In 1997, my husband Jeff and I went on a trip to Ireland. Jeff has ancestral roots in Northern Ireland (Londonderry area), and I love Ireland’s rich history, the culture of the people and the weather.
To use the lingo, that trip was a real corker. On the third day I had a mini-meltdown of joy because I ran out of words for “green” and “beautiful.” What I did not run out of in Ireland was potatoes.
Most people know that by the 19th century, the staple of Irish diet was the potato. This root vegetable was brought to the European continent from Peru, and quickly became inexpensive, abundant food for the masses. But in Ireland, beautiful, poor Ireland, a blight came along in 1845 and attacked the potatoes. They still grew, but the core of these root tubers were rotten and inedible, meaning this staple of the Irish diet was in very short supply. The Great Irish Potato Famine ended around 1852 — and by this point, one third of the population died of starvation and one third emigrated to the United States and other countries. You can still see deep scars on the faces of the Irish hillsides where the potatoes were harvested.
On our Irish trip, in every restaurant, the meal came with some form of a potato dish — mashed, scalloped, baked, fries/chips, boiled with herbs and butter, and on and on. In addition to that, in some restaurants, a wait person came around all the tables, carrying a big bowl of baked potatoes, asking everyone if they’d care for one. (The meals also came with coleslaw, whether you ordered it or not — and, I believe it was at this point in my husband’s life when he decided that he really, really, really loves coleslaw and life without it is meaningless and empty, but that is another story.) The Irish still love their potatoes.
My mom once told me that a person could get tired of every food, except bread and potatoes. The place I was born in, Belarus, was also known for growing potatoes, as well. As a child, I remember looking with wonder at a small book that contained one hundred and one recipes for potatoes. What a versatile food! We had potatoes a lot. A few of my favorites from my childhood were the big hunks of potato in borscht, herring with buttered boiled potatoes with dill, and the potatoes we would cook in the hot coals of the campfire at summer camp.
On a Netflix show, The OA, one of the characters asks a Russian character, “Why do the Russians like their beets so much?” The Russian replies, “It’s because they’re hardy, they can survive a Russian winter.” There is much truth in that answer — not just beets, but all root veggies such as yams, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, onions, radishes, garlic, to name a few, can tough out frost and cold, and you just need a cool, dark place because they are also very storable.
Here’s the thing — I love potatoes cooked in every way. Hell, I have also been known to munch on a bit of raw potato while peeling and prepping it. I did this recently when making up a batch of my shallot/garlic/gouda latkes. But there is one thing I don’t like about potatoes — their skin. If potatoes are baked without being peeled, I always remove the skin before eating them. Please, spare me the indignation about the truth of tons of vitamins in the skin. I KNOW. I KNOW. I just can’t stand the weird texture of the potato skin in my mouth. Since I am (and to some extent, every other human on the planet is) a texture eater, when I have a mouthful of mashed potatoes with pieces of their skin in there, it feels gritty to me, as if the ‘taters were mashed with sand. Plus, if I encounter these kind of “rustic” or “homestyle” mashed potatoes, it feels lazy to me, as if someone would rather not bother with peeling. But let’s face it — there is a reason why McDonald’s French fries are the best. There is a reason why we prize the creaminess of the mashed potatoes with sour cream. I have eaten small, halved roasted potatoes with skin on, but they were so crispy and salty, I raved about them afterwards. But that happened only once, so I consider that an exception to my rule.
So, consider a humble potato, my friends. So much potassium, magnesium, manganese, even zinc, copper and phosphorus; stuff like that is excellent for bones. You want to eat it with butter and sour cream? Yum. Want to go a healthier rout and put salsa on them? Delish. It’s great with fish and poultry, steak, or just by itself. Bon Appetit!