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Potatoes1Pronounce it: po-tate-oh

The world's favourite root vegetable, the potato comes in innumerable varieties. A member of the nightshade family, like tomatoes and aubergines, it originated in South America and has been grown in Europe since the 16th century.

Shapes vary from small ('finger') potatoes like Anya to large, round types like the King Edward. Most have pale brown skins and cream or yellow flesh, but some speciality varieties are differently coloured, like the Purple Peruvian.

'Waxy' potatoes such as Charlotte are great used in salads, while 'floury' potatoes such as Maris Piper are ideal for mash and baking.

History

The potato was first domesticated in the region of modern-day southern Peru and extreme north-western Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BCE. It has since spread around the world and become a staple crop in many countries.

According to conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato was responsible for a quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900. Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom. However, lack of genetic diversity, due to the very limited number of varieties initially introduced, left the crop vulnerable to disease. In 1845, a plant disease known as late blight, caused by the fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, spread rapidly through the poorer communities of western Ireland, resulting in the crop failures that led to the Great Irish Famine. Thousands of varieties still persist in the Andes however, where over 100 cultivators might be found in a single valley, and a dozen or more might be maintained by a single agricultural household.

Potatoes2Nutrition

The potato contains vitamins and minerals, as well as an assortment of phytochemicals, such as carotenoids and natural phenols. Chlorogenic acid constitutes up to 90% of the potato tuber natural phenols. Others found in potatoes are 4-O-caffeoylquinic acid (crypto-chlorogenic acid), 5-O-caffeoylquinic (neo-chlorogenic acid), 3,4-dicaffeoylquinic and 3,5-dicaffeoylquinic acids.[37] A medium-size 150 g (5.3 oz) potato with the skin provides 27 mg of vitamin C (45% of the Daily Value (DV)), 620 mg of potassium (18% of DV), 0.2 mg vitamin B6 (10% of DV) and trace amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, foliate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. The fibre content of a potato with skin (2 g) is equivalent to that of many whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals.

The potato is best known for its carbohydrate content (approximately 26 grams in a medium potato). The predominant form of this carbohydrate is starch. A small but significant portion of this starch is resistant to digestion by enzymes in the stomach and small intestine, and so reaches the large intestine essentially intact. This resistant starch is considered to have similar physiological effects and health benefits as fibre: It provides bulk, offers protection against colon cancer, improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowers plasma cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations, increases satiety, and possibly even reduces fat storage. The amount of resistant starch in potatoes depends much on preparation methods. Cooking and then cooling potatoes significantly increases resistant starch. For example, cooked potato starch contains about 7% resistant starch, which increases to about 13% upon cooling.

The cooking method used can significantly affect the nutrient availability of the potato.

Potatoes are often broadly classified as high on the glycemic index (GI) and so are often excluded from the diets of individuals trying to follow a low-GI diet. In fact, the GI of potatoes can vary considerably depending on type (such as red, russet, white, or Prince Edward), origin (where it was grown), preparation methods (i.e., cooking method, whether it is eaten hot or cold, whether it is mashed or cubed or consumed whole, etc.), and with what it is consumed (i.e., the addition of various high-fat or high-protein toppings).

In the UK, potatoes are not considered by the NHS as counting towards the five portions of fruit and vegetables diet.

Availability

All year round, apart from early season new potatoes like Jersey Royals, which are around from April through to July.

Choose the best

Look for firm, blemish-free potatoes. Avoid those that are cracked, have sprouts, wrinkles or green tinges. The fine, filmy skin of new potatoes can rub off, but other potatoes should have no bald patches.

Choose your potato according to how you want to cook it.

Potatoes3Uses

Potatoes are used to brew alcoholic beverages such as vodka, potcheen, or akvavit.

They are also used as food for domestic animals.

Potato starch is used in the food industry as, for example, thickeners and binders of soups and sauces, in the textile industry, as adhesives, and for the manufacturing of papers and boards.

Maine companies are exploring the possibilities of using waste potatoes to obtain polylactic acid for use in plastic products; other research projects seek ways to use the starch as a base for biodegradable packaging.

Potato skins, along with honey, are a folk remedy for burns in India. Burn centres in India have experimented with the use of the thin outer skin layer to protect burns while healing.

Potatoes (mainly Russets) are commonly used in plant research. The consistent parenchyma tissue, the clonal nature of the plant and the low metabolic activity provide a very nice "model tissue" for experimentation. Wound-response studies are often done on potato tuber tissue, as are electron transport experiments. In this respect, potato tuber tissue is similar to Drosophila melanogaster, Caenorhabditis elegans and Escherichia coli: they are all "standard" research organisms.

Culinary uses

Potatoes4Potatoes are prepared in many ways: skin-on or peeled, whole or cut up, with seasoning’s or without. The only requirement involves cooking to swell the starch granules. Most potato dishes are served hot, but some are first cooked, then served cold, notably potato salad and potato chips/crisps.

Common dishes are: mashed potatoes, which are first boiled (usually peeled), and then mashed with milk or yoghurt and butter; whole baked potatoes; boiled or steamed potatoes; French-fried potatoes or chips; cut into cubes and roasted; scalloped, diced, or sliced and fried (home fries); grated into small thin strips and fried (hash browns); grated and formed into dumplings, Rösti or potato pancakes.

Unlike many foods, potatoes can also be easily cooked in a microwave oven and still retain nearly all of their nutritional value, provided they are covered in ventilated plastic wrap to prevent moisture from escaping; this method produces a meal very similar to a steamed potato, while retaining the appearance of a conventionally baked potato. Potato chunks also commonly appear as a stew ingredient.

Potatoes are boiled between 10 and 25 minutes, depending on size and type, to become soft.

Prepare it

Older potatoes should be scrubbed well in cold water, and any eyes should be dug out with the tip of a peeler or a small, sharp knife. Much of the nutritional content is stored in or just under the skin, so leave it on if possible. Otherwise, peel very thinly with a potato peeler, then rinse. New potatoes just need a scrub in cold water - the skin is too thin to warrant peeling.

If any area of an old or new potato is tinged with green it should be scraped or cut off, as it is mildly toxic.

Store it

Potatoes5Keep all potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place as, if exposed to light, they'll sprout green shoots. They should be kept in paper, rather than plastic bags, as the latter will make them go mouldy. Stored this way, old potatoes can last weeks, while new potatoes should last for a good few days.

Cook it

Bake whole (50 minutes -1 ¼ hours); chop into big chunks and roast (45-60 minutes for old, 30-40 for new); chop into big chunks and boil (15-20 minutes for old, 12-15 minutes for new).

Alternatives:

Try sweet potato.

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