The potato belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos. They are the swollen portion of the underground stem which is called a tuber and is designed to provide food for the green leafy portion of the plant. If allowed to flower and fruit, the potato plant will bear an inedible fruit resembling a tomato.
There are about about 100 varieties of edible potatoes. They range in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. They are often classified as either mature potatoes (the large potatoes that we are generally familiar with) and new potatoes (those that are harvested before maturity and are of a much smaller size). Some of the popular varieties of mature potatoes include the Russet Burbank, the White Rose and the Katahdin, while the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac are two types of new potatoes. There are also delicate fingerling varieties available which, as their name suggests, are finger-shaped.
Potatoes are a good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, copper, potassium, manganese, and dietary fiber. Potatoes also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity. Among these important health-promoting compounds are carotenoids, flavonoids, and caffeic acid, as well as unique tuber storage proteins, such as patatin, which exhibit activity against free radicals.
Potatoes' reputation as a high-carb, white starch has removed them from the meals of many a weight-conscious eater, but this stereotype is due for a significant overhaul. A new analytical method developed by Agricultural Research Service plant geneticist Roy Navarre has identified 60 different kinds of phytochemicals and vitamins in the skins and flesh of 100 wild and commercially grown potatoes. Analysis of Red and Norkotah potatoes revealed that these spuds' phenolic content rivals that of broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts, and includes flavonoids with protective activity against cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and certain cancers.
Navarre's team also identified potatoes with high levels of vitamin C, folic acid, quercetin and kukoamines. These last compounds, which have blood pressure lowering potential, have only been found in one other plant, Lycium chinense (a.k.a., wolfberry/gogi berry). How much kukoamine is needed for a blood pressure lowering effect in humans must be assessed before it can be determined whether an average portion of potatoes delivers enough to impact cardiovascular health.
Potatoes originated in the Andean mountain region of South America. Researchers estimate that potatoes have been cultivated by the Indians living in these areas for between 4,000 and 7,000 years. Unlike many other foods, potatoes were able to be grown at the high altitudes typical of this area and therefore became a staple food for these hardy people.
Potatoes were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers who "discovered" them in South America in the early 16th century. Since potatoes are good sources of vitamin C, they were subsequently used on Spanish ships to prevent scurvy. They were introduced into Europe via Spain, and while they were consumed by some people in Italy and Germany, they were not widely consumed throughout Europe, even though many governments actively promoted this nutritious foodstuff that was relatively inexpensive to produce. The reason for this is that since people knew that the potato is related to the nightshade family, many felt that it was poisonous like some other members of this family. In addition, many judged potatoes with suspicion since they were not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, potatoes initially had such a poor reputation in Europe that many people thought eating them would cause leprosy.
It is thought that the potato was first brought to the United States in the early 18th century by Irish immigrants who settled in New England. People in this country were slow to adopt the "Irish potato" and large scale cultivation of potatoes did not occur in the U.S. until the 19th century.
There are not that many foods that can claim that a pivotal historical event centered around them. But the potato can. By the early 19th century, potatoes were being grown extensively throughout Northern Europe, and potatoes were almost solely relied upon as a foodstuff in Ireland owing to this vegetable's inexpensive production and the poor economy of this country. Yet, in 1845 and 1846, a blight ruined most of the potato crop in Ireland and caused major devastation: this event is known as the Irish Potato Famine. Almost three-quarters of a million people died, and hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, including the United States, in search of sustenance.
Today, this once-infamous vegetable is one of the most popular throughout the world and the one that Americans consume more of pound for pound than any other. Currently, the main producers of potatoes include the Russian Federation, Poland, India, China and the United States.
Classic Irish Boxty
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