Potatoes – The Elixir of Life and Love

The Spanish conquistadors did the Western economy an enormous favour when they invaded Mexico and brought back samples of the solarum tuberosum, the indigenous plant which the Incas had been cultivating on the slopes of the Andes for over three thousand years. Once introduced into Europe this crop soon became the favorite of the French court, where the papata was feted as the ‘elixir of love’. Marie Antoinette used its blooms to decorate her hair. Parmentier, master chef to King Louis XV1, created a royal banquet in which every dish was made from potatoes. In England the foodstuff’s virtues were extolled by Adam Smith, the founding father of economics. Writing in The Wealth of Nations he noted that the strongest men and the most beautiful women in the world were fed on potatoes. ‘No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution,’ he wrote.

Nowadays potatoes are no longer held in such high esteem. Familiarity has bred a large measure of contempt, so quickly, and to such an extent, that an early edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica described the potato as a ‘demoralizing esculent.’ They’re often shunned today in the mistaken belief that they’re fattening. In fact they’re eighty per cent water. Weight for weight, they contain a third as many calories as bread. Researchers in Ireland have even made them the central feature of a successful slimming diet. Taking a group of overweight subjects they left them free to eat whatever they liked providing they consumed a minimum of a pound of potatoes a day. On that simple, nonrestrictive regimen every participant lost weight after a few weeks. The reason was that the potatoes provided bulk, which curbed their appetite and created a feeling of satiety. They’ve gained a bad reputation in dietary circles because they’re so often fried or mashed, which loads them with calorie-rich butter and cooking fats.

One of the most nutritious, and tasty ways of eating potatoes is to bake them in their jackets. This was popular in Victorian times, when street vendors would walk round the towns selling steaming hot potatoes from charcoal-heated containers strapped around their necks. This dish was the fast food of its day. When cooked in this way the potato retains more of its content of vitamin C, and if it’s eaten in its entirety it also offers a useful source of roughage and iron, most of which is found just under its skin. Today they make an excellent meal when served with grated cheese, chopped herbs, cooked onions, or slices of grilled bacon. Of course the other popular way of serving potatoes is in fried slices. For some reason we call these ‘French fries’, but in fact the Belgians hit on this idea decades before the French came up with their pommes frites. For some while the inhabitants of the Meuse valley sold chunks of fried potato from roadside shacks known as frietkots. These quickly became the specialty take-away foods of the local peasantry.

Most experts now agree that chips are best made from flowery cultivars of potatoes like Maris Pipers or King Edwards, rather than from the more waxy varieties. Any one with an eye to their health should limit their intake of fried potatoes, opting for solid, one centimeter square English chips rather than the thinner French chips, which absorb more fat on a weight-for-weight basis. These should be rinsed in water to remove their excess starch, thoroughly dried with paper toweling, then cooked twice in good quality vegetable, or olive oil. At first they should be fried at a relatively low temperature of approximately 130 degrees Centigrade. Then, when they’re thoroughly cooked, they need to be strained and left to cool and harden. Following that they should be given a final frying at roughly 190 degrees Centigrade until they’re temptingly crisp and golden. But remember they’re a delicacy, which means they should be enjoyed for their quality rather than their quantity.

One warning remains, and a query to test your knowledge of etymology. The solanum tuberosum is a member of the deadly nightshade family, so never eat any parts of the tuber colored green, since these contain high concentrations of a poison called solanine which is highly toxic. And the conundrum? How did the potato come to be called a spud? Some believe the slang term arose when a group was set up in England to discredit the widespread consumption of potatoes. This single issue pressure group was called the Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diet. I think the word existed long before, and the group merely choose their title to suit the S.P.U.D. acronym. My fancy is that it’s a derivation of spyd, the tool the Dutch used to make holes in the ground of a suitable size to take their seed potatoes. Please let me know if you have a better explanation.

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