Boosting up your diet with potatoes

Po-tay-toes, Po-tah-toes: Why potatoes are sexy.

Even if you’re not a foodie, you might have been asked this question from a random Facebook survey: “If you were a food, what would you be?”

As far as I know, no one has ever replied, “I want to be a potato!”

And that got me thinking: Why  not?

A potato is a woefully underrated vegetable. It’s easy to see why — potatoes are not even ugly enough to garner a contemptuous smirk. It is just a knobby, dull-colored mound, too plain-looking even to present itself properly out of the dirt.

But perhaps that is the most endearing quality about these taters. They’re not colorfully pretty like fresh summer berries or ostentatiously cute-like cupcakes. They don’t have that luscious quality of ripe figs. These demure tubers aren’t even the slightest bit naughty like pork belly.

Yet, potatoes remain a trusted staple in many households. The potato is the most frequently consumed produce in the United States. Can you say the same about Brussels sprouts? Potatoes are so common because they provide dependable nourishment in more ways than a fully loaded hamburger. Whether fried or pureed into a creamy soup, it induces the dominant feeling of comfort.

Because potatoes are so ordinary, however, they have faded into indifference. But that doesn’t mean they have to be mediocre. A potato can actually be quite sexy. You just need to learn to appreciate it and treat it right.

Here is just a small list of reasons to start potato lovin’:

They’ve got siblings

And tons of them. Potatoes aren’t just limited to brown and oval. There are about 5,000 varieties of this root vegetable worldwide. Thankfully, grocery stores picked the edible ones for us and only store about three to five varieties — more if they’re fancy (and expensive).

Potatoes can basically be divided into three main categories: very starchy, kind of starchy and not-so-starchy. The way they are put into these categories is by — you’ve got it — their starch content.

Russet potatoes, the large lump you usually find next to your steak, are in the very starchy group. Sometimes called Idaho potatoes, they are the most common potato you find in the United States. Because of their high percentage in starch, they are best for baking, mashing and frying. When cooked, they start to disintegrate like powder, whipping up into that light, fluffy mashed potato dish we love for Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, round red-and-white potatoes, new potatoes and fingerling potatoes make the bottom not-so-starchy group. You can tell them apart by their waxy exterior, high moisture content and firm, creamy texture when cooked. These potatoes hold their shape well, so they’re best for boiling or roasting into potato salads or thinly sliced and layered into a gratin.

And then there are the fence-straddlers, the neither-here-nor-there ­— kind of like Switzerland. They’re all-purpose potatoes, versatile in most dishes but especially favorable in soups and chowders. Potatoes like Yukon gold, purple Peruvian and Yellow Finn will fall into this category.

They aren’t racist

Travel around the world, and you’ll see potatoes in almost all cuisines. It’s not just America’s favorite vegetable; it has been adopted into all kinds of famous international dishes.

Just to name a few: latkes for Hanukkah; masala dosa as a South Indian breakfast; fish and chips in English pubs; colcannon to wash down with Irish beer; and gamja jjim (stewed potato) in Korean households. Gnocchi in Italy, poutine in Canada, lomo saltado in Peru. The list goes on and on.

They’re cheap

I once lugged home a 10-pound sack of potatoes from Superior Grocers for just 69 cents.

But unless they are so ridiculously discounted, try to get ones that are out in the open so that you can select your own. Choose potatoes that are firm, dry and not pre-washed. You want them to look like they just rolled out of the earth. That means they still have a protective coating to keep nasty bacteria out.

Potatoes last for quite a long time too. Just store them in a dark, dry place, and they’ll stay perfectly edible for about two months.

Do not store them with onions because both release gas that poisons the other, making them taste unpleasant.

And unless they are cooked, do not store them in the refrigerator; their starch content will break down into sugars, which will once again lead to an unpleasant experience.

They won’t go to your hips

Potatoes made an infamous comeback for a short time a decade ago, back when the low-carb diet was the new “in” diet.

