King of the field

Karl Wells
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A spudtacular kitchen staple

We praise all the flowers that we fancy

Sip the nectar of fruit ere they're peeled,

Ignoring the common old tater

When, in fact, he's the King of the Field.

Delicious oven-roasted potatoes and steak.

We praise all the flowers that we fancy

Sip the nectar of fruit ere they're peeled,

Ignoring the common old tater

When, in fact, he's the King of the Field.

- Irish Potato Marketing Company

I used to live next door to a chap who grew potatoes in his backyard. Let's call him Stan. Stan's interest in horticulture was limited to potato cultivation. He grew them on the border of his lawn, snuggled close to the boundary between his yard and mine.

From the time the eyes of his seed potatoes had been safely settled beneath the fertile soil of his west-end plot until he excitedly pulled the new potatoes out in the fall, Stan tended his potato bed like a broody, temperamental hen.

Stan was positively obsessive and would look at me with a wary eye whenever I worked on my side of the border within spitting distance of his precious tubers. He must have thought I might covertly corrupt his crop in some way. (Jeez, and I always thought I had such an honest face.) Every time I fertilized or weeded, I expected the business end of a spade to flatten the top of my oversized turnip.

My fussy neighbour was of a generation that had experienced the Great Depression and some pretty hard times in Newfoundland. Back in those days everyone had a vegetable garden where they grew spuds and other vegetables - carrots, turnip, onions, cabbage and so on. The crops would be stored in a root cellar for the winter. (Root cellars were everywhere.) I'd like to think Stan's behaviour was the result of having had to rely on a meagre supply of homegrown vegetables to literally stay alive for a good part of his life. Crop failures in those times were devastating.

These days, most of us don't need to worry about crop failure. Supermarkets always have plenty of everything, and who knows if there's been a crop failure in Ontario or Oregon?

Potato power

Stan may also have been aware of the power and healthfulness of the potato. A few years ago, a friend of mine waxed eloquent about the nutritional prowess of the spud.

Don - who was a tad overweight at the time - told me he had recently put himself on the "potato only diet." I was skeptical but impressed by Don's zealot-like description of the potato as an all-in-one food. He kept stressing that the total nutrition necessary for healthy human life was contained in potatoes. I'm not an advocate of the diet, but Don was right about the potato being full of nutrition, and by the way, he did lose a lot of weight.

So, what makes potatoes so special? In her book, "Get Fresh," Madeleine Greey states, "Potatoes are an excellent source of potassium and fibre, especially if you eat the skin. A baked potato with skin contains four times more iron than a potato without skin. Likewise, a baked potato with skin has 4.8 grams of fibre, while a baked potato without skin has only 2.3 g. There are 220 calories in a seven-ounce (200 g) baked potato. Potatoes are high in Vitamin C. A baked potato with skin contains 26 mg of Vitamin C, which is 43 per cent of the recommended daily intake (RDI). Potatoes are also high in iron (if you eat the skin), thiamine, niacin, and Vitamin B6, and are a source of folate."

Given that many of us consume our weight in potatoes each year, you may be interested to know that spuds were a tough sell when first brought to Europe from South America by the Spaniards. Here is how "Yummy Potatoes" author Marlena Spieler described the very tepid reception potatoes received in Europe after their introduction:

Nightshade family

"The potato was not initially embraced as a food in Western Europe. As a member of the nightshade family, its leaves are poisonous, and people were afraid of the tubers, too. But life was changing and people were hungry; both social and agricultural changes combined to convince people of the potato's inherent goodness. Ireland was the first country to embrace the miracle vegetable."

I've loved potatoes since I was first introduced at the age of three to the ubiquitous french fry or "chip" as most of us Newfoundlanders call them. Every Friday my older brother would be dispatched to Archie's Snack Bar for fish and chips. I enjoyed the battered cod, but, for me, the chips were perfection on a cardboard tray. That earthy, nutty flavour enhanced by a shower of salt and malt vinegar made "King Spud" my favourite vegetable.

