Potatoes are one of the best foods to showcase the flavor characteristics of herbs, and every country in which potatoes are consumed seems to have come up with its own selection of herbs to team with them. This is a culinary tour of several European countries as well as South America, where the potato originated, to show you the diversity of dishes that is possible with this most accommodating of vegetables.
Introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century, potatoes were at first considered strange and were eaten by only the wealthy. Before long, however, they were a staple food of both the rich and the poor. They became essential to the diet of the Irish, who adopted them as their major crop.
Irish people immigrating to New England in the early 1700s introduced potatoes to North America. Americans took their time warming up to them, but eventually, the tubers became a hands-down favorite. Early on, before anyone knew about calories and vitamins, potatoes were valued for being filling and easy to grow. Today, with our increasing concern for maintaining a healthy diet, we appreciate them as a low-calorie, low-fat food that is relatively high in vitamin C. Even though an unadorned 4-ounce potato contains only 67 calories and 1 gram of fat, high-fat preparation methods and sauces can add unwanted calories and inches along with increased flavor. As they do in the recipes below, herbs add flavor without adding fat.
In sixteenth-century Italy, potatoes were grown in gardens as ornamentals, not for food. Today, Italians rely on pasta, rice, and polenta for their main starches, but they do use potatoes to make gnocchi, a kind of dumpling, and their culuriones de patata are a type of ravioli made of potato dough flavored with onions and fresh mint. Italian cooks also use potatoes in stews and croquettes.
The rich soil of Portugal’s northwestern Minho province produces great crops of excellent potatoes. One of the region’s prized dishes is caldo verde, a simple combination of Minho potatoes that are boiled and mashed, then mixed with the cooking water, olive oil, and shredded kale, all poured over slices of linguiça, a sausage that’s sometimes flavored with fresh mint.
Many Spanish cooks combine potatoes with fish and tomatoes in a stew seasoned with saffron or paprika. Probably the best-known potato dish in Spanish cuisine is a potato and onion omelet, a version of which you’ll find below. The Spanish also like to combine eggs and potatoes with chorizo sausage and vegetables. Potatoes readily absorb the seasonings that accompany them.
Although France exports some of its potatoes to northern Europe, the French consume plenty themselves. In fact, they consider potatoes worthy of being served as a separate course, perhaps au gratin—scalloped with a mild cheese—or twice fried as pommes frites. Just as often, though, they may serve potatoes as a simple accompaniment to boiled beef or chicken stewed with vegetables or as a foil to strong flavors of cheese, boar, bacon, or beer. People of the Champagne region, whose cuisine has a heavy Germanic influence, especially enjoy potatoes teamed with fatty, spicy meats.
Southern France has a healthy respect for the potato, combining it with cheese and eggs, with tuna for salad Niçoise, and sometimes even using it in bouillabaisse or ratatouille. Tender, small potatoes are often served alone with fresh herbs such as thyme and parsley. I’ve taken a little culinary license and devised a potato dish topped with an herb-flavored mayonnaise inspired by the traditional Provençal garlic-flavored aioli.
To my Irish grandmother, straight from County Kerry, dinner was a sorry affair if there were no potatoes on the table. She might on occasion get up from the table, go into the kitchen, and boil herself a potato. When it was done, she’d return to the table, a smile on her face, and proceed to enjoy her potato along with the rest of the meal, which had long since grown cold.
Potatoes have been a staple of Irish cooking for centuries, at times Ireland’s main food source. It’s no wonder that Irish cooks have developed many inventive uses for potatoes. Colcannon (see the recipe on page 26) combines potatoes and cabbage, here seasoned with fresh sage.
Boxty pancakes, similar to German potato pancakes, are a wonderfully textured blend of cooked and raw potatoes held together with flour and seasoned with salt, pepper, and bacon fat. Potato apple, made by sandwiching slices of apple, sugar, and cinnamon between two rounds of potato cake, was a treat for us on St. Patrick’s Day. If you’re ever stumped on what to do with the potatoes in your pantry, ask an Irish cook.
potatoes . . .
a: an erect So. American herb (Solanum tuberosum) of the nightshade family widely cultivated as a vegetable crop
b: the edible starchy tuber of a potato—called also Irish potato, white potato
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition
Papas—potatoes—have been an important element of South American cookery for centuries, having been a staple of the diet in Andean cultures. South Americans probably use potatoes more freely than any other peoples, combining them with myriad additional ingredients. They are served boiled with rich cheese and chili sauce, sometimes mashed and served with seafood, eggs, and corn, and—my favorite—stuffed into chile peppers, battered, and fried.
Cilantro is the South American herb of choice to pair with potatoes, along with garlic and a variety of chiles, some spicy, some sweet, some smoky, and some almost bitter. Oregano is also used. Raisins and almonds are added to many dishes, as is enough cinnamon to contribute its unique flavor without overpowering.
Terri Pischoff is a food and travel writer who lives and works in the Sonoma wine country.
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