Peasant Food: How potatoes saved the world

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When I was in college, one of my teachers assigned us Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, a three-volume history of the world between the 15th and 18th centuries. It was incredibly dense, fairly boring and weighed about twenty pounds. I read the whole thing, a feat that still amazes me.

I drank a lot of coffee back then.

While I've managed to forget most of Braudel's opus, I remember that he squeezed out forty pages on the historical influence of the potato. Apparently, potatoes are native to Peru and Bolivia, but Spanish explorers brought them across the Atlantic in 1700. Up to this time, most of Europe's carbohydrates and starch came from wheat, which is work-intensive and produces very little food for every acre planted. Think about it: to make bread from wheat, you need to grow a lot of wheat. You then have to harvest it, thresh it, grind it, mix it with a whole bunch of other ingredients, and bake it. To get a comparable amount of food from a potato, you have to grow a potato, dig it up, clean it off, and pop it in the oven. That's it. Of course, it tastes even better with sour cream and chives.

In 1700, potatoes enabled farmers to grow far more food, with much less work, than any other crop. Across Europe, many farmers switched to potatoes. Because potatoes were so easy to grow, the farmers were able to lay off large numbers of workers. Many of these people ended up moving to the cities, where they provided a huge work force for factories, making cheap manufacturing possible. The upshot is that potatoes are indirectly responsible for the rise of the city and the industrial revolution. Not bad for a lowly tuber.

Over the years, potatoes have made Idaho famous, fueled the world's best vodkas, inspired Mr. Potato Head, and made Dan Quayle look like a doofus. Most importantly, they have been a major staple in European and North American diets for over a hundred years, providing cheap, nutritious carbohydrates to billions of people. Today, the popularity of potatoes has even spread to Asia, where 80% of the world's potato crop is grown. In fact, China is the top worldwide potato producer, followed by India.

In recent years, potatoes have developed a pretty terrible nutritional reputation. Supposedly, they carry the blame for America's obesity epidemic and a rise in diabetes cases. This isn't entirely fair. Granted, potatoes are starchy and loaded with carbohydrates. However, the real nutritional problems come when we remove the skins, whip them up with lots of fat, and deep fry them. Prepared healthily, potatoes can be a nutritious addition to your diet. The first step, of course, is to keep the skins on: they contain most of the potatoes fiber and almost half of its nutrients. Properly prepared, potatoes are a cheap, versatile base for a wide variety of ingredients, allowing you to produce some pretty amazing gourmet treats for very little money.

This recipe uses skin-on Russet potatoes, which means that it retains the potatoes' fiber and nutrients. That having been said, it is really heavy on the butter and cream, but it's amazingly delicious. I got it from my friend Rich Sullivan, who cooks it at Louie's West Side Grill in New York. He also made a huge batch of it for my wedding.

By the way, in this context, "Rusticana" basically means that you don't bother to peel the potatoes!

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes Rusticana

Serves Six

6 large russet potatoes, unpeeled and cut in half

6 ounces whole milk

6 ounces heavy cream

12 cloves of garlic, peeled

Two sticks butter, cut into slices

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pour milk and cream into a casserole dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 30 minutes, or until garlic can be mashed with a fork. Set aside.

While garlic is roasting, fill a stockpot about half-full of water. Bring it to a light boil and add the potatoes. Reduce to a simmer. Cook about 30 minutes, or until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork (If you want to reduce the cooking time, slice the potatoes about 1/2 inch thick before boiling). Drain.

Cover a cookie sheet or baking pan with either parchment paper (preferred) or aluminum foil. Place potatoes in a single layer on baking sheet. Place in 375 degree oven for 4 minutes. Remove from oven.

Place potatoes, butter, and garlic (reserve the cream/milk mixture) in a large bowl. Using a large fork or potato masher, coarsely mash the potatoes and garlic. When the butter has melted and the potatoes and garlic are well-integrated, add in the cream/milk mixture until the potatoes reach the desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

"Peasant food: How potatoes saved the world" is part of a series on nutritious, inexpensive foods. If you enjoyed it, you might want to check out "Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean," "Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget," and "Cook in bulk and give the chef the night off!" Alternately, if you have any suggestions for future "Peasant food" topics, please contact the author at bruce.watson@weblogsinc.com.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.


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