The Potato. Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh “made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth, who invited the local gentry to a royal banquet that featured the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the kitchen staff – uneducated in the use of potatoes – discarded the tubers, and instead boiled the stems and leaves (poisonous), and the guests became extremely ill. The potatoes were then banned from the court – 1589.”
Beyond their terrible debut in England, they were also panned in France and Germany”
“In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it” (Edict from Besancon, France). Similar bans were issued in Germany.
However, legend also holds that the Spanish Armada was carrying potatoes when it sank off the coast of Ireland. The tubers caught hold in the soil. Historian Fernand Braudel suggests that this introduction of the potato had a greater effect on the history of Europe than the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The potato found another advocate in Adam Smith, moral philosopher and pioneer of political economy, who theorized that potatoes made ‘men stronger and women more beautiful’. To help the momentum in America, Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States had them served ‘French fried’ to his guests in the White House, popularizing their use. Their low maintenance for high caloric and nutritional yield has caused them to be adopted into the culture and cuisine of all nations. In 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space, potentially for use of astronauts on long space voyages.
Potatoes were brought to the United States for cultivation the same year as the first Thanksgiving (1621), but has since transfigured the meal. Potatoes are a quintessential part of any Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. In Utah, people plan their Thanksgiving dinner weeks and even months in advance of the date. The foods are carefully chosen to be both traditional and tantalize the tongue. The potatoes served with the Thanksgiving turkey are most often whipped, high mounds of starch dotted with butter or slathered in gravy. It is interesting to note that even those cooks who resort to potato flakes are actually using a modern form of ‘ch uñu’ the Quechua word for ‘freeze dried potato’.
There are so many different types of potatoes in Peru, the land of their derivation, while in the United States few varieties are consistently available. I drove to the local market to pick up a few yellow potatoes and found they only carried the large mealy russet and the many eyed red potatoes. Discouraged, I traveled another 7 miles to another super market and found a small bag of “Idaho yellow” potatoes. I was interested to try two recipes – and serve them side by side. I wanted to try the quintessential American Thanksgiving potatoes – high and fluffy alongside a recipe of Peruvian mashed potatos.
To find out more about the science of the potato, I turned to an article in Serious Eats by J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT . He explains that the russet potato is a mealy potato with cells (those things that living things are composed of) that fall apart easily. The pectin that holds the cells breaks down with little work in the russet, so fewer of the starch granules are broken open. When too much starch is released, the potatoes become ‘gluey’ and stiff. So light and fluffy potatoes need to have the starch bubbles released from each other without breaking open and spreading the gooey starch around. Yellow potatoes on the other hand, need to be cooked longer and worked to get the starch bubbles to separate. With this bit of info in mind, I considered my two recipes:
The first recipe, from Yanuq – the cooking of Peru
½ yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
¾ package of butter
1 cup cream.
Boil the potatoes in a big pot with salted water to cover them. Cook until soft, about 15-20 minutes.
Drain and pass through a potato press or mash them while warm. Put in another pot.
Add the butter and stir with a wooden spoon until the butter melts completely.
Now add the warmed cream by stirring gently with the wooden spoon. Add more cream if necessary in order to obtain the desired consistency.
And the second from Serious Eats
4 pounds russet potatoes
2 cups whole milk
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch pats
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. 1. Peel potatoes and cut into rough chunks about 1 to 2-inches cubed. Transfer to a bowl of cold water to rinse. Change water two or three times until it runs clear.
2. 2. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a Dutch oven or large stockpot over high heat. Add potatoes and cook until completely tender, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes in colander and rinse under hot running water for 30 seconds to wash away excess starch. Set ricer or food mill over now-empty pot and pass potatoes through. Add milk and butter and fold gently with rubber spatula to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.
I wanted to make both recipes but my first concern was What was I going to do with enough mashed potatoes to feed 16 people!? Then my two roommates wandered in, wondering what I was making. Problem solved. These two beefy young men were capable of demolishing meals in minutes.
So now, the potatoes:
Russets and Idaho Yellow
And the results:
I was surprised. I am a fluffy girl. Always have been a fluffy girl, but in the end I came over to the other side. The yellow potatoes, with their semi fluid consistency were so enticing, they drew me in, spoke to my soul and converted me.
The potato, this wonderful tuber from Peru has conquered the world of gastronomy, and now reaches for the stars.