During this month when many Americans celebrate their Irish-ness, a food other than beer that comes to mind is the “Irish Potato”. Actually, St. Patrick never knew potatoes. Potatoes were cultivated by the Incas in present day Peru as long ago as 2500 BC. They were brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 1500’s well after St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland in the 400’s. When potatoes arrived in Europe, there was a great need to feed a growing population on increasingly limited lands. Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than did grain and eventually came to dominate the food supply in many parts of Europe. Boiled or baked potatoes were cheaper than bread, just as nutritious, and did not require a gristmill for grinding. The French named this delightful new food Apples of the Earth.
The potato was particularly well suited for the climate and soils of Ireland where it became a staple food for the peasants in the 1800's. A single acre of potatoes and the milk from one cow was enough to supply a whole Irish family with a nutritionally adequate diet for a year. Some families grew extra potatoes to feed a pig that they could sell for cash.
Between 1845 and 1849 a blight struck the potato crop and resulted in a catastrophic failure in the food supply. During the famine years roughly one million Irish peasants perished. Another million emigrated to the new world. In the United States, the new Irish immigrants’ love for their precious potato is most probably the origin of the term Irish Potato.
Potatoes contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals including significant amounts of vitamin C and potassium. They are a source of fiber and protein; they are low in fat and sodium and they are cholesterol free. Potatoes are one of the best food values in the grocery store. A meal that includes potatoes can often be served for pennies per serving.
I frequently hear clients say that they avoid potatoes because they view them as a high calorie starch. Yet, a half cup serving of potatoes (not fried or combined with cheese or gravy) is 80-90 calories. Compare that to a 4-ounce serving of any meat (not fried or in gravy or sauce) that comes in at 220 – 400 calories.
So how do we prepare potatoes – a relatively bland food – so that they compare favorably with higher calorie choices? A staple of the Irish diet was boiled potatoes and buttermilk. These two foods combine very favorably due to their complementary nutrient profiles. And their flavors and textures combine very well. Add some diced parsley and black pepper and you have eye appeal. While buttermilk may not be a favorite food for many, its tart flavor can make an excellent ingredient when combined with bland foods. Think of buttermilk dressing or buttermilk biscuits.
Today, we have a relatively new version of buttermilk in kefir. Kefir is a cultured dairy food. Cultured means that like yogurt it contains active cultures and promotes good intestinal health. A healthy gut can improve our immune system making us less susceptible to the flu or other infections. Look for kefir in the dairy section. The plain one, not the berry flavor has no added sugar and tastes like a rich buttermilk.
Today’s recipe, Babette’s Potatoes is a favorite in my home. It’s quick and easy, makes an excellent accompaniment to any entrée or stands alone with a salad for a light lunch. On this St. Patrick’s Day, let’s celebrate with pommes de terre – apples of the earth!
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.