Potatoes are Idaho’s claim to fame. If anyone in the world has heard of our state, chances are it’s because of the “Famous Potatoes” proudly advertised on our vintage license plates. The volcanic soils in our high deserts are perfect for growing potatoes, particularly the russet variety, and the hot summer days and cool nights provide the perfect climate.
Local Beverly Reeves, who spent fall “Harvest Vacations” picking potatoes during the War years, can still tell from the taste where in eastern Idaho a potato was grown. She says that the minerals in the various volcanic soils make for distinctive flavors and aromas—and if anyone would know, it would be Beverly and her fellow “pickers,” who ate potatoes every day when they were growing up, sometimes twice a day.
About those times Beverly says, “We all participated in bringing in the harvest—and it was no vacation. Each of us was issued a metal basket that would hold about half the amount that was considered a full sack. We would bend over and reach into the ground, pull out the potatoes and place them in the basket between our knees, dragging the basket along the row until it was ready to be emptied into a sack standing upright between the rows. The pickers were paid by the sack, and those overseeing the fields were responsible for crediting the sacks to the correct pickers.
“This ‘vacation’ job continued from just after sunup until dark. We did have a few minutes for lunch, which we brought with us, and at dark we went home to bed, looking forward to another day of some of the most difficult work ever devised.”
Clearly, the food that served as the staple fuel for these considerable efforts must have been a nutritional bargain—and, fortunately, it still is. Naturally low in sodium, potatoes are high in potassium and vitamin C, and contain trace minerals that are essential to health: manganese, chromium, selenium, and molybdenum. Since vitamins and minerals are concentrated in or near the skin, the most nutritional value is gained (as Beverly’s mother knew) by eating them skin and all—or, at least, cooking them with the skin on. The potato is also a good source of dietary fiber, especially if eaten with the skin.
Compared to other vegetables, potatoes provide high-quality protein with a balance of amino acids. According to researchers at Michigan State University, on a scale of 0 to 100 (the rating for eggs), potato protein ranks 71—not far below beef, at 80. And, contrary to popular opinion, these root vegetables contain few calories (100 for a medium-size potato). It is the fat added during or after cooking that contributes most of the calories.
When buying potatoes, select those that are firm and smooth. Avoid any that are sprouted, cracked, or spotted with green. Store them in a cool, dark place if you are not planning to use them right away. Do not refrigerate.
Americans consume an average of nearly fifty pounds of fresh potatoes a year. And it’s no wonder, when you think about the many ways we enjoy them—boiled, mashed, roasted, fried, baked, even twice-baked. With their hearty, nourishing texture, potatoes are also ideal for soup.
Here’s a recipe that packs a powerful nutritional punch:
Potato, Leek, and Spinach Soup
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup thinly sliced leeks
(both white and green parts)
Small sprig of fresh rosemary
11/2 pounds small red potatoes
(about 3 cups), thinly sliced
1/2 cup salted butter
6 cups coarsely chopped spinach
1 tbsp. minced parsley
Salt and pepper
Sauté leeks in butter, salt and pepper for five minutes to release flavor. Add three cups of the chicken broth and rosemary sprig, cover, and simmer for five minutes. Add the remaining broth and the potatoes; bring to a boil and simmer until potatoes are tender, about five minutes. Just before serving, add the spinach and let sit, covered, for five minutes. Garnish with parsley and a dollop of sour cream or parmesan.
Or try this delicious, low-fat recipe for warm potato salad:
Potato and Green Bean Salad
3 pounds small red potatoes,
1/2 pound green beans,
cut into 11/2 inch pieces
1 shallot, chopped
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
Cook beans until crisp-tender. Rinse with cold water, then pat dry. Cook potatoes until just tender, about twelve minutes. Drain and place in a large bowl. Whisk together the shallot, vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Pour over the potatoes and toss; mix in green beans and parsley.
Pommes de Terre au Gratin is a traditional dish in France. Here’s a simple recipe that is always a hit. Maggie Waldron recommends it in her book Potatoes, A Country Garden Cookbook.
Pommes de Terre au Gratin
2 pounds of peeled and
thinly sliced potatoes
2 tbsp. butter
11/2 cups half-and-half
11/2 cups heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Spread half of the butter inside a 2-quart baking dish. Layer the sliced potatoes by overlapping them, sprinkling each layer with salt and pepper. Cover the potatoes with the half-and-half. Cover the top with bits of the remaining butter. Bake for 45 minutes. Cover with the heavy cream and bake for another 45 minutes, or until golden brown.
Serves 4 to 6