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A la Carte: Let’s talk tubers

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A farmer holds ripe organic potatoes in field. ADOBE STOCK

By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

Once upon a time, I was writing a script for an internet cooking segment. The idea was that I, a darn good self-taught cook, would be a counterpoint to an often inaccessible classically trained chef. My idea was to highlight simple ingredients and ways they could be made delicious. The potato was an easy choice. What could be more readily available than a potato? The segment never came to fruition, but the tubers stayed on my mind. 

I love a potato. Who doesn’t? My family has a “secret” potato salad recipe, that is pretty much how everyone makes it, but with a bit of pickle juice mixed in. Cooks for family gatherings can never make too much mashed potatoes, which replaces potato salad on the table for any non-picnic-style gathering. Any leftovers will get fried up with breakfast, a crispy buttery crust surrounding the pillowy mash and making it something new and wonderful. 

Potatoes seem unmatched in their versatility. A potato pancake is a much different beast than a French fry, which is certainly no twin to the baked potato. Twice baked it transforms again. 

Potatoes are a global staple. Think Indian samosas or Mexican potato tacos, Polish pierogi or even the Canadian poutine. 

According to the (possibly biased) International Potato Center, potatoes are now the third most important global crop, after wheat and rice. So I was surprised to learn their role in global cuisine was a much more recent development. 

The center is based out of Lima, Peru, near where the tubers were first cultivated by the Inca in the Andes Mountains nearly 10,000 years ago. There they remained until the latter half of the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors brought them home to Europe. Cultivation spread. 

Potatoes can thrive at most elevations. They use less water to grow than grains.  And, most importantly, growing potatoes meant more food in the same space of land (This was the reason they became a staple in the diet in Ireland and why a potato blight played a role in the famine). 

Oh, and as part of a balanced diet, they’re pretty good for you. Potatoes, according to the Washington Potato Commission, are a good source of potassium, protein, antioxidants, fiber and vitamin C. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, potatoes are the most well-rounded nutritionally, my cooking club partner told me this week. The meal was kosher and she contributed—you guessed it—potatoes. Or more specifically, a potato kugel.

Potatoes are a staple in my kitchen, so much so that I like to keep baked potatoes on hand at all times. These are often little golden potatoes—my favorite of the varieties that are readily available in the grocery stores. I throw them in my smart toaster oven (which I use so much it may deserve its own column) until firm but cooked, baking them at 350 degrees for 20-40 minutes depending on the size of the potato. 

Cooked potatoes open a world of possibilities for quick additions to any meal. 

Eat them as they are… they are baked potatoes. Load them up with butter and sour cream or ranch dressing, bacon bits and chives. Mash ‘em. Make a potato salad. Dice them and throw them in a pan with some bacon grease for crispy breakfast potatoes. Grate them for hash browns. Hasselback them. Smash them, coat them in olive oil, garlic, herbs and Parmesan and bake them again.

The potato possibilities seem endless. 

Rachel Hergett is a foodie and cook from Montana. She is arts editor emeritus at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and has written for publications such as Food Network Magazine and Montana Quarterly. Rachel is also the host of the Magic Monday Show on KGLT-FM and teaches at Montana State University. 

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