Over the years, I've developed a preference for oven-roasted potatoes. I cut them into chunks, toss them in grape seed oil (for extra flavour) and season them with fresh rosemary, fleur de sel and freshly cracked pepper. Finally, I roast them off in a really hot oven with lots of the bloomin' rose - garlic. They're wonderful with a juicy medium rare steak and a glass of Shiraz. Try them along with other favourite potato creations like potato gratin and baked potato skins. You'll appreciate why the not-so-lowly spud is "King of the Field."

Karl's oven-roasted potato chunks

Ingredients:

2 or 3 lbs. of potatoes (whatever kind you like.)

1/4 cup of grape seed oil

Leaves of 1 large rosemary stalk

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly cracked pepper

Unpeeled cloves of 2 garlic bulbs

Method:

Wash potatoes and dry. With a sharp knife, cut the potatoes into large chunks of about 1 1/2 inches. Place chunks in a large mixing bowl. Add grape seed oil, rosemary leaves, salt and pepper. Mix all together with a large spoon until the potato chunks are evenly covered with the oil and seasonings. Spread mixture onto a large baking sheet making sure there is enough room for the potato chunks to breathe. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves amongst the potato so that all parts of the baking sheet contain some.

(Note: The garlic will burn unless it retains its papery skin. The flavour of the roasted garlic will permeate the potato beautifully and you can squeeze out the garlic paste afterwards and enjoy it with your meal.)

Place the sheet in the middle of a pre-heated 475 F oven. After 15 minutes turn the potatoes. Continue roasting for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and serve with grilled meat.

Classic potato gratin

By Marlena Spieler

Courtesy of "Yummy Potatoes" (Chronicle Books)

Ingredients:

3 to 4 lbs. baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

4 tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for the casserole

3 to 5 garlic cloves, chopped

Salt and pepper

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, or chives, for garnish

Method:

Place the sliced potatoes in a bowl with cold water to cover. Leave for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour. Remove from the cloudy water and dry with a clean towel. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter the bottom and sides of an earthenware baking casserole, about 3 to 4 inches deep, and large enough to fit all the potatoes (very large). If you have no ceramic pan, use an ordinary baking pan.

Sprinkle about half the garlic along the edges of the buttered sides of the pan. Make a layer of potatoes, dot with butter pieces, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with a few spoonfuls of cream, scatter a little garlic on top, then repeat in this fashion until all the potatoes have been used. End the top with a dabbing of butter, the last slosh of cream, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Bake for 1 hour to 90 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender and have absorbed all the cream; the top of the potatoes should be golden brown with darker brown splotches here and there. This is a very rustic dish and by its very nature is very forgiving timewise; if you need more time, lower the oven's heat, and to speed the cooking up and give it a nice dark topping, raise the heat to 400 F for the last 10 to 15 minutes. Serve in its own casserole, or dish up individual portions, sprinkling each with a little chopped fresh parsley. Serves 4 to 6.

Crisp potato skins

By Janet Reeves

Courtesy of "One Potato Two Potato" (Ragweed Press)

Ingredients:

6 medium baked potatoes or skins from leftover baked potatoes

1/2 cup melted butter

1 tsp. garlic salt, celery salt or any desired seasoning salt

1/4 cup grated parmesan or Swiss cheese

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut baked potatoes into quarters. Scoop out pulp (setting aside for use as hash browns or mash), leaving only a thin layer of potato on each skin.

Place skin side down on a baking sheet and brush well with melted butter. Sprinkle with desired seasoning salt. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until skins are brown and crisp. Sprinkle with cheese for the last 5 minutes of cooking period. Serve hot. Serves 2 to 4.

Helpful potato hints

Courtesy of "One Potato Two Potato" (Ragweed Books)

Use leftover potato water in sauces, soups or baked goods.

To thicken soups, add 3 tbsp. grated raw potato for each cup of soup.

Potatoes can be baked in a covered coffee can.

Add diced pimento to hot mashed potatoes for colour.

Oil the skin of a potato before you bake it. The skin will be delicious.

To slice potatoes thinly, dip knife blade in boiling water.

For a new taste, cook potatoes in beef or chicken broth.

Geographic location: Western Europe, Newfoundland, Ontario Oregon South America Ireland

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