s recipe also spells the plural as “boxty.”
2 pounds yellow potatoes, peeled
3/4 cup cultured buttermilk
1 large egg
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces (1 stick or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup sour cream, optional
Warm the oven to 200 degrees. Take half of the peeled potatoes and place them in a pot filled with cold water. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and mash them in a ricer, food mill or by using a potato masher. Allow the potatoes to cool slightly.
Grate the remaining raw potatoes on the fine grating side of a box grater. Place the grated potatoes in a clean dish towel and squeeze out as much moisture from them as possible. Make sure to complete the grating step as quickly as possible so the potatoes do not change color.
In a large bowl, combine the mashed and grated potatoes, buttermilk, egg, flour, baking soda, salt and pepper until a thick pancake batter consistency is achieved. In a large nonstick skillet or griddle, melt a little butter and place scoops of the batter for your desired-sized boxty.
Cook the boxty for about 3-4 minutes over medium heat or until they are golden. Carefully flip them over and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Repeat this until all the boxty are cooked, keeping the finished ones in the warming oven while you prepare the rest.
To serve, place them on a plate and enjoy with more butter, sour cream, smoked salmon, eggs, broiled tomatoes or salted cod.
Cod and Potato Bake
By Bill St. John and Chef Jamey Fader, Marczyk Fine Foods; makes 6-8 servings. The cooking times will seem excessive in this era of 10-minutes-per-inch fish cookery, but really what you’re doing here is melting everything — potatoes, cream, leeks and onions, cheese, and the cod—into itself. It’s a sort of savory potato pudding, with gills.
1 cup cleaned, very thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts only
1 cup white onion, small dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced see-through-thin
2 medium-sized balls fresh mozzarella, shredded or torn into small pieces
1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 slices thick bacon, diced
6 or more white cod steaks, of even thickness, each about 1-inch thick, enough to cover, in 1 layer, the surface area of the baking dish being used
With olive oil, cooking spray, butter, or shortening, coat the inside of a large, oven-safe, shallow, 4-quart (or larger) baking dish.
Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a thin layer of sliced potatoes, then a layer of leeks and onions, then a layer of mozzarella, repeating these layers until all the potatoes, leeks, and onion have been used up, ending with a final layer of cheese. (However, keep back 1/4 of the total of the cheese for a final addition; see below.) Sprinkle small amounts of salt and black pepper as you make the layers.
Arrange the cod steaks on the top, then sprinkle the bacon bits evenly over the surface of the dish. Pour the cream over everything, being sure it nuzzles itself down through the several layers. Bake for 1 hour in a 375-degree oven until the bacon is just beginning to crisp.
Remove from the oven, top with the reserved cheese, and bake again until the top layer of cheese is melted and golden, another 30 minutes. Remove once more from the oven and place a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the baking dish and continue to bake for another 90 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through and very soft.
To serve, remove from the oven, uncover, and let set up for 15 minutes, then portion into servings.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]