Garden2Table – All Things Potatoes
By Cassandra D’Antonio (2012), Chair
One of the many benefits of writing this column each month is learning something new about things I thought I already knew all about. This month, I discovered that potatoes are a lot more interesting than I expected. This month highlights all things potatoes—Irish, sweet, and even blue/purple—and wraps-up with our featured recipes: a healthier take on mashed potatoes and a vegan no-cheese sauce, which works perfectly in a scalloped root vegetable dish.
Root Vegetables. Root vegetables are the edible part of the plant that grows underground. There are several families of root vegetables, including tap roots (turnips, beets, carrots, radish), tuberous roots (sweet potatoes, yucca), and tubers (potatoes and yams). What’s the difference? A tap root is the primary root of a plant, a tuberous root is the thickened secondary root, while a tuber is a swollen underground stem (thickened rhizome). They all become swollen from storing water and nutrients.
Irish Potatoes. There are thousands of varieties of true “Irish” potatoes worldwide, but the basic types are russet, yellow, red, white, blue, and fingerling, which can also be categorized by their starch content—starchy, waxy, and all-purpose. Those with more starch are more mealy or floury, and those with less starch are waxier and firmer. If you want to prepare baked or fried potatoes, choose varieties that are high in starch and have very soft texture when cooked, which can also be good for mashing as long as you don’t over-mash. Varieties with lower starch content work well in soups, stews, potato salad, and scalloped or roasted. Here’s a more specific run-down on the best ways to prepare each of these varieties, according to www.diynetwork.com:
Russet (starchy) are the classic “Idaho” potatoes with thick brown skin that are often used for baking, frying, and mashing. Because of their low moisture content, they tend to become dry when cooked.
- Yellow (all purpose) are perfect for mashing, steaming, boiling, baking, roasting, and frying.
- Red (waxy) are firm and excellent for potato salads and soups, and for steaming, boiling, roasting, scalloped, and salads.
- White (waxy) are low in starch and are excellent for boiling, potato salad, mashing, steaming, making au gratin, and roasting.
- Blue (all purpose) also known as purple potatoes because of their high antioxidant content which turns purplish when cooked, these tubers have a medium starch content and are great for steaming, baking, and boiling.
- Fingerling (waxy) are typically the size/shape of a finger. Most have a mild, somewhat nutty flavor best enjoyed when baked or roasted, and even boiled, but they tend to fall apart in soups.
- New Potatoes (all purpose) are any potato that has been harvested while small, before their sugars have fully converted to starch and their skins are still thin. They are typically sweet, firm, creamy, and very waxy. They are best for boiling, steaming, roasting, or in soups, but not for baking.
Important Warning! Potatoes that have been exposed to a lot of light or stored too cool or too warm can develop a green color and taste bitter. This is usually an indication of a high content of “solanine,” a poisonous alkaloid. Felder Rushing, at diynetwork.com, recommends avoiding eating them, or at least peeling away all the skin and green color, and especially any sprouted “eyes.” Now we know!
Sweet Potatoes. Sweet potatoes come from a very different plant family than the Irish varieties discussed above. Their orange color is caused by antioxidant plant pigments. Sweet potatoes have become more popular in recent years and are often a popular substitute for the white and yellow potatoes varieties. This is likely because of their incredibly high Vitamin A content, lower glycemic index, and high antioxidant contents, though they do have roughly the same number of calories, carbohydrates, and protein. Both sweet and yellow/white potatoes contain “resistant starch,” a type of starch that is digested more slowly and has many health benefits.
Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes. What is the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? In most grocery stores, yams are often labeled as sweet potatoes. According to Mary-Frances Heck, author of the cookbook Sweet Potatoes, the reason for the name mix-up is because Louisiana sweet potato growers marketed their orange-fleshed potatoes as “yams” to distinguish them from other states’ produce in the 1930’s, and it stuck. Real yams are tropical tubers with bumpy, tough brown skins that look woody, with starchy, not sweet flesh—more like a yucca in texture and flavor. Yams are more easily compared to the texture and neutral flavor of russet potatoes (with more fiber and complex carbs) and are best boiled or braised. They are often used in Caribbean or West African cooking, areas where they grow best. Photo: Darling Kindersley – Getty Images
Are Blue/Purple Potatoes Healthier for You? Purple potatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region in South America and can be easily found at the local grocery store. Blue (sometimes called purple) all-purpose potatoes have amped-up anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant, similar to blueberries and blackberries, which is linked to several benefits, including reduced inflammation, healthier cholesterol levels, improved vision and eye health, and a reduced risk of heart disease. Because of their lower glycemic level, eating purple rather than white potatoes is a good move when watching your blood sugar. Another added benefit is that they add a bright pop of color to your plate.
Healthy Potato Substitutes. Potatoes may be the most popular root vegetable, but there are others that contain less starch and fewer carbs and make great substitutes for those watching their carbs and weight. Below is a list of these vegetables that all work well roasted, boiled, mashed, steamed, or added to soups, braises, and stews.
- Celeriac is the root of a special variety of celery. Its rough exterior isn’t the most attractive, but it hides a delicate flesh that has a subtle hint of celery. This root works well in braised dishes and can be mashed.
- Daikon is a variety of radish popular in Southeast Asia. You can eat it raw, pickled, or cooked. It is most like potatoes when steamed, boiled, or fried.
- Rutabaga is a root vegetable that originated as a cross between cabbage and turnip. Popular in Scandinavia, this root works well roasted, baked, or boiled.
- Turnips are universal and very popular in England. You can bake, boil, and steam them.
- Kohlrabi has a solid round bulb and shoots sticking out like antennas. It has a delicate flavor and crunchy texture, which turns soft and mild when cooked. Boiling, steaming, or frying are the best ways to cook it.
Final Note on Nutrition & Carbohydrates. Potatoes get a bad rap because of their high starch content, but they contain many important nutrients and can be a healthy addition to your diet. There is also a misconception that all nutrients in potatoes are found in their skin, when in fact more than half of their nutrients are found in their flesh. Potatoes of all varieties are also very rich in minerals and boast more potassium than a banana! They are also packed with antioxidants, including vitamin C, carotenoid compounds, selenium, tyrosine, and polyphenolic compounds. Continue to enjoy potatoes from time to time – take care in how you prepare them if you are watching your calorie and fat intake.