St. Patty's Day is not for couch potatoes

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.



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