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Perfect Potatoes: Why you should fall in love with the humble spud

We think of potatoes as a starchy filler, a pile of mash or chips on the side. It is difficult to think of our culinary heritage without potatoes. They only arrived in Britain in the 16th century, and that was two centuries before we ate with forks at the table. Potatoes are far more tantalising with all their different varieties, colours, differences in texture and taste.

At Demuths cookery school we love cooking dishes from around the world and potatoes are cooked in interesting ways in other countries.

Potato history

Peru is the birthplace of potatoes and has over 4000 different cultivars of potatoes, from yellow and red to purple. The difference in flavour and texture is so marked that restaurants will serve you three or more different types of potatoes at once. Up in the Andes potatoes are the staple and have to be stored to keep all year round. To achieve this, they dry them out in the first winter frosts and leave them outside. The frost breaks them down and then the liquid inside them is squeezed out and they are left to dry in the Andean winter sun (their winter is cold and dry and the summer warm and wet). The potatoes will then keep forever, and have even been found in Inca tombs.

Spain was the gateway to Europe for the potato when it arrived from the Americas. Potatoes came over in cargo holds in Spanish ships in the late 1500s. In Spain, potatoes are a staple and are known as “patatas a lo pore”, or “poor mans potatoes”. In Tapas bars, Spanish Tortilla and Patatas Bravas are the safe choice for vegetarians.

Patatas Bravas

The Canary Islands were on the route home for Spanish trading ships from South America. Potatoes are still a major part of the menu. There is an unusual potato dish called ‘papas arrugadas’, which is the famous dish of salty wrinkled potatoes served with red and green Mojo sauces. The variety of potato is Bonita, which is Andean in origin and is small with a thick skin that goes wrinkly when cooked in salty water. Originally they were cooked in sea water. They are boiled until tender then most of the water is poured away. Then, over a very low heat, the potatoes dry out and will end up with salty crinkly skins. English new potatoes don’t have the thick skins to protect them from the salt and end up as a salty mush, so we decided to put the canary sauces Mojo Rojo and Mojo Verde with Spanish Patatas Bravas (click here for the recipes).

The Portuguese brought the potato to India in the 17th century. In Indian cooking, potatoes are a wonderful foil for spices and chillies. Masala Dosas in the South are filled with coriander spiced potatoes. In the North, Bondas are balls of fiery chilli potatoes deep-fried and Aloo Chaat in one of the most popular street foods of cubed potatoes with a rich tamarind sauce.

In Britain, it is the new potatoes that go so well with Spring vegetables like asparagus, broad beans, and fresh herbs. The Queen of the new potatoes are the Jersey Royal with PDO status that are grown on the steep sunny sides of the hills of the Channel Islands. Their rich flavour comes from the seaweed fertiliser.

Potato Varieties

In Bath we have the most wonderful greengrocer, Eades which has been a family business for three generations. They have a large market garden on the hills overlooking Bath. For the photo shoot I called Mike Eades the day before to see if he could find us some unusual potato varieties. As always it was no problem for him and he went out that night to dig the potatoes. Next morning a large sack of freshly dug muddy potatoes arrived, only when we washed them did we discover a treasure trove of different heritage varieties and colours, including Shetland Black, Salad Blue, Purple Vitelotte, Red skinned Setanta, Pink Fir Apples, Red Emmanuelle and White La Ratte.

Potatoes are divided into Earlies and Main crop. Earlies have thin skins are waxy and are called new potatoes and don’t need peeling. Main crop have thicker skins will be more floury and need peeling, but remember the goodness is just below the skin so if you don’t need to peel, just give the potatoes a good scrub.

  • For Mash: King Edwards, Desiree or Maris Piper, Potatoes with a yellow flesh have a better flavour.
  • For Roast potatoes: We use small potatoes for Patas Bravas and use all purpose such as Red Mozart or Maris Piper.
  • For Baking: Choose a large floury potato, such as Melody and Golden Wonder is said to be the best.
  • For salads and boiled new potatoes: Jersey Royals, Charlottes, knobbly Pink Fir Apples or la Ratte.

Buying and Storing Potatoes

It's best to buy potatoes as you need them. Buy organic if you can as they wont have been have sprayed with fungicides, herbicides or sprayed to prevent them sprouting.

There is a debate about how to best store potatoes. 7 to 10C is the ideal temperature. At temperatures below 4C potatoes will start turning starch into sugar and this can result in the potatoes turning black when you cook them. The salad compartment in the fridge or a cool low-light storeroom is best.

Store in paper bags, don’t store potatoes in plastic as they sweat and can go bad more quickly.

The low-light and cool temperature stops the potatoes sprouting. Bright light and warm temperatures will quicken the sprouting process. If your potatoes begin to sprout you can rub off the sprouts and still eat the potatoes - don’t eat the sprouts as they contain a toxic alkaloid called Solanine. If you leave potatoes out in the light they go green. This is due to the formation of chlorophyll, but is also an indicator of the presence of Solanine, which is toxic. Definitely don’t eat green potatoes!

Tips for Cooking Potatoes

  • Choose the right potato for the right dish, from waxy for salads, that remain intact when cooked and for simple boiled new potatoes. Floury for mash and all purpose for roasting and chips.
  • Potatoes have a subtle taste and will happily take up rich flavours, such as butter, cheese and cream.
  • Spices that go well with potatoes are cumin, coriander, turmeric, saffron, chilli, paprika and smoked paprika.
  • We like to use rosemary, sage and thyme for roasting potatoes and parsley, mint, coriander, chives and dill to add to new potatoes and mash.
  • Add dressings to new potatoes when they are still hot as they will soak it up much better.
  • For mash cut the potatoes in half or into large pieces as small cubes will end up with a sloppy mash.
  • For crispy roast potatoes roast them in rapeseed oil. First boil them for 5 minutes, strain and return them to the dry saucepan and shake them so that they scuff up, then roast them in a metal baking tray that has been heated up with the oil in first.
  • For baking potatoes in their skins wash them and rub them with a little salt before baking to achieve a crisper skin.
  • Any left over potatoes make into comforting Bubble and Squeak.

Favourite Potato Recipes

Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas

Aloo Chaat

Potato, Asparagus and Broad Bean Salad with Salsa Verde

Delicious food photography by Rob Wicks of Eat Pictures.

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