Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Worldwide potato appeal

Mashed, baked, fried or zapped — not to mention chipped and dipped — the potato is America’s favorite vegetable. Yet, at various points in time, the tide of public sentiment has risen against the versatile tuber.

When the potato was introduced to Europe from the New World, royal cooks routinely trashed it as fodder for the lowly. Ministers proclaimed it blasphemous, priests claimed it caused leprosy, common folk feared it as poisonous. More recently, the potato has been banned by the low-carb diet-conscious. But now, the often-maligned spud is basking in a favorable spotlight. Emphasizing the potential of the world’s fourth most important food crop (after corn, wheat and rice) to nourish populations in under-developed regions of the world, the General Assembly of the United Nations has proclaimed 2008 as — drum roll, please — the International Year of the Potato. Stateside, where famine is an unlikely threat, potato promoters are hoping that consumers who grew up with the snack food slogan “You can’t eat just one” to realize that they don’t have to buy just one — fresh potato variety, that is.

Often known as the Idaho potato because it is widely grown in that state, the earthy looking Russet remains the nation’s most popular variety. “Our goal is to grow the market by more than one variety. We want consumers to discriminate more between varieties,” said Linda McCashion, vice president of public relations for the U.S. Potato Board in Denver, Colo.

For sure, there’s a great big colorful world of potatoes out there. White-fleshed types include French Fingerling and Maris Piper. Besides the sunny Yukon Gold, there are many other golden types, such as Austrian Crescent, Ozette, Carola and Peanut potatoes. In the red category there is, of course, Red Bliss, but also Ruby Crescent and Huckleberry. There’s the deep All-Blue, the Purple Peruvian, and more — many, many more.

“I’d like to see more sales by variety,” agreed Mel Henninger, a potato specialist with the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, who expects to evaluate 350 types of potatoes this year. “The problem is it’s difficult for consumers to tell in the marketplace what they’re getting.” It’s a challenge for distributors and retailers to sort every different type of potato by variety, he added.

“Potato dishes vary with the season, and much depends on whether the potatoes are waxy and new, or the last season’s crop and hence drier and more floury,” wrote Anne Willan, founder and director of La Varenne cooking school, in “The Country Cooking of France” (Chronicle Books, 2007). “In a French supermarket, potatoes are sorted by their culinary properties, so that consumers know which ones to boil, puree, saute or deep-fry.”

The same holds true in some other European countries. This may be one of the reasons why Europeans are, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “the heartiest potato eaters,” consuming just over 96 kilograms per capita in 2005, compared to almost 58 kilograms in North America, almost 26 kilograms in Asia/Oceania, almost 24 kilograms in Latin America, and about 14 kilograms in Africa.

Indigenous to the western hemisphere, potatoes are essential to an American restaurant such as his, said Tom Carlin, who uses 300 to 500 pounds of the tubers a week as chef-owner of the Gladstone Tavern in Gladstone. “It’s a satisfying backdrop to brighter, sharper flavors,” said Carlin and “keeps the spiciness grounded” in dishes like his saffron-infused bouillabaisse. Carlin finds the jumbo size of the Idaho Burbank Russet ideal for making his popular Idaho fries and spicy barbecue chips, while the vivid hue of Purple Peruvians enhances the eye-appeal of the potato salad he serves with lobster omelets and grilled striped bass.

Potato croquettes, potato pancakes, and mashed potatoes also appear regularly on his menus. “I’m an updated comfort food guy,” he said. “Mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food.”

When he was growing up in South Orange, he recalled, “My mom always made me a baked potato when I was home sick. For some reason, my mom thought baked potato equaled get healthy soon.” Mrs. Carlin apparently was onto something. According to the FAO’s Nutrition and Consumer Protection division, potatoes are similar to cereals in protein content; rich in vitamin C; contain dietary antioxidants; are a moderate source of iron and a good source of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins B1, B3, and B6; and contain folate, pantothenic acid and riboflavin.

“Boiling — the most common method of potato preparation worldwide — causes a significant loss of vitamin C, especially in peeled potatoes. Boiling potatoes in their skins prevents loss of nutrients. In general, baking causes slightly higher losses of vitamin C than boiling, due to the higher oven temperatures, but loses of other vitamins and minerals during baking are lower,” according to the FAO. “By itself, potato is not fattening (and the feeling of satiety that comes from eating potato can actually help people to control their weight). However, preparing and serving potatoes with high-fat ingredients raises the caloric value of the dish.”

From both a health and taste standpoint, “the biggest challenge in marketing potatoes is to keep them covered so they don’t get green” said Henninger. Since potatoes are stems that grow underground, when exposed to light they will produce chlorophyll (which makes them turn green), along with glycoalkaloids, bitter toxic compounds that will ruin the taste of the potatoes, even if the green-tinged fleshed is trimmed off before cooking, as it should be. “You can’t leave potatoes out in the light, even the store light,” said Henninger.

For best flavor, choose potatoes that are hard and smooth-skinned, advised Carlin. Mushy, wrinkled potatoes will be old and dehydrated, he explained. Ideal storage temperature is about 40 degrees, said Henninger. Potatoes can be held in a refrigerator, but only for a couple of days, for the cold temperature will trigger the conversion of starch to sugar, altering their characteristic taste. And despite the media spotlight shining on them this year, potatoes should always be kept in the dark.