Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Quintessential Irish Staple - The Potato


 "If beef's the king of meat, potato's the queen of the garden world." ~ Irish Saying

St. Patrick's Day, that annual celebration of everything Irish, is almost upon us once again.  I sat down last week to post some variations on Corned Beef & Cabbage recipes when  it occurred to me I'd recently posted a major piece on Pastrami, which seemed  bit too similar to Corned Beef to do Corned Beef justice.

I racked my brain for something Irish to write about.  Beer was tempting, but I hit upon the same problem, I wrote extensively about beer less than a year ago.  Disheartened, I went to dinner to clear my head.  Low and behold, that night, next to my blue cheese encrusted Filet Mignon, sat a mound of seasoned French Fries.  POTATOES!   Almost nothing says, "Irish food," like potatoes.

OK, I know what you're thinking, potatoes are native to the Americas, not the British Isles.  You're right.  However, as early as 1536 Spanish ships were bringing potatoes to Europe from the conquered shores of Peru.   It wasn't long before the Irish realized they lived in the perfect climate to grow the  starchy vegetable cheaply and plentifully.

By the 1840s the potato was such an integral part of the Irish diet, that when the crop failed from 1845 to 1852, due to blight, over one million people died of starvation.   In my mind, the potato is as Irish as pasta is Italian.  OK, pasta came from China, but you know what I mean.

Of course, to say, "the potato," is almost like referring to, "the car, dog, or person," and having it adequately represent its entire collective.  There are multiple types of potatoes, featuring an array of sizes, colors, textures, and tastes.

Popular potato varieties include Adirondack Blue, Adirondack Red, Agata, Almond, Alpine Russet, Alturas, Amandine, Annabelle, Anya, Arran Victory, Atlantic, Austrian Crescent, Avalanche, Bamberg, Bannock Russet, Belle de Fontenay, BF-15, Bildtstar, Bintje, Blazer Russet, Blue Congo, Bonnotte, British Queens, Cabritas, Camota, Canela Russet, Cara, Red La Soda, Red Norland, Red Pontiac, Rooster, Russet Burbank, Russet Norkotah, Selma, Shepody, Sieglinde, Silverton Russet, Sirco, Snowden, Spunta, Up to date, Stobrawa, Superior, Villetta Rose, Vivaldi, Vitelotte, Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold...

Of course, when we cook we don't wade through endless varieties of potatoes to find the right ingredient for our dish.  For the purposes of cooking, the culinary community has broken potatoes into two primary categories and a third "mutt" category.
  • High Starch - potatoes, such as Russet, or Baker, potatoes are great for baking and frying.  Their high starch content makes it hard for them to hold together very well, but they're absorbent, so are best paired with something to absorb (sour cream, butter, gravy, etc...) They can be mashed, but you need to remember not to over work them, or you'll be left with a pasty mess.
  • Waxy - potatoes, such as Red, or "New," potatoes, hold together at higher temperatures, and thus are superb for soups, stews, potato salad, and scalloped potatoes where you would need to boil, slice, or roast them.
  • All-Purpose -  potatoes, such as Yukon Gold Potatoes, have a medium starch content, making them good for most potato recipes, except for baked potatoes.
You can experiment with as many sizes, textures, and colors as your local grocer makes available.  However, if you have basic Russet Potatoes, New Potatoes, and Yukon Gold Potatoes there's really not a potato dish, that I can think of, that you can't make.

Below are three potato recipes, from my files.  Each recipe utilizes one of the three types of potato.  Any one of these recipes would make a great side for a St. Patrick's Day dinner.


Cream Cheese Colcannon
Serves 4

Perhaps the most classic Irish Potato dish is Colcannon, a mixture of mashed potatoes & cabbage. I posted a classic version of the recipe a few years ago, for St. Patrick's Day. This is a richer creamier Americanized version for those who like their side a bit less rustic.

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
4 cups shredded cabbage
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup skim milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 (3 ounce) package cream cheese or Neufchâte
1 pinch salt and ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid. Allow potatoes to cool until they can be handled.

Boil cabbage and onion with the reserved potato water in a pot until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 2-quart casserole dish. Peel and cut potatoes into chunks; place in a large bowl. Mash skim milk and butter into potatoes until mixture is smooth.

Stir drained cabbage and onion into potato mixture. Fold cream cheese, or Neufchâte, salt, and black pepper into potato mixture, stirring until the cream cheese melts. Pour potato mixture into prepared casserole dish. Bake in preheated oven until browned, 30 to 35 minutes


Chive and Cheese Stuffed Baked Potato

Not every potato recipe I’ve collected has had an Irish origin though.  With its combination of Cheddar & chives, I think of this as an English dish.  Come to think of it though, if you use an Irish Farmhouse Cheddar, this could easily compliment a meal of Fried Cabbage & Bacon, Lamb Shanks, or Corned Beef Brisket.

Serves 2.

2 large Russet potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1 ounce cream cheese
1/3 cup cheddar cheese -- shredded
1/8 cup chives -- chopped
1 tablespoon milk
salt -- to taste
pepper -- to taste

Thoroughly scrub potatoes and dry. Rub skin with corn oil and place in a preheated 350 degree oven.  Bake until a knife can pass through the potato without resistance (about 1 hour). Remove potatoes from oven.

Carefully cut a thin slice out of the length of the potato. Taking care to leave the skin of the potato intact, scoop out the potato and place in a small bowl. Mash potato with a fork. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Spoon mixture back into potato skins. Return potatoes to oven and bake until heated back to serving temperature.


Garlic Mashed Potatoes

I’ve had this recipe the longest, and it’s by far the easiest of the lot.  While just about every form of ethnic cuisine, I can think of, uses garlic, this recipe's use of the peel gives it a countrified quality which compliments most standard Irish fare.

A typical serving of mashed potatoes is 3 to 4 ounces, so 1 pound (16 ounces) of mashed potatoes should yield 4 to 5 servings.

1 lb New potatoes, unpeeled
3 Cloves garlic, peeled
4 tbsp Nonfat yogurt
3 tbsp Nonfat sour cream
1/8 tsp Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Place potatoes and garlic in pot with enough water to cover and cook until  potatoes are tender. Drain and mash, then stir in yogurt, sour cream, and salt and pepper.


As I said, whether you choose your dish based solely on taste, or on access to a specific  kind of potato, any of these would make a great side for a St. Patrick's Day dinner.

Recipes print individually as pages 3, 4, & 5 for your refrigerator or recipe file.

When working with potatoes just out of the oven, use oven mits, pot holders, etc... to prevent burns.


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