What is a potato?
To the relief of parents around the world, potatoes are a favourite of children and an excellent way to get nutrients, fibre and energy into fussy eaters. Not many can resist the crunch of a freshly cooked chip – a perfectly fried, salty baton of this versatile vegetable. Fluffy mashed potato and creamy gratin are favourites in the depths of winter.
The potato graced the tables of the Incas in 8000 BC and was introduced to Europe in 1536 by the Spanish Conquistadors. Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland in 1589, but it took a couple of centuries before potatoes became popular. Eventually, people realised that potatoes were easier to grow than other crops and that they were high in nutrients.
Potatoes arrived in Australia on the First Fleet and were planted in New South Wales. The variety of climates found in Australia means that potatoes can be harvested all year round.
There are many varieties of potato available in Australia. Potatoes are also sold as ‘washed’ or ‘unwashed’ and ‘new’ or ‘maincrop’ (mature or late crop). New potatoes are dug up at an early stage of development, whereas maincrop potatoes are harvested when they are fully developed.
Some types of potatoes are more suitable for certain uses. For instance, the Sebago (the most common variety) is a versatile potato that can be boiled, baked, mashed or fried. On the other hand, Desiree potatoes are great for boiling or baking and making gnocchi but not for deep-frying.
Other varieties include the Pontiac, Kipfler, Bintje, Coliban, Nicola, Pink fir apple, Purple Congo, Spunta, Russet Burbank and Nadine.
Why potatoes are good to eat
- Potatoes are a good source of vitamins C, B3 and B6 (niacin).
- They contain dietary fibre and carbohydrates (provide energy for physical activity).
- Potatoes also contain minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure) and manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function).
- Energy – 100 g of potatoes supplies about 265 kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Potato plants can cope with cold weather but require plenty of sunlight and water. The small, spreading potato plant grows to between 40 and 60 cm. It has leaves that are attached to the main part of the plant by a stem.
Potatoes are tubers, which means that they grow underground on the roots of the plant. The tubers start swelling, and between 15 and 20 weeks after planting the potatoes are ready to harvest. The leaves of the potato plant start to yellow and die when the potatoes are fully developed and are ready to be picked.
Some potatoes (new potatoes) are harvested in the early stages of development when they are immature. These potatoes have thin skins that you can easily rub off.
Choose potatoes that are firm and do not have any soft spots or bruises. They should be dry and have unbroken skin. Avoid potatoes with green patches on the skin or those that are sprouting.
How to store and keep potatoes
Store potatoes in a cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated area. Light can cause greening of the skin and sprouting. Do not store potatoes in plastic as they will sweat and deteriorate in quality. New potatoes should be used within a few days of buying. Mature potatoes can be stored for several weeks.
How to use
- Toss hot potatoes with cream that is infused with chives or your favourite herb – delicious as a side dish to go with meat, chicken or fish.
- Serve garlicky mashed potatoes – puree garlic, add to cream and mix into mashed potatoes.
- Make a potato frittata – cook potato with garlic and spinach, add chopped herbs, pour lightly beaten eggs on top, then cook until the bottom is golden brown.
- Prepare a simple potato salad – boil chunky potato pieces, cool, then add olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and freshly chopped herbs.
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Better Health Channel
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