EAT POTATOES (MAINCROP)
Nutritious, delicious and endlessly versatile, the potato is by far the most important vegetable in Europe and has been particularly warmly embraced by cooks in the UK and Ireland. How impoverished would our national cuisine be without golden roast potatoes, thick-cut chips, or creamy mash?
After selecting the right potato for the job, a little attention to detail during preparation can transform the humble spud into a gastronomic experience that is hard to beat. Just try reading the small selection of recipes we've picked out without wanting to make one immediately.
Potatoes were cultivated five thousand years ago in what is now Peru. They were introduced to Europe via Spain in the 1550s and arrived in the UK sometime in the 1590s. Somewhat surprisingly, potatoes weren't grown in North America until they were taken by Irish emigrants in 1719. They travelled to Australasia with Captain Cook in 1770.
When first introduced to Britain, potatoes were an exotic and expensive food with a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It was more than a century later before they became a firmly established staple food.
In the 1840s the potato crop in much of Europe was wiped out by potato blight - an infection of the fungus Phytophthora infestans. Ireland was particularly badly hit as the crop was dominated by a single, highly susceptible, variety. In just over a decade the population of Ireland dropped by over a fifth: it is estimated that a million people died of malnutrition and a million more emigrated. This tragic episode serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity in agriculture.
Solanum tuberosum is a plant in the nightshade family that is now grown in some 130 countries in all corners of the world. Potato plants reproduce vegetatively by growing tubers from which the new plant develops, hence potatoes are clones (the offspring are genetically identical to the parent plant).
Pick potatoes that are firm, with smooth undamaged skin. Avoid any that are bruised, tinged with green or sprouting.
For culinary purposes, potatoes are loosely grouped into waxy or starchy (in reality many potatoes fall somewhere between the two). Waxy potatoes hold their shape when cooked and so are good in casseroles and gratins or for serving as boiled potatoes. Starchy ones are better for mashing, baking, roasting and frying. Some of the more commonly available varieties are listed below.
Desiree. Probably the best all-rounder; can be used in almost any potato dish and has a greater depth of flavour than most.
King Edward. Recommended for baking and roasting. They are Delia's potato of choice for making gnocchi.
Maris Piper. General purpose potato, good for chips.
Kerr's Pink. Less common but makes great mash.
Marfona. Somewhere between waxy and starchy. Lends itself to boiling and baking.
Pink Fir Apple. A tasty spud with many of the characteristics of new potatoes; use in salads.
Cara. Try in gratins.
In a cool, dark, dry place (not the fridge) away from onions or any strongly flavoured foods.
Everyone has their own preferred techniques for preparing simple potato dishes; here are the ones that work for us.
Scrub the skin, dry, prick with a fork and put straight on the oven shelf at 220°C. Cook for an hour or so, depending on size, but allow 1½ hours for a nice crisp skin.
For lighter, fluffier mash use baked potatoes rather than boiled. Scoop out the flesh, add a generous knob of butter, a splash of milk and a sprinkling of salt. Some swear that the best results are obtained by passing the potato through a ricer or mouli; we find that a good working with hand-held masher followed by a brief but vigorous beating with a wooden spoon does the job admirably.
Peel as thinly as possible (most of a potato's flavour and nutritional content is close to the skin). Parboil for eight minutes, drain, then dry in the hot pan and shake to fluff up the edges. Roast in preheated fat (use goose fat, available in tins, to reach roast potato nirvana) at around 200°C for 40 to 50 minutes, turning occasionally.
Peel and slice potatoes to the required thickness. Soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes before draining and drying thoroughly. Deep fry at 150°C for 5 minutes, drain and raise the oil temperature to 180°C before frying again until golden. Drain, dry on paper towels, salt and serve.
If you don't have a deep fat fryer, and don't fancy deep frying in a pan, acceptable results can be obtained in the oven. Pour sunflower oil into a large roasting tray to a depth of a couple of millimetres and heat to 220°C. Add the chips (previously soaked and dried), toss gently to coat with oil and spread them out (they must be well spaced or they will not crisp). Cook until just crisp (around 20 minutes) turning a couple of times during cooking before draining in a sieve and drying on paper towels.
A spud is a small, narrow spade that was once used for digging potatoes.