The Inexpensive Potato

by Patricia Cote


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Considering that the white potato is usually the favorite vegetable (well, technically speaking, it's a tuber) in American food surveys, it's hard to believe that some Europeans and early American colonialists thought it to be poisonous. Those who deigned to grow this import from the savage Americas tolerated it for its pretty flowers, but refused to harvest the edible root. What a waste!

Then, resourceful and hungry European peasants, most notably the Irish, got their hands on potato sets. In rather short order, they turned this vitamin and mineral packed "near perfect food" into a cheap, filling and nutritious staple and things were never the same. Population growth in Europe exploded, and the maligned spud started to get some well-deserved respect. Its time had come.

Besides being delicious and nutritious, potatoes are one of the most economical foods available. Depending on where you live, a five-pound bag of Eastern potatoes can cost as little as $1.99, though fancier types such as the Idaho can cost somewhat more. Buy a 20-pound sack and store it in a cool place. You know that bag will feed a lot of people!

Yet, the low price is not the sole reason for calling potatoes economical. Cost-effective foods do not expire quickly, and potatoes usually have a long shelf life. If your stash of spuds languishes in your pantry and grows more eyes than a monster from a 1950's B-movie, you must do some serious soul-searching about the sincerity of your quest for a parsimonious lifestyle.

If this fate befalls your taters, there is a way to make amends and stop the waste. Most cooks know that potatoes are indispensable and filling in stews and soups, as they will stretch out the meat and add flavor and nutrition to the pot. There is no crime in using tired old spuds (scrubbed and de-eyed) for this purpose. No one will know but you.

If a food has many uses, it is economical. Potatoes are an incredibly versatile food that is widely used in many cuisines, from French to Northern Italian to plain old American fare. They can be baked, boiled, fried, casseroled, mashed, roasted, pureed, grated and fricasseed into countless dishes.

All you need are good cookbooks for traditional recipes such as potatoes au gratin, or for something sexy like Aloo Gobi, a vegetarian Indian dish of potatoes and cauliflower. Just consult a cookbook that never mentions foods such as "truffles" or "organic garlic-infused balsamic vinaigrette" in it, and you will learn to cook cheap meals with potatoes.

However, cookbooks are not always helpful in a pinch. Yet, a thrifty cook knows that a cheap meal is never far away with potatoes in the cupboards. One must be creative. Look in the refrigerator. A hunk of dry, leathery roast beef from Monday's dinner? Bingo! Just dice the meat, parboil a few potatoes, sauté some onions, and then simmer them in a pan with a little salt and pepper. You've got a quick and tasty hash. Paired with eggs, it's breakfast. Add a side vegetable or a salad and you have lunch or dinner.

It is a good idea to keep cold, cooked potatoes around for quick meals. I often bake several extra at dinner for this purpose. If I want home fries with my breakfast, all I have to do is cube my potatoes (skins on), mince some onion and green pepper, add salt, pepper and paprika and fry in a pan. It tastes as good as any diner's and it's fast and cheap. Or, toss cold potatoes with mayonnaise, celery and spices and you have a quick and easy potato salad to go with your sandwich. Also, cold potatoes can inspire hungry cooks to create new and unusual dishes (Potato and egg sandwich, anyone?).

If you love French fries, peel, and then slice raw potatoes lengthwise. Store in the refrigerator in cold, salted water. It'll keep for days. After draining the batch, you have the option of either deep-frying or tossing with a touch of oil and seasoning, and then baking for 20 to 30 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

Just grab a bag of potatoes and an old cookbook and you're on your way. These, along with the creative thinking inspired by a tight wallet, will have you cooking cheap, fast meals with potatoes in no time.

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