The Incas domesticated the tuber in the Andes Mountains, leading to its global rise
Spanning seven countries on the western coast of current-day South America, the Andes Mountains have given us much natural beauty and many tales of adventure. They have also given us the potato, cultivated there by the ancient Inca.
The potato nourished American Indians for centuries, long before Spaniards brought the spuds to Europe, where they were embraced as a solution to famine and poverty.
The Incas ate them, much as we do, boiled, baked and mashed. But as Smithsonian magazine has noted, they boiled, chopped and dried them to make papas secas. They discovered how to produce almidón de papa (potato starch). The Incas also created chuño, a recipe that involves laying the potatoes outside to freeze at night, then thawing them in the sun’s rays. Continuous freezing and thawing turns the hard tubers soft. Squeezing out the water, they formed the firm yet airy lumps of chuño comparable to the Italian potato pasta gnocchi. Traditionally cooked in a spicy Andean stew, chuño stays fresh for years without refrigeration. The virtually nonperishable food sustained the Inca armies.
While today Andean farmers widely sell the Idaho-style breeds, they consider the basic potato bland. The Andeans relish the diversity of the tuber, which comes in a variety of colors, such as white, black, purple and red, and ranges in size, shape and taste from those growing in a village at a different altitude just a few miles away.
The fifth most popular crop in the world, following (wheat, corn, rice and sugar cane), potatoes are easy to grow and are a treasure trove of potassium at roughly 844 mg per specimen—almost twice as much found in one banana. They also contain high amounts of vitamin C and B6. Potassium maintains the electrolyte balance of our cells, and it benefits blood pressure and heart function. Meanwhile, vitamins B6 and C boost the immune system. Potatoes also provide fiber, which is a vital nutriet for protection against colon cancer.
Growing up I was told the skin is the most nutritious part of a potato. That’s fine with me; I enjoy eating the skins of potatoes I grow myself to avoid ingesting chemicals.
An average sized potato contains only 220 calories. The healthy tuber has gained a poor nutritional reputation mainly because people slather them with butter, sour cream or gravy. I suggest substituting plain yogurt and chives. Paprika, parsley, salt and pepper are other great additions.
I vary my preparations of the potato by season and occasion. In summer, I toss a chilled potato salad; in winter, I like my potatoes scalloped with onions and loaded with gruyère. When expecting company, I prepare my famous potato medley. It’s easy to make in large portions and keep warm in a crock pot.
5 pounds potatoes cut up: Yukon Gold, red or white, new or russet
3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut up
1 small yellow turnip, peeled and cubed, or 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 small parsnip, peeled and cubed, or
1 small celery root, peeled and cubed
Peel, cut up and cook all ingredients until they are soft and easy to mash—about 20-30 minutes. Be careful not to overcook to avoid mushiness. Test the vegetables by mashing with a fork to make sure they are the right consistency. Mash all together, adding a bit of milk or broth. This recipe tastes delicious with butter, but the individual flavors are complementary with or without it.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.