By Susanne Merrett
Potatoes. Don't get me started….I just LOVE potatoes.
The humble Peruvian tuber, which dates back over 7000 years, began its global journey when Spanish Conquistadors brought potatoes back to Europe in the 1500s. Initially potatoes were not considered fit for human consumption, and were only eaten by farm animals and destitute, starving individuals. Eventually Europeans overcame their fear of those unshapely and seemingly ugly tubers and recognized that potatoes were easier to grow than other crops (like wheat or oats), while also providing more balanced nutrition. And so, a worldwide love affair with the potato began.
My particular love affair with potatoes is somewhat genetically based – my parents were both born in Germany, land of all things kartoffel. Kartoffelsalat, kartoffel pfannkuchen, and kartoffel kloesse (potato salad, potato pancakes, and potato dumplings) were all integral and delicious parts of my childhood.
Potatoes have been constant and faithful companions into my adult years as well. They have graced my garden, my shopping basket, and my dinner plate.
At our first home in Calgary, the thin slice of earth between the garage and the fence proved to be an exceptionally fertile spot for my first ever crop of potatoes. Potatoes are remarkably easy to grow, and have even sprouted in the midst of my unattended compost heap. As all gardeners know, fresh, new potatoes, simply boiled (skin on, of course) then served with generous amounts of salt and butter, are truly one of the simple pleasures of life.
While on vacation in Ireland, we happened upon some glorious mashed potatoes in a pub. When I queried the waitress as to the origin of those heavenly smooth and unbelievably tasty taters, she replied (in her lovely, lilting accent), “Why they're Irish p'tatoes, dear.” Tempted as I was, I did not test Canada's importation patience by smuggling in any of those amazing golden brown orbs. Fortunately, however, on another vacation (to PEI) I was able to bring home two different varieties of potatoes as my souvenirs. No T-shirts or postcards for me – give me a paper bag filled with the promise of limitless recipes and I'm happy.
Today, I find countless delicious uses for potatoes. In fact, I have a cookbook that contains over 300 recipes entirely dedicated to potatoes. It's fantastic! Some of my favourite recipes are those that use potatoes simply as one of many ingredients. The Farmhouse Chocolate Cake (which incorporates mashed potatoes into a divine mixture of flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and chocolate) is ambrosial, while the Potato Bread (also made with a healthy measure of mashed potatoes) is made weekly in my kitchen. Of course, recipes that highlight potatoes (like Potato and Bacon Pancakes) also deserve their turn in the spotlight.
The trick to potatoes is knowing a little something about them. Starchy potatoes, (Idahos or Russets) love to soak up flavours but don't hold their shape well – think mashed or baked potatoes. Waxy potatoes (Reds or New Potatoes) tend to do well in casseroles and potato salads. All purpose potatoes such as Yukon Gold (my personal favourite) have medium starch and are happy in just about any potato recipe.
For me, potatoes are the perfect food. They are wonderfully nutritious, very economical and conveniently available year round. And, here's the best part, they are fantastically versatile. Potatoes can be dressed up into Duchess Potatoes, dressed down into Shepherd's Pie, or turned into something in between, like Potato Gnocchi.
Be it Yukon Golds or Idaho Russets or even Nova Scotia Blues, I have never met a potato I didn't love. (For one of my favorite potato recipes, check out Potato Tray Buns on the Cooperator website, http://www.easternshorecooperator.ca/potato_tray_buns. These buns are chewy, soft, buttery, and oh so satisfying!