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About the Potato

While potatoes normally take a back seat to corned beef and cabbage on the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, they have always been an important part of Irish cuisine. A staple in many, many Irish dishes, the potato has long been identified with the country of Ireland and its rich and interesting history.

Potato History

Contrary to what many may believe, potatoes did not originate in Ireland. As a matter of fact, it is believed that the first “white” potatoes, like those used in many Irish dishes, were grown in the Andes Mountains of South American, specifically on the Titicaca Plateau that stretches across Bolivia and Peru. Spanish conquistadors brought them to the European continent in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, recognizing their unique ability to prevent scurvy.

The potato came first to Spain and then to Germany, Switzerland, and France. However, because it was a member of the “nightshade” family of plants, it was often thought to be poisonous. It wasn’t until the 17th century that this fear was dispelled and potatoes finally became a staple crop in Europe.

The potato was introduced to North America and to Ireland about the same time – in the early to mid 1700s. The Irish embraced the potato, which grew very well in the country’s cool and moist climate. Records show that by the 1800s, the average Irish citizen was eating 10 potatoes each day. They were also being used as fodder to feed animals. So, when a fungus rotted the potato crops in the 1840s, it spelled disaster for the Irish people. Hence, the potato famine began. Both people and animals died for lack of food. In all, the Irish Potato Famine killed 8 million inhabitants of this island country.

Yet, the despite the negative connotations of the potato famine, this tuber has become forever connected to the Irish and many still consider it a decidedly Irish food, even though it’s now grown in many parts of the world.

Types of Potatoes

Basically, there are six types of potatoes. Some are better for baking, others for boiling. Others work well in stews or soups. Here’s a synopsis of the types of potatoes you’re most likely to find in your supermarket or farmer’s stand.

o White – These are the ones that are most often used in Irish dishes. They are ideal for boiling, mashing, or roasting, and as the choice ingredient for potato salad. The white potato is very low in starch.

o Russet – In comparison to the white potato, this one is very high in starch. That makes it ideal for baking and they work for mashed potatoes as well.

o Yellow – The yellow potato is probably the most versatile of all potatoes. Most often seen in the Yukon Gold variety, these potatoes can be baked, boiled, roasted, or mashed and still taste delicious.

o Red – This variety is most often boiled or roasted. They are generally smaller than some of the other varieties.

o Blue – A medium starch potato, this is an unusual variety, but if you can find them, you can use them for just about any dish as they are appropriate for boiling or baking. They are also sometimes known as “purple” potatoes.

o Fingerling – Not often found in the average supermarket, fingerling potatoes are called as such because they are indeed shaped like fingers. They are low in starch and best enjoyed when boiled.

Storing Potatoes

Potatoes, no matter what kind, are fairly hearty and can last in your pantry for some time if you store them correctly. There is no need to put them in the refrigerator. Rather, they should be placed in a basket or paper bag and stored at room temperature. Don’t leave them in the plastic bag they may have been packaged in when you purchased them. Cool, dry, and dark is the name of the game. If you can achieve those conditions, your potatoes should last up to two weeks but are best when eaten within a week of buying them.