They are so much more than just a plain side dish. Baked, boiled, steamed or fried, mashed up, stuffed or whole, they are a satisfying and really really healthy, wholesome food packed with nutrients. They come in all possible shades of yellow, but nowadays you can also easily get pink and reddish-skinned potatoes on the market as well as purple and lilac ones – which, as astounding as it sounds – is only a little pretaste of what can be found in the homeland of the potato, Peru.
Around 8000 BC the native population of the highlands of modern-day Peru, known as the Inca, came up with the idea to cultivate potatoes. Later on – in the early 16th century – the Spanish came around and took the potato back with them to the Old World. Given the fact that at that time wheat and by extension bread were the main food in a large number of European countries, the starchy newcomer had no easy start. At first rather frowned upon, gradually the potato worked his way up into the graces of the sceptical Spanish then Irish palates and eventually spread all over Europe where it has remained a staple ingredient in most kitchens ever since.
Speaking of Ireland: in 1840s due to a severe potato disease which had destroyed the potato crop almost entirely, Ireland, who back then relied on the potato as its main food supply, was struck by a terrible famine causing the death of up to a million of people. Fleeing sheer starvation, another million of the island’s population emigrated to the USA and Canada – amongst them the great-grandfather of the future president of the United States John F. Kennedy.
Good to know about
Leaving the skin on the potatoes, you get most of the vitamins and as far as the flavour goes, it’s a whole new experience. Sure, it’s more rustic that way, but hey, if you go for the right herbs and spices, you’ll soon want no other taters than with their skin on.
Before cooking, always give your potatoes a good scrub, especially if you choose to eat them with the skin on. Then pour just enough water into your pot to almost cover the first layer of potatoes and put the lid on – the potatoes on top will easily cook in the steam. When boiling the potatoes you should start off with cold water. When it reaches the boiling point, lower the heat and let it simmer gently until the potatoes are done. That way they’ll be cooked evenly all the way through without falling apart.
Don’t store your potatoes in plastic bags or even worse in the fridge. For regular unwashed potatoes, choose a cool, dark place, put them on a shelf in your pantry in a basket covered with a kitchen towel or inside a paper bag. Stored this way, they should easily keep for up to two months. New potatoes on the other hand are at their best when eaten within a week after buying.
Our good old potato has a batch of best friends: fresh herbs such as basil, dill, mint, thyme, chervil, parsley and chives, closely followed by veggies like kale, leeks, fennel, garlic, onions, chard, mushrooms, freshly grated horseradish and olives, then there are spices like paprika, nutmeg, pepper, cayenne; and then of course other bulbs and roots like the celery root, sweet potatoes, turnips and not to forget the all-time favourite squash.
Whether you want to go rustic or the more refined way, matching the potato with the ingredients above you yield amazingly flavoursome results.
Matches made in heaven
baby potatoes + dill + butter (serve with a glass of milk kefir or soured milk)
potatoes + spring onions + extra-virgin olive oil
potatoes + parsley leaves + flaxseed oil
Potatoes with spinach
1 kg new potatoes
400 g baby spinach
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 clove of garlic
salt & pepper
Cook your potatoes in a small amount of water, then drain. While the potatoes are boiling, sauté the onions in a frying pan for a few minutes until they turn a light golden colour, chop the garlic and the chilli, add to the onions, fry for another minute, then set aside. Now slice the potatoes in halves and add to the ingredients in the pan, squashing the potatoes slightly with a fork. With a spoon gently combine everything together, then work in the spinach and keep on the heat for another minute until the leaves have wilted. Before serving, squeeze some lemon juice over the finished dish and top off with some finely chopped spring onions.
Basic oven-roasted potatoes
1 kg potatoes
2 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 red chilli
1 twig of rosemary and thyme
2-3 tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper
Preheat the oven to 180 °C. Wash your potatoes, then cut each one into either slices or quarters leaving the skin on. However: should the skin of the potato be rather thick – which is often the case with older potatoes –, it is better to peel it off. Now remove the thyme leaves and rosemary needles from the woody parts and chop them up a little to release more flavour. Finally cut your chilli into thin slices and crush the unpeeled garlic cloves with the back of your knife. Put the potatoes into a flat oven-proof baking dish together with the herbs and the garlic adding a pinch of preferably coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper and a glug of olive oil. Get your hands in and combine everything together. You can of course use sunflower oil as well as canola oil instead. Put the dish into the oven and bake for around 40 minutes or until the potatoes start turning a nice light gold-brown colour on the edges.
Stuffed oven potatoes
4 medium-sized potatoes
400 g champignons
1 glove of garlic
1 small onion
1/2 tsp dried thyme & marjoram each
a small piece of Gruyère or Emmentaler cheese
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
salt & black pepper
Wash and boil the potatoes without peeling. Let them cool down. Meanwhile chop the mushrooms and roast in the pan in some olive oil on medium heat until they start to turn slightly brown. Add the finely chopped onion and at the very end the garlic and fry until they become translucent. Take the pan off the heat. Cut the potatoes in halves and carefully scoop out the flesh into a bowl leaving the skins untouched. Combine the mushrooms, the herbs and the spices with the potatoes in the bowl. Grate the cheese and add half of it to the mixture as well. Season with pepper and, depending on how salty the cheese is, with salt. Put the filling into the potato skins and sprinkle over with the remaining cheese. Set the potatoes on a baking sheet or place in an ovenproof dish, then put them into a preheated oven at 180° C and bake for about 15 minutes or until the cheese turns a light golden-brown colour. Serve hot as a main dish with a fresh green salad or as a side dish.
To get a nice roast on your mushrooms, don’t put any salt on them. Salt draws the moisture out of the mushrooms and they’ll get soggy and boil in their juices instead of frying. Also, don’t try to fry too much mushrooms at once or they won’t brown properly and start boiling instead of roasting.
By the way: you’ll obtain a deeper flavour with brown champignons rather than the white ones which have a more delicate, less pronounced aroma.
Champignons can be actually eaten raw as well as cooked. Before tossing them into your salad, sprinkle some lemon juice over them after cutting them up to keep their nice snowy colour.
Champignons should be stored in the fridge in a paper bag which helps absorbing the moisture from the mushrooms. Don’t keep your champignons near smelly veggies like onions and foods with strong aromas (they easily absorb the odours of their surroundings) nor fruit (the ethylene exerted by the fruit speeds up the ageing of the mushrooms). As to mushrooms you can go by the rule: the sooner you use them the better (after 3 to 4 days they start to get soft and mushy).
To clean your mushrooms use a dry towel or a brush – that way you’ll be able to rub off the dirt without actually having to wash them. Always try to avoid washing your mushrooms – they soak up the water like a sponge which spoils their taste in the following cooking process.