Our love affair with the potato

Oct. 22, 2013 @ 09:37 AM

By far the most popular vegetable in America is ... the spud, yup the good ol’ potato. However, when it comes to per capita potato consumption, American’s turn out to be laggards, since Poles consume more than twice as much. Peru, potatoes’ first home, equals our potato consumption, while Indonesians consume an infinitesimal amount.
The best historians can currently tell: Peruvian Incas began growing potatoes as early as 200 BC. If the Spanish Conquistadors hadn’t hauled Peruvian potatoes back to Spain in the early 1500s, we would probably not be dining on them today. Five hundred years ago, Peruvians cultivated more than 200 different potato varieties, including blue potatoes.
I’ve made a colorful potato salad using those blue Peruvian potatoes that tasted sensational. These days, I can find blue potatoes in almost every local North Carolina farmer’s market. However, I don’t recommend using them for mashed potatoes, since most folks just can’t get past their unique color.
Like tomatoes, potatoes were once thought to be poisonous, since they, like eggplants, belong to the “deadly” nightshade family.
The most common method of preparation in America: deep fat frying. The story goes that French-fries were an accidental creation of a chef trying to reheat already fried potatoes. He returned the cooled potatoes to hot oil where they puffed-up resulting in a thin crisp crust, with moist soft interior. In gratitude, McDonald’s should send a check to that chef’s family every year
In Jeffery Steingarten’s book “The Man Who Ate Everything,” (1997) he puts forth the proposition that the best tasting French-fries in the world are fried in horse fat. On that one, I’ll take Steingarten’s word for it.
There are probably hundreds of potato stories. The potato chip, another accidental creation, supposedly began in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A chef, angered by a patron’s returning French-fries because they were cut too thick, attempted revenge. He cut see-through thin slices of potato, cooked them in hot oil until they had no moisture, salted them and returned them to the dining room, where they were received with the patron’s joyful shriek. One out of every 10 potatoes now arrives as a chip.
When I was on Dr. Atkin’s high-protein/low-carbohydrate diet in the early 1970s, I could eat all the steak I could pack in, but potatoes were off my dining list. After several weeks, I couldn’t eat a steak without thinking about how great it would be if it were joined by a baked potato. In my lean world today, it seems odd that back then that I could have had the butter and sour cream and followed my diet perfectly, but not the potato.
Steakhouses invented the ill-conceived method of wrapping a russet or baking potato in foil before baking. This made it possible to “hold” cooked potatoes for hours without drying them out. Unfortunately, this produced steamed not baked potatoes with soggy skins and waxy interiors.
For me, a properly prepared baked potato must have a crisp skin and a soft, steamy interior. I accomplish this every time by scrubbing a russet potato, poking it a couple of times with a knife and baking it “bare” for one hour in a 425 degree oven. I slash open the top, squeeze in the sides, add a little low-fat (no trans fat) margarine, salt, pepper and fresh snipped chives and dig in.
Over the centuries, potatoes have been thought to not only nourish us, but also cure us. Some believed that carrying a potato in a pocket would cure a toothache. Similarly, some thought a sore throat would be eased by putting a slice of baked potato in a stocking and tying it around the throat. Raw grated potato or potato juice could successfully treat frostbite or sunburn.
So far, though, today’s potato seems to do its best work on a dinner plate.
I figured out how to prepare a twice-baked potato that’s ascloseasthis to the high fat and high calorie version yet keeps me on my lean path. Here’s how.

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Twice-Baked Potatoes
4 8-ounce baking (russet) potatoes, scrubbed and pierced in 2-3 places with a knife
4 tablespoons reduced-fat soft tub margarine (2 fat grams per tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 cup nonfat sour cream
1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg yolk
Paprika to taste

Place the oven rack in the center and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Bake the potatoes for 55-60 minutes, or until tender and cooked through.
Holding each potato with an oven mitt, remove the tops by slicing lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out the potato flesh and place in the mixing bowl; reserve the skins. Add the margarine, salt, and pepper and starting at low speed break up the potatoes. Increase the mixer speed and mix until coarse.
Add the sour cream and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese and mix until smooth. Add the egg yolk and mix until blended.
Spoon the mixture into the reserved potato skins, sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and the paprika. Place the potatoes on a jellyroll pan and bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until heated through and lightly browned. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition values per serving: 337 calories(17.3 percent from fat), 6.5 g fat(2.6 g saturated fat), 57.6 g carbohydrates, 5.4 g fiber, 11.8 g protein, 66 mg cholesterol, 603 mg sodium.