Now here is something that is pretty easy to celebrate: the potato. That’s a food I have some familiarity with and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy a potato in some form on my plate. Mashed, fried, baked, boiled – I’ll take a good potato any time and any way I can get one. I think that’s my Irish blood, or at least it comes from being in a family of Irish heritage that certainly enjoyed their spuds at mealtime.
Did you know the potato is the fourth largest crop in the world, right behind rice, wheat and corn? Potatoes were first cultivated in Peru by the Inca Indians in 5,000 BC. When the Spanish conquered Peru in 1536 (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition), they brought potatoes back to Europe and then some of the sailors started growing the crops at home. It was Sir Walter Raleigh who introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589, and because the soil there was particularly easy to cultivate potatoes, the crop took off and eventually became a major part of the Irish agriculture business and diet. In the 1840s, a major outbreak of potato blight, a plant disease, swept through Europe, wiping out the potato crop in many countries. This hit the Irish working class particularly hard as they lived largely on potatoes and when the blight hit, their main staple food disappeared. Over the course of the famine, almost one million people died from starvation or disease while another one million people left Ireland, mostly for Canada and the United States (thank god they weren’t Muslims because they may have been turned away).
Potatoes first appeared in the American Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown. The first permanent potato patches in North America were established in 1719, most likely near Londonderry, NH (birthplace of Sam Breslin), by Scotch-Irish immigrants. From there, the crop spread across the country. Potatoes once flourished right here in Portsmouth too when much of Aquidneck Island was farm land (in 1855, there were over 500 farms on the island producing over 125,000 bushels of potatoes per year). There are still a few farms on the island today that grow their own potatoes as the soil here remains particularly good for farming. By the way, the word ‘tater’ first appeared in the late 18th century. There’s not a specific etymology for it other than the time frame, but it was probably just a colloquialism of the times and easier to say. Those 18th century folks had some colorful speak.
Celebrating the potato wasn’t a question of if I could but rather one of how. There are so many ways to prepare a potato and I think I’ve tried most of them. I’ve baked them and served them with butter and sour cream. I’ve boiled them and then mashed them, although sometimes just served them boiled. I’ve fried them. I’ve even scalloped them. I thought for a minute about making my breakfast potatoes which is always a treat. I just use a can of sliced potatoes and fry them in a pan with butter, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and cheese. Those are usually a favorite on the weekend when we have eggs. But I wasn’t feeling like that tonight. Then I thought about a recipe that I keep seeing on the internet especially on Pinterest and Instagram. It’s for something called the Hassselback Potato. That was something new that looked tasty and worth trying. I found a recipe online from Ree Drummond and then got my supplies from Clements.
Earlier today I had a little procedure done. Nothing major, just a routine check up following an appointment from last year. It was an upper endoscopy just to see if I had anything unusual growing in my esophagus. I did not, and it really was just a follow up from last year when they found a couple of polyps. So we’re all good, but for the procedure, they have to sedate you so it takes place at the hospital. That’s how today started and as Michael Jackson will tell you, when you start your day with a nice dose of propofol, you are kind of foggy for the rest of the day. Even though I didn’t go to the store until later in the day, my head was in a weird place. I was fine to drive and all that, I just had a peculiar tiredness to me. I was even feeling that when I was cooking. I’m only telling you this because I think it affected how everything came out. I had no instincts when it came time to cook – I had to follow every instruction to the letter because I couldn’t really grasp what to do next. It was just an odd sensation.
I got the potatoes and washed them and then I cut them in the Hasselback style. The origin of these type of potatoes are from a restaurant called Hasselbacken in Stockholm, Sweden which opened in 1748. Essentially, the potatoes are cut in such a way as to resemble a fan or accordion when roasted. The outside of the potato becomes crisp and brown while the inside is soft and creamy. These have been an internet sensation mainly because they look so cool in photos. The key to making them is cutting them and the general rule of thumb is to put the potato between two wooden spoon handles while you’re cutting. The spoon handles will make sure you don’t cut all the way to the bottom and cut the potato in half. This is the magical tip you need to know to make these. After you cut them, you top them with a mixture of butter and oil with some seasoning and you make sure you get some of that goodness in between each slice. Then you bake it for an hour or so at a high temp, just like you would bake a regular potato. No matter what, they look exotic and fun when you put them on a plate.
I made them to go alongside a steak au poivre which is one of Lola’s favorites. It was a pretty good meal but, and this is where the propofol takes over, it wasn’t amazing. I think my sense of everything was off. Sure I followed the recipe to a T, but my natural instincts were off on both. Had my head been fully clear, I would have realized the steak needed more salt and the shallots needed to be cooked down more. I would have also known that the potatoes needed more seasoning too. I had added some garlic powder and onion powder to them, but I really good have jazzed them up with more flavors. Even some parmesan cheese would have made them more flavorful. I also think I could have given the potatoes another few minutes in the oven. The inside of the taters were not underdone, but they were not at that peak fluffiness you want in a perfect baked potato. The outside was crispy, and the oil and butter made sure of that, but the key to this is that balance of crispy outside and soft inside and I missed peak softness. Lola would agree too. I think my final judgement here would be these would be great and easy, I just held back on my seasoning efforts too much. Next time, when I’m off the milk of the poppy, I’ll know better and nail it. I will make these again.
I have to say it was exciting to have a day to celebrate the tater. I could have really gone overboard on this one. It could have been tater tots for breakfast, potato pancakes for lunch and baked potatoes for dinner. Maybe some potato vodka for happy hour. The potato is about one of the easiest foods you could celebrate and that is kind of why we should celebrate it. Naturally it made me think of my ancestors. I do not know our exact family history, but I do know that the time my grandmother and grandfather’s families showed up in America was around the time the potato famine was ravishing Ireland. That means in some way that potatoes are part of why I am here today. I should keep that in mind whenever I am enjoying a potato. We should all know our history, especially when it’s delicious with salt and butter. I tried a new recipe today which is a good one that I’ll make again, so the potato keeps bringing celebration into our lives. And barring any famines, it will always be there for us to enjoy. I just have to approach any new potato recipes with a clear mind and an appreciation of it’s history. That’s the tater way.
Next Up: National Sourdough Bread Day
Source: Potato history from PotatoGoodness.com