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Homage to the Lowly Potato

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I pay my respects to the most popular vegetable in Ireland, the potato. In the US, we treat the potato as a criminal, contributing to the degradation of the American diet and, single-handedly, fattening our children.  In Ireland, during the late-1700’s, the potato was lauded for its ability to feed entire communities, saving the poor from famine and doubling the population in sixty years. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Although most wild potatoes are unfit for human consumption, the South American natives learned to cultivate edible varieties over 3,000 years ago. So valued was the tuber that the Incas worshipped it; they also found ways to preserve potatoes for sustenance during drought and scarcity. The potato arrived in Europe with the Spaniard explorers, but Europeans considered them unfit for human consumption, which, of course, led to using them for medicinal purposes. I guess they really believed if it tasted bad, it must be good for what ails you.  Americans were also suspicious of the potato until President Thomas Jefferson served them; most likely he grew them and prepared them himself.  Regardless of what other countries thought of the potato, the Irish found them to be delicious, easy to grow and nourishing.

The peasants of Ireland realized very quickly that an acre of potatoes would feed an entire family for a year because they had a long storage life. Most of them subsisted on milk and potatoes alone, which isn’t hard to believe. Potatoes are fat-free on their own, but provide plenty of energy in the form of carbohydrates with an ample amount of fiber, especially if you eat the skin. One large potato contains more potassium than a large banana, about half of the Daily Value for vitamin C, and a healthy amount of most of the B vitamins. In terms of magnesium and iron, they are considered an excellent source while their sodium content is almost none.  Basically, when you balance out their missing nutrients with milk, you have the perfect survival meal!

It’s a wonder we don’t fill the food banks with them and abandon the soup kitchens in favor of the potato bar. I can remember times in our life that potatoes sustained us through lean financial times, not exclusively, but they were a staple. With plenty of potatoes, we ate less meat and had a little more to spend on fruits and veggies.

So, hooray for the potato! Now how do we bring them back to the place of honor they deserve? We simply stop deep fat frying them. Bake them, roast them, boil them, or mash them. Keep the fatty toppings, sauces, and gravies to a minimum and enjoy the flavor of the potato. Note that I didn’t suggest eliminating the fat; however, I have gotten to the point that I like my baked potato plain most of the time.  There are ways to satisfy your kids’ taste for French fries without frying them. Below are two recipes my girls like as well or better than fries:

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Scrub and peel potatoes (bakers work best).  Slice the potatoes in wedges and arrange on an oiled baking stone or cookie sheet. You may want to spritz the tops with cooking spray or oil and you can season them before baking if you like. Bake until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. The girls aren’t big salters, so we season them after they reach the plates.

We also enjoy our own version of “Shake & Bake” potatoes. Preheat oven to 400° F.  Scrub, peel and cube potatoes (any kind will work). Spread the cubes on paper towel to dry while you mix the seasoning. In a gallon sized plastic bag, combine a tablespoon per potato of cheese powder, a teaspoon per potato of flour and whatever seasonings you choose (we like a little garlic powder and Mrs. Dash). Bake until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.

What are your kids’ favorite potato dishes? Can you find ways to “healthify” them?