Is there any vegetable — or food, for that matter — that can compare with the versatility of potatoes? Imagine life without potato chips, luxurious creamy whipped mash, those waxy new potatoes that turn up right at the start of the season, hearty rib-sticking potato gratins, spicy Indian potato curries, waxy potato salads, croquettes, potato bread, potato flour ... I could go on. Over the ages, a great many people would have starved without this nutritious starch. In Ireland between 1846 and 1851 when potatoes failed as a result of blight, causing the devastating Potato Famine, more than 1 million people died.
When potatoes first turned up in Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, no one had any idea what they were or how important they would become globally in our diet. The "Colombian exchange", which saw the worldwide transfer of plants and animals around the globe following Christopher Columbus' arrival in the West Indies in 1492, grouped potatoes together with two other American arrivals, sweet potatoes and jerusalem artichokes, a practice that went on well into the 18th century.
The first reference to potatoes in any form of a recipe turns up in the German cookbook, Ein Neu Kochbuch published in 1581, where chef and author Marx Rumpolt provides a recipe for "earth apples", instructing readers to "peel and cut them small. Parboil them in water and press well in a fine cloth. Chop them small and roast with bacon cut in little pieces. Add a little milk and cook it together. This way it is tasty and good." In was another two decades before French chefs and cooks began to embrace potatoes in their cooking. The French considered the tubers to be a new kind of truffle and recipes started to appear for roasting them whole, like chestnuts and braising them with wine and butter.
I can't imagine cooking without potatoes and, unlike actual truffles, they come with a price tag that's well within everyone's means.
Perhaps because of their chameleon textural characteristics, potatoes are one vegetable our palates almost never tire of. Potatoes get a lot of bad rap for being fattening but actually they are great food to eat if you are counting calories — you just need to skip the fat, butter and cream. An average sized potato of 150g yields only 110 calories — 3.8g of useful, filling fibre if you eat them with their skins on, 50 per cent of the daily requirement for vitamin C and useful amounts of vitamin B6, niacin and iodine.
Around this time of year most of the potatoes we buy are main crop potatoes — their skins are hard and their flesh will be softer and more floury: ideal for baking and mash but not for making any kind of waxy potato salad. Be sure to store them well away from the light as this turns their skins green and poisonous.
Here are some easy recipes when you need a fix of the world's favourite tuber.
Baked Potatoes with Salsa
Ready in about an hour
Baked potatoes take a long time to cook but the result is so satisfying. They make such a good lunch topped with salsa, crispy bacon, cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
4 large, floury potatoes, e.g. agria or rua, scrubbed
A little extra virgin olive oil, to rub
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Chargrilled tomato and chilli salsa (see below) or 1 cup commercial tomato salsa
½ cup grated cheese
4 rashers streaky bacon, grilled or fried until crispy
Chopped chives, to serve
¼ cup sour cream or creme fraiche
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Rub potatoes with oil, salt and pepper, place on an oven rack and bake until cooked through (about 60 minutes, depending on size).
Craving carbs? Annabel Langbein satisfies the urge with a healthier option
Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper, cut a cross in the top of each and squeeze the sides to reveal the fluffy potato within. Season, then top each with a quarter of the salsa and a quarter of the cheese. Place under a hot grill until the cheese is melted (1-2 minutes).
Top each potato with a rasher of crispy bacon, sprinkle with chives and serve hot with sour cream or creme fraiche on the side.
Chargrilled Tomato and Chilli Salsa
Ready in 20 minutes
Makes about 1.5 cups
4 medium tomatoes, cored and halved
½ small onion, sliced into 4 or 5 rounds
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 long red chilli, halved and deseeded
1/4 cup coriander leaves
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
To make salsa, heat a large, heavy-based frying pan or barbecue grill without any oil. Working in batches if necessary, arrange tomatoes cut-side down and cook on one side only until charred and starting to smell smoky (4-5 minutes). Transfer to a food processor, using a fish slice to lift them out of the pan so you retain their charred bases.
Repeat with onion rings, garlic and chillies. Add to the tomatoes with all other ingredients, being sure to include all the pan brownings. Whizz until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Store in the fridge for up to 3 days and serve at room temperature.
Crunchy Smashed Potatoes
Ready in an hour
I love the crunchy texture of these potatoes. You only need to break the skin of the potatoes with a fork or press them flat with your palm, not mash them fully. This gives a lovely scrunched surface that crisps up wonderfully and absorbs the herb flavour.
1.5kg small potatoes, scrubbed
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp flaky sea salt
Preheat oven to 200C. Boil the potatoes for 10 minutes in lightly salted water. Drain well and transfer to a roasting dish. Use a fork or press with your palms to break the skins and slightly flatten the potatoes.
Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with thyme and flaky salt and roast until crispy and golden — about 40 minutes. Serve hot.
Ready in an hour
These always get rave reviews. I allow one medium-large potato per person but for hungry appetites cook extra — it's an economical and reasonably healthy way to fill people up.
6 medium-large potatoes, scrubbed
4 Tbsp melted butter or extra virgin olive oil
Flaky salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and line a large oven tray or shallow oven dish with baking paper. Slice potatoes very thinly, then stack back together and flatten out on the prepared tray or dish in overlapping rows, like fallen dominoes.
Drizzle or brush with melted butter or oil and season with salt. Bake until golden and crispy (40-50 minutes, depending on thickness).