|Tip: Whenever you can, cook and eat potatoes with their skins on. Not only does the skin contain many vital nutrients, it also contains a generous helping of dietary fiber.|
I always remember my Irish grandfather looking down at his plate and plaintively asking in his delightful Irish brogue, "Where are the potatoes?" In his worldview, if potatoes weren't on the plate, it wasn't dinner. Turns out that he was more astute than any of us knew at the time.
Pity the poor potato. It's gotten a terrible rap in recent times, and most undeservedly; it's the oh-so wicked things we heap upon it and beat into it and fry it in that makes it less than its brilliantly nutritious self. Consider these facts: one average potato has a quarter of the daily minimum requirement of vitamin C and 20 percent of the daily value of vitamin B6. It has more potassium than a banana (almost 1 g) and possesses cancer-fighting phenols that rival those found in broccoli and spinach. It's also the No. 1 vegetable crop in the world and the second-most-consumed food in the world, after milk. Hardly an inauspicious profile!
Way Back When
It all began roughly 7,000 years ago on the shores of Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes Mountains in South America. The hunter-gatherer community living there began to cultivate the numerous varieties of wild potatoes that thrived in the rigorous climate, and soon it was their staple crop. In fact, potatoes were central to their worldview—they even measured time by how long it took to cook a pot of potatoes!
By the time of the Incas, the potato was fundamental to the food security of the nation. Alas, the potato could provide no defense against the invading Spaniards in 1532, and the Incan Empire ceased to exist. The only bright note was to be found in the Spaniards' adoption of the potato; they fed it to their sailors at sea, as its vitamin C helped to ward off scurvy. And the Spaniards subsequently introduced the potato to Europe, where it was largely shunned for a few centuries, due to superstition and ignorance.
But by the start of the 1800s, the potato was becoming a staple crop across much of Northern Europe, and especially in Ireland, whose climate was uniquely suited to this delectable tuber. It was, in fact, after the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845 (caused by a mold disease in the potato crops) that more disease-resistant and productive strains were sought, and the basis for modern commercial production was established. Nowadays, Americans consume an average of 136.5 pounds of potatoes a year—more than a spud a day!
Why We Need Them
The benefits of that 25 percent daily value of vitamin C are well-known, ranging from boosting the immune system to combating cancer to contributing to heart health. Even more impressive are the effects of vitamin B6: its integral role in the nervous system contributes to mood elevation, better sleep, and normal brain function; it's critically important role in methylation (the way we control our genes) leads to increased cardiovascular health, and it is essential for the formation of virtually all new cells in the body.
As if that weren't enough, recent studies have identified numerous phenols and flavonoids in the skin and flesh of potatoes that protect against respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Researchers even found two compounds, quercetin and the rare kukoamines, the latter of which is found elsewhere only in goji berries. Both compounds appear to have blood pressure–lowering potential. Clearly, the potato is a treasure trove of health benefits. Don't miss out—restore the spud to your cupboard!
Bringing It Home
Choose potatoes that are firm, relatively smooth, and free of moisture or dry rot. They should have no "sprouting" on the surface, and if there's a green tinge to the skin, toss 'em back—that's an indicator of the presence of the toxic alkaloid solanine, and it can make you sick. Store in a paper sack (not plastic) in cool dark place (try the back of a closet). Don't store them in the fridge, as the starch will turn to sugar, resulting in an unpleasant taste. Properly stored, they will last for several weeks. Use them regularly!
"Wearin' O' The Green" Potato Canapes
This green-flecked, tummy-filling hors d'oeuvre is perfect fortification for the chilly rigors of a St. Paddy's Day parade.
PER SERVING: 62 CAL; 2 G PROT; 5 G TOTAL FAT (2 G SAT FAT); 4 G CARB; 7 MG CHOL; 94 MG SOD; 0 G FIBER; 0 G SUGARS