On March 17, all the hibernophiles — Irish lovers of whom we have 40 million in this country alone — will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day to commemorate the death of Ireland's patron saint.
Even if you don't have a single ancestor hailing from the Emerald Island, get out and join in the food fun. Pubs usually serve green Guinness and chili con blarney; pizza joints top their pies with green peppers, green olives, green onions and spinach; and delis whip up moss-green matzo balls and broccoli bagels. McDonald's features its minty Shamrock Shakes, while ice cream parlors will be concocting banana splits with pistachio and mint ice creams, and perhaps green bananas.
Of course, potatoes are the most defining food of the Irish people, and are responsible in large part for the substantial influx of Irish immigrants to the United States in the 1800s. Here are the meat and potatoes on this tuber, and some culinary suggestions for celebrating St. Patty's Day using American's beloved spud.
In the 1840s, the root of the problem was the lack of diversity of the potato crop — the Lumper potato being the lone species cultivated in western and southern Ireland.
The Lumper was a high-yielding crop that provided adequate calories and carbohydrates for peasants and laborers in the countryside, although it was also vulnerable to disease.
In 1845, when the late blight fungus struck, it destroyed the potato crops and decimated the food supply. This led to the Great Irish Famine that devastated the island, resulting in 1 million deaths followed by massive immigration to America, Canada and Britain.
Today, there are close to 5,000 cultivated potato varieties throughout the world, along with 200 wild species all belonging to the nightshade family, close cousins to tomatoes, eggplant and tobacco plants. The skins run the gamut from brown and golden hues to designer shades of red, pinkish and purple.
Some varieties are better for baking, others for boiling, while a third group is adaptable for both. The starchy potatoes that are typically elongated with crude rough skins are ideal for baking, mashing or frying, the innards becoming fluffy and creamy when cooked.
The most common starchies are Russets, Goldrush, White Rose and Idahos. Their low-starch counterparts, the boiling tubers, aka waxy potatoes, can be oblong or round in shape and don't fall apart when cooked, so are perfect in soups, casseroles and potato salads. Some of the common boilers are Round White, Red Bliss and the Salad Potato.
Finally, the versatile, all-purpose spuds are moister than bakers and will hold together during boiling, making them good choices for soups, stews, gratins and roasting. These include Yukon Gold and Peruvian Blues.
As complex carbs, potatoes provide a boost of energy, are packed with fiber (especially the skin), potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. In fact, during the Alaskan Gold Rush, potatoes were so coveted for their high vitamin C content to prevent diseases and scurvy that miners traded their gold nuggets for the roots.
Kick off your St. Patrick's Day party with stuffed baked potatoes. Last time I made these, my family raved so much I suspected them of having kissed the Blarney Stone.
- 4 large baking potatoes (Russets or
- 1 bunch of baby broccoli, steamed, chopped
- 2 tablespoons of chopped scallions
- 1/2 cup of plain kefir yogurt or milk
- 2 ounces of butter
- 2 cups of Monterey jack or white cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup of unbleached flour
- Cayenne pepper and sea salt to taste
Preheat oven to 425 F. Scrub potatoes thoroughly, pierce with a fork, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Place on a parchment-lined baking dish and bake until soft, about one hour.
While potatoes are baking, in a saucepan on low heat, combine the butter and flour, then gradually whisk in kefir or milk. Add the cheese, stirring until melted, and remove from heat. Blend in the broccoli, scallions, cayenne and salt.
Cut the potatoes lengthwise, and squeeze the ends to create an opening. Spoon the filling into the slits and bake for an additional 3 minutes until golden brown. Serve with your favorite Irish stout.
... were the first veggie grown in outer space. (In 1995, potato plants were taken into space with the space shuttle Columbia.)
... are the second most-consumed food in this country (taking a backseat only to milk), with the average American eating 126 pounds of spuds per year.
... can be gigantic. (The world's largest potato weighed in at 18 pounds, 4 ounces, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.)
... are about 80 percent water and 20 percent solid.
... were first planted in the U.S. in 1837 by Henry Spalding.
... are more nutritious when eaten with the skin on.
... its cool juice can treat facial blemishes.
... are a relative of tobacco and the tomato.
... require less water to grow than other staple foods such as wheat, rice and corn.
... were introduced as "instant mashed potatoes" (dehydrated potatoes) commercially in 1955. Just add milk.
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