Friday, 26 September 2008

Friday Nibbles - The Potato

Continuing my weekly look at a store cupboard essential, a true hero of the kitchen, this week we turn our eyes (pun intended) to the potato.

The potato is a relative newcomer to the everyday western diet. It arrived in Europe from the New World sometime in the 16th century (1536, to be exact), at about the same time as tobacco. I think that there is a wonderful irony that the two items that have caused the most significant amount of damage to the health of those of us in the developed world – chips (by which I mean French fries, which are, of course, Belgian) and tobacco – both arrived at the same time from the Americas.

This starchy, tuberous crop quickly became popular throughout Europe and went some way to replacing bread as the staple, especially in Ireland, a reliance they discovered to their cost in 1845 when blight wiped out the vast majority of the crop leading to huge famine and, ultimately, a mass exodus to the United States.

Although most people would struggle to name ten, there are over 5,000 varieties of potato, most of which are native to the Andean region of South America. There are probably almost as many ways to prepare and eat the vegetable as well, which is what makes them ideal for keeping in the store cupboard.

There are few foods as comforting as the potato, especially when paired with butter, cream or cheese. There is something so warming and satisfying about this particular carbohydrate that can’t quite be matched by pasta or rice.

They are also wonderfully seasonal. There are few foods as evocative of the differing seasons than the different types of potato. Waxy new potatoes, gently boiled and drizzled with olive oil, a little lemon juice and some finely chopped parsley is a great accompaniment to a barbecued or grilled food. Cool autumn nights can be warmed by fish pie or a heaving plate of mashed potato with sausages and sticky, rich onion gravy. A simple baked potato, topped with butter and melting gooey cheese is an perfect, and easy, winter meal and the first Jersey Royals are a sure sign that spring is in full bloom.

And then there is the chip. As far as simplicity goes, this is about as basic as it gets. A fried potato. But somewhere between that slightly chewy, slightly crispy exterior and the fluffy warm inside, lies a perfect food moment. A little sea salt, perhaps a splodge of ketchup or mayonnaise is all the gilding that is needed. The first chip should be a little too hot, so that it causes a rush of steam from within and has to be eaten with the lips open, pulling in a little air to cool the hot chip within. From there it is simple culinary bliss.

No, aren’t that good for you. Yes, they have little nutritional value but whether they are eaten in the heady midst of summer in the beer garden of your local pub, or shovelled in late night in a post imbibing, alcohol fuelled frenzy, the chip is always, always as close as it is possible to get to perfection.

And, for the record, for the purposes of this post I did both cook, and eat, a small portion of chips at ten thirty in the morning. The sacrifices I make in the pursuit of epicurean experimentation and culinary musings are staggering…


Alicia Foodycat said...

It really is the time of year where potatoes come into their own, isn't it?

Kian said...

Do you know that the art of dentistry was greatly expanded and became a separate profession after cane sugar was brought to Europe from the new world? Another unfortunate culinary introduction.

BTW, for me potato can never replace noodles or rice. :-)

Hopie said...

We appreciate your sacrifices! So let me get this straight: we sent over the potato, and you sent over the Irish? I wonder who won out on that one... I'm happy to see you devote Friday Nibbles to potatoes - definitely a food I couldn't live without. You can add them to so many things to make them more consistent (soups, meats, purées, just plain potatoes with more potatoes on top...)

dp said...

I just have to say that never in a gazillion years could the potato be more satisfying than rice:-)
But with that said, I could enjoy a nice bowl of scalloped potatoes right now.

sara angel said...

i looooooove potatoes. i'm glad you respect them too :)

HH said...

Great post, all the ways to eat potatoes, it is making me hungry thinking and reading about it. Oh I do love potatoes, and coming from and Irish family, they are somewhat of a staple for me. I agree with you foodycat, they are coming into their own at the moment, we had some marvellous ones today, parboiled and roasted in goose fat, all that stopped me consuming the entire tray was the promise of dessert to come!

Just Cook It said...

foodycat - totally agree.

kian - I hadn't even thought of that. Good point. It's interesting how the food that we grew up with often becomes the comfort food of adulthood.

hopie - thanks! I know, not really a fair swap is it? Totally agree about adding them to soups too.

dp - Kian said the same thing, must be something to do with the food we grew up with. Interesting though.

sara - thanks for the comment, they are sooo good.

hh - Sounds wonderful. Goose fat roasties, mmmmm

Anonymous said...

The potato may have come from the new world, but my favorite use of it was invented in the UK. Nothing beats fish and chips!

Sam said...

Interesting post, you can't beat good mashed potato!

Elena Bruno said...

I love jacket potatoes with extravirgin olive oil and sea salt! Great post!!! Ciao from Italy

QGIRL said...

my kids would starve if it weren't for the humble potato. it is always a sure thing at our house, the first to be eaten entirely.
btw, your chips look perfect.

Just Cook It said...

lisa - I totally agree with you!

sam - oh yes, the ultimate comfort food

Hi twostella - thanks for the comment, great to hear from someone in Italy, wonderful country.

thanks qgirl, they tasted pretty good too.

Anonymous said...

I tried a weird thing on a potato at a friends house. It is called "Dukkah", It is Egyptian in origin but is made in the Presidio near San Francisco, by a co. called Juliet Mae Spices. Dukkah, is sesame seeds and ground nuts and spices. It was so freaking good! The owner of Juliet Mae Spices, is an Irish American,named Kathy Fitzhenry, so she tells me she "knows" potatoes. Really check out "Dukkah" online at Juliet Mae Spices.