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Potato Musings

I hadn’t given any real thought to my recent potato consumption until I visited my friends in Ireland last week. Only when seeing how frequently spuds appeared in their meals, both at home and at restaurants, did I realize that I had been unconsciously avoiding them, having somehow internalized by osmosis the idea that potatoes are bad.

Why they’re bad, of course, is subject to interpretation. Certain Buddhist sects wouldn’t eat them because they’re a root vegetable and would do too much harm to the plant. They fail for any low-carb diet because of their high starch content. For those on the Paleo diet, potatoes are a bit controversial because they weren’t available in primitive times, but some say they’re okay with minimal processing.

More surprising was realizing that for anyone such as myself interested in healthy eating, it’s easy to automatically rule out the potato because they so frequently show up only as chips or fries. For example, when I did a Google search for images of potatoes, fries were the first result. We’re even cautioned about baked potatoes, depending on how much dairy or other fat is added to them.

I was therefore fascinated to read Denis Cotter’s discourse on potatoes in his book For the Love of Food, in the section on “Mashes”. Here are a couple of excerpts.

“In Ireland, the potato is the only ingredient that garners serious analysis around the dinner table…. [The] Irish ideal of a good spud [is]… one with a dry, floury texture, good for mashing.” (p. 127)

“The potato probably last had a place as the main item of dinner when people had nothing else to eat. Maybe we’ve moved on far enough from that to give it another chance, and to rediscover the complex character and wide-ranging versatility of the formerly powerful but currently humble spud.” (p. 128)

He then proceeded to give a number of recipes to remind readers that potato mashes can include more than simply the potatoes, elevating them to a new level. The ones that intrigued me the most were:

  • Roast garlic and fennel mash with lemon-braised chickpeas and aubergine (i..e, eggplant)

  • Wild garlic mash with grilled asparagus and citrus tarragon-dressed Puy lentils

  • Roast parsnip mash with sage-grilled Portobello and caramelized red onion

  • Smoked mash with tomato and maple-braised Brussels sprouts

Or even if you don’t want to get that fancy, you could try your hand at colcannon, a very traditional Irish dish with potatoes, cabbage or kale, and green onions. Or mix mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower. Or simply roast them tossed with a little olive oil and rosemary or thyme. Or mash them with vegetable broth instead of milk, and reduce the amount of butter, if you’re trying for something familiar but healthier. Or go for a soup, such as potato and leek, or potato and fennel. The options are almost endless, and certainly more various than the fries and chips we normally see.

In thinking about this, I find myself agreeing with Cotter, that it’s a shame how much people are avoiding the potato simply because of certain associations, even though they really are nutritious and can be quite delicious. And, as he points out, they can also be the epitome of comfort food:

“I can hardly think the words ‘comfort food’… without thinking about potatoes…. [When] I ask the question [what is your comfort food,]… I’m thinking of the dish that you would make for yourself when you’re feeling fragile, whether that be from excessive partying, disappointment or simply being under the weather and in need of self-administered pampering.” (p. 126)

I can personally attest to the appeal of this type of pampering based on my recent trip: after a morning of hiking almost 8 miles through gray, damp weather, with feet sore from blisters, sitting down to a heaping bowl of colcannon was a definite comfort.

So if you’re like me and haven’t been eating many potatoes, perhaps you could explore why that is. Then, if you discover that you don’t truly think that potatoes are a “bad” food, try an experiment of a new recipe to get the fuller experience and see if you, too, find potatoes comforting.

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