Famed organic chef Alice Waters calls them one of the "possibilities of fall." Potatoes are a flavorful, nutritious addition to countless dishes and just dynamo on their own. The idea that they're fattening is an urban legend. Naturally fat-free potatoes just happen to team well with richer foods. Despite a tough history, their simple goodness has triumphed.
New World Crop
Potatoes are a New World crop. The Incas of South America grew them thousands of years ago. European explorers tried to introduce them at home, but folks were leery because the potato is a member of the poisonous nightshade family.
Sir Walter Raleigh finally won over the critics when he planted potatoes on his land in Ireland. They were a huge success there until a blight three centuries later caused a terrible famine that killed nearly a million Irish and spurred a mass migration of millions.
More recently, the vegetable was at the root of a political debacle when former Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled potato at a spelling bee during the 1992 presidential campaign. He told a sixth grader to add an "e" on the end. Aides said he was working off an incorrect flash card but Quayle never lived down the gaffe.
Today, potatoes are at the forefront of a new movement in agriculture. In Wisconsin, university scientists teamed with potato growers to come up with new, environmentally friendly farming practices that use about a third less pesticides. The result is "Healthy Grown" potatoes, which are available in grocery stores in large quantities for the first time this season.
"Consumers should feel that it's good for them and good for the environment," says Rochelle Kelvin, deputy director of Protected Harvest, an independent, non-profit organization set up to certify that farmers follow the stringent standards. "They're supporting farmers and food companies that are truly making a difference."
The group has just received a grant to expand the program to crops in California including tomatoes, almonds and tree fruit like peaches and pears. Kelvin says their goal is to set up growing standards for 20 new crops in the next four years.
Protected Harvest has a state-by-state list of stores that are selling "Healthy Grown" potatoes. The sacks also bear the stamp of the World Wildlife Fund, which supports the project.
You can also buy organically grown potatoes. A new organic seal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which debuted this fall, makes it easier to shop for organic food. Any product with the USDA stamp is guaranteed to be free of pesticides or genetically modified ingredients.
Potatoes with funny sounding names like Russian Banana and Yellow Fingerling are just some of the delicious varieties now available in the market. Our spud guide has the skinny. What truly sets potatoes apart is their starch content, which determines how you should cook them.
In "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone", author Deborah Madison recommends the following test: "If you're not sure what kind of potato you've got, slice one with a sharp knife. If the knife is covered with a foamy substance or the potato grabs onto the knife, then it's starchy and a baker. If not, it's a boiler. So-so, it's all-purpose."
Despite their versatility, potatoes have an image problem. People think of spuds as a fatty food because Americans love to eat them fried as potato chips or French fries, or baked and smothered with butter and sour cream. But potatoes are actually a nutritious, fat-free vegetable. It's all in how you prepare them.
Potatoes are high in Vitamin C and potassium. They're also a good source of fiber and even contain some protein. Some of their goodness is only skin deepso don't peel them. Potatoes can be roasted, baked, mashed, boiled, steamed or grilled and are fabulous in everything from pancakes to stews.
What to Look For
Pick firm potatoes that smell sweet. Avoid potatoes with sprouted eyes or a greenish tint to the skin. With new potatoes, look for small potatoes with thin skins. New potatoes are not a particular variety, but refer to any potato harvested young.
How to Store
Keep potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place, preferably in a paper bag and away from any onions. Sunlight makes potatoes turn green, while refrigeration turns some of their starch into sugar. Cut away any sprouts or green spots on potatoes before cooking.
Try FoodFit's seven sensational potato ideas:
Crispy Potato Tart
Herbed Mashed Potatoes
Mustard and Horseradish Mashed Potatoes
Potato Chips without Hips
Smashed Fingerling Potatoes with Roast Garlic-Basil Oil