The Multipurpose Potato
I want to start this article by saying I am wishing that everyone is safe and healthy. My prayers are out there for everyone. Additionally, my thoughts go out to the family of Mike Fryer who I’ve known for almost 30 years and had the pleasure of teaching his daughter.
I saw the news today and there was a piece on a potato farmer in Idaho that couldn’t sell his crop due to restaurant closures. Unlike other videos I’ve seen, he harvested all of his potatoes and realized it had very little value for animal feed, or anything else. He stacked up 600,000 thousand pounds of Idaho potatoes and left them out for anyone and everyone to grab. He said at first it was locals that came, but then people from states and cities far away started to crowd his farm. People from Las Vegas drove up to get potatoes, as well as many others from as far as a 19-hour drive from the farm. Today I heard that there is a shortage of frozen French fries while many farms are discarding potatoes. This problem lies in the food infrastructure of our country. There is a break in the supply chain networks of foods going from farm to processing to consumer. This is occurring for more and more products.
This made me think about the varieties/styles of potatoes I’ve been cooking since beginning quarantine. I had a lot of potatoes when this started and they are, for me, very easy to purchase in large quantities. There are so many varieties of potatoes I’ve really enjoyed doing different things with. The potato was first cultivated in South America and can be dated back to at least 2,500 BC. They were first found as a variant of a sweet potato which was found earlier. Next the potato traveled to Europe around the 16th century. This was due to Spanish explorers bringing back potatoes and corn, both for their consumption on the trip back. The leftover stock was planted, and then traveled around the continent. By the mid-19th century potatoes reached Ireland, which became known for potatoes, especially during the potato famine. The advantage that potatoes gave was spoilage took a long time, it was filling and was relatively cheap.
One of the problems when they cultivated the potatoes for Europe was that very few varieties were being grown. This hurt them when in 1845 the blight, that started in America, traveled to Europe and hit the potato crop in Europe, especially Ireland, very hard. The blight lasted for four years and resulted in approximately 1 million deaths in Ireland and 1 million Irish people immigrating to Britain, Canada, United States and many other places. Potatoes were brought to the United States many times before, but they did not really take until around 1719, mostly due to the large influx of Irish/Scottish immigrants.
Originally in France the potato was revered and reserved for the aristocrats, but in 1748 the parliament banned potatoes for 24 years, considering it poisonous and claiming that it caused leprosy. Surprisingly, China is the largest grower and user of potatoes. They use a different breed than what is growing most everywhere, coming from India and West Africa. We generally do not think of potatoes in Chinese food but the vegetable goes very well in northwest and southern cuisine although it is the only one that can grow in any region. In China potatoes are actually cheaper than rice.
This quarantine has allowed me to play with a lot of different potatoes. It’s surprising how many uses you can have for them. The two major types of potatoes are russets and waxy potatoes. Russet, or Idaho potatoes, are very dry and high in starch, so they are ideal for baking, frying or mashing. These are the potatoes that are all the same shape and size. The second type of brown potato is the all-purpose potato, which are usually the ones that are bagged and have different shapes and sizes.
All-purpose potatoes are used as their name implies. They can be used for baking or for boiling because their moisture and starch content are at a moderate level. This is ideal for when you cook your potatoes in a liquid but want them to keep their shape and also for dry heat methods like baking, but they are not as fluffy as Idaho’s. They are not the best potato for making soups or stews; that would be the waxy potato. This potato would be used for applications where you wanted to maintain its shape, and since it has low starch it will not absorb cooking liquid and fall apart. This potato also has a creamy texture, so it may be the ideal potato for mashed potatoes. The most common of the waxy potatoes are the Redskin and Yukon Gold varieties.