Thursday, March 31, 2011

How to Eat Groceries: One Potato, Two Potato...

There are two convenience foods that are readily available in most kitchens: the egg, which we've discussed before and the humble potato.  Pomme de Terre, the French call them, Apple of the earth.

Did you know that the potato has as much Vitamin C and potassium as an orange?  That's right.  The potato.  Who knew?  Potatoes get a bad rap these days, much as eggs do.  Starch... Carbohydrate...Nasty words in today's diet.  Do not let these words turn you away from the potato.  Many a poor man has survived thanks to this humble vegetable.

In my childhood home, my dad was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage.  And he loved potatoes.  So much so that if we had spaghetti for dinner, potatoes were served on the side.  And if we missed a meal without the appearance of potatoes he sulked until the next meal!  He absolutely loathed rice, though the rest of the family felt it was a nice change from potatoes, lol.  However, potatoes figured large in my diet as a child and as a struggling homemaker attempting to make the budget ends meet.  Then, as with all things, potatoes fell out of favor in the dietary world and I pretty much dropped them from our menus.  Over the past year or two I've concentrated on adding them back , although I will never again eat a potato every single day as my father insisted we should do.

First let's be clear about which potato I am referring to, commonly called the white potato although the skin may be red, blue, yellow, pale brown and the flesh within may be white, golden, or purple.  These potatoes are from the Nightshade genus of plants (eggplant, tomatoes are among this genus as well) rather than the sweet potato (orange or yellow flesh that emits a syrupy sweet swap when cooked) which is from the Morning Glory family.

Potatoes are easily cultivated so they may be grown in the home garden but they are fairly inexpensive.  I've seen prices in my area as low as $.25 a pound in the past year, yet I read of still lower prices for others in the mid-west where potatoes are generally grown.  As stated, nutritionally speaking the potato is a carbohydrate, with high nutritional value in Vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium.  Unlike the sweet potato it is not sweeter when cooked, the sugar content being considerable lower, but the starches in potatoes will convert to sugar in the body, hence they are best eaten say once or twice weekly as opposed to daily.  The potato does not have the same antioxidant value as they sweet potato group either. 

Still I do like potatoes.  They lend themselves well to a variety of uses and as I said earlier they are a great convenience food.  A good sized baking potato may be cooked in the microwave in five minutes or so.  Topped with a serving of steamed broccoli and melted cheese, or a scoop of chili with beans and you have an easy and delicious and filling dinner in minutes.  Besides eggs, I can think of little that is as easily prepared from it's natural raw state to cooked!

So easily adaptable is the potato that it is not uncommon to find nearly a full section of most cookbooks devoted to it's cookery.  That alone shows the versatility of this humble 'apple of the earth' and perhaps is the reason it is called such.    It is equally at home served on it's own as French Fries, hash browns, mashed (with or without additional ingredients), boiled, baked, steamed, fried, added to other vegetables or added into casseroles, soups and used as fillers for meat dishes and may even be made into a reasonably good old fashioned candy.  It may be served mashed, chopped, sliced, diced. 

Some of the favorite uses in my own home: Mashed with butter; or with addition of shredded cheese and a bit of onion juice and garlic (excellent with BBQ'd chicken or steak); with sour cream and chives; with a spoonful of mayo and dry ranch dressing mixed in well.

Baked: with toppings suitable for a meal such as broccoli and cheese, or chili; with butter or sour cream.  Stuffed (baked and then cut in half lengthwise with the flesh scooped out and mixed with various ingredients as a side dish or including bits of ham, sausage etc to serve as an entree.

Roasted: with olive oil and herbs, alongside a roast or cooked separately.  Or in log form at higher temperature to use in lieu of french fries with burgers.

Fried: as potato sticks or fries or chips.

As an ingredient in soup or stew or made into a soup that stands well on it's own.  A creamy pot of potato soup is an inexpensive and excellent meal on it's own or with a sandwich on the side.

Boiled whole (especially tiny potatoes) and served with butter and parsley and lemon rind grated over, or tossed with sour cream.  Diced to use as potato salad or merely parboiled and used for hashbrowns.

Leftover potatoes lend themselves well to other uses.  If I cook extra while making potato salad, I do often plan to make hash browns with them.  Leftover mashed potatoes make an excellent filler for ground beef in meatloaf, top a shepherd's pie, may be made into potato pancakes or mixed with eggs and cream and baked to make a light and airy potato souffle (a fancy way to make your leftovers suitable for a company dinner).

Best loved in my home and simple is potatoes cooked with onions over medium heat.  The potatoes are sliced, salted and peppered and mixed with a generous amount of sliced onions.  A little oil in the pan helps promote browning and I often clamp a lid over the pan  after the potatoes and onions are nicely browned to let them steam cook.  This is so simple and yet it never fails to draw raves from those who are awaiting the meal...or from passing campers if you happen to be in the woods, lol.

Potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes are two old favorites from my children's home years.  I'd cook with slices of ham between the layers of potatoes and cheese or potatoes and cream sauce for an all in one dish meal.  Pork chops or Polska Kielbasa might also be baked atop the potato dish for other casserole options.  A simple green salad is really all that is needed to make a meal of these dishes. 

Hash brown Casserole is another favorite of my children's.  I found that adding bits of cooked crumbled sausage or finely diced ham made this a dish worthy of brunch on holiday mornings, or a hearty casserole for supper. 

Potatoes are excellent mixed with other vegetables.  I have a favorite family recipe called Armenian potatoes that is wonderful served with grilled meats.  It is made up of diced potatoes baked in casserole dish with a small diced tomato and garlic, paprika, olive oil, salt and parsley.  Kay adapted this to a Pot Roast dish and cooked it with a veal roast.  She told me that it was awesome.   In early marriage, I often boiled cubed potatoes then tossed in Brussels Sprouts towards the end of the cooking.  Drained the dish and mixed with sour cream and this was excellent served alongside fish.   Cabbage and potatoes and carrots are equally good cooked along with corned beef or Smoked Beef Sausage.  And who can think of pot roast or stew without also thinking of the Triad of vegetables that makes it so good? Potatoes, carrots and onions. 

Good nutritionally, good for the budget, and just plain all around good to eat...I think potatoes should be added once more to the roster of all star pantry foods don't you? 


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