Unfortunately, its brief recognition was only to be hailed as the devil because — gasp — those 35 or so grams of net carbs in a baked potato will go straight to your thighs.

Not true. In fact, these nutritional powerhouses have 60 different identified vitamins and phytochemicals that help prevent high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancers.

They are especially high in Vitamin B6 (21 percent of the recommended daily value in a single cup), which — besides its cardiovascular protection properties — helps to build cells, enhance sleep performance and response to stress, and jack up athletic performance and endurance.

Perfect for college students, no? Unfortunately, they don’t work in pill form, but that’s just one more reason to love potatoes.

Of course, there are a lot more nutritional properties to the humble potato, such as Vitamin C and potassium. And potatoes are only a tiny portion of what the human science has yet to discover.

They’re Yum-O

Rachael Ray will approve of this one. With a single potato, you can make a satisfying, healthy and delicious meal in 30 minutes flat, maybe even less.

The best thing about the potato is that it has a bland, neutral taste. It lacks the deep sweetness of its distant cousin, the sweet potato, but that just means it makes a versatile and terrific counterpart to a wider variety of foods.

Beside the three common baking, deep-frying and boiling techniques, potatoes can also be stuffed, grated, pan-fried, pureed, glazed, twice-baked, scalloped and griddled into salads, gratins, pancakes, muffins, cakes, creams, soups, pastas and casseroles.

If that made your head spin, wait until you find out that you can make your own potato chips with a microwave.

Just grab a good sturdy knife and slice the potato into thin rounds. You want them as skinny as possible. Then toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper; maybe add a splash of vinegar and hot sauce or a sprinkle of dried herbs if you’re feeling fancy. Layer the oil-coated slices on a Pam-sprayed plate, zap them in the microwave on high for five to seven minutes and presto! Instant potato chips — not out of a five-month-old bag.

Never underestimate the miraculous power of bacon fat, which is the secret gem of cooking. Chop some potatoes up into cubes while rendering some bacon slabs in a pan, then fry them together with salt and pepper, maybe even a handful of raisins. A runny fried egg on top and you’ve got your perfect hangover meal.

And when in doubt, just boil or bake a large potato (two for me) until tender, split it down the middle and top it with whatever condiments and junk you can find in your fridge.

Some suggestions: salsa and sour cream, barbecue sauce and pineapples, leftover spaghetti meat sauce and Parmesan, hotdogs and eggs, caramelized onions and apples with oozing Brie. You can go as basic or as wacky as you want.

Po-tay-toes, po-tah-toes. Any way you pronounce them, prepare them and cook them, they ought to be celebrated for the economical, versatile and delicious culinary gems that they are.

Sophia Lee is a sophomore  majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “That’s What She Ate,” runs Mondays.

3 replies
  1. Kris
    Kris says:

    Honestly, though, I think it would have been more interesting to hear about different farmer’s markets that carry cool, weird-looking types of potatoes…or the benefits of eating organic potatoes vs. non-potatoes…or maybe even an actual recipe? I’ve never made colcannon before– how can I make it on a student budget in a micro-apartment kitchen AND make it taste good?

    Yeah, I’m a college student and a foodie (no, I’m not a trust fund kid…baby, I eat good on the cheap!) and there are many of us on campus. Humor us! We have more sophisticated tastes than microwaved potato chips?

    I’d recommend baked home fries instead. Just as easy, takes a bit longer, but they’re incredible. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Scrub clean and cut Russets/sweet potatoes into 1/4″ slabs and cut again to make fries, leaving the skin on (It’s healthier, adds texture and crisp, and looks pretty). Toss them in a few tablespoons olive oil and salt–not the pepper yet; it will burn in the oven–and stick them in the oven on a cookie sheet for 20 min. or until cripsy. Be sure to turn them every 5-6 min or so using a spatula. Remove from oven, add the rest of desired seasonings, let ’em cool a bit on the pan so you don’t burn yourself like an idiot, assemble/procure a delicious dip, and enjoy.


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