native to: Andean mountains
in season here: late summer-fall
Potatoes are a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, related to tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. The potato plant will produce an inedible fruit resembling a tomato, but its true value lies underground — harvesting potatoes is a bit like digging for buried treasure. Potatoes are generally thought of as mature potatoes, generally larger and with a thicker skin, or new potatoes, with a thinner skin that is usually eaten.
Spanish explorers brought potatoes home from South America in the 16th century, using them to prevent scurvy during voyages. They were slow to catch on in Europe, many people viewing them with suspicion as related to nightshade and reputed to cause leprosy. In the 18th century, a French agronomist named Parmentier and a Royal Society member named Count Rumford came up with schemes to popularize potatoes, including the invention of mashed potatoes and a mush of potatoes, barley, peas and vinegar, both designed to disguise the vegetable. Irish immigrants probably brought the potato to the U.S. in the early 18th century, but it didn’t catch on here until the 1880s.
We think of potatoes as comfort food and not a very healthy choice, but most of the problem is the grease the fries or chips are cooked in and the assortment of fats and salt that we add to them. Plain boiled or roasted potatoes — a nice potato soup, for instance — are actually pretty good for you.
Potatoes have more potassium than bananas, protein of a very complete and easily-digested form, fiber, and vitamins B6 and C. They also contain plenty of antioxidants; red and purple potatoes have lots of anthocyanins while carotenoids are more abundant in yellow and red potatoes. They also provide thiamin, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. They also provide a particular kind of starch that is not readily digested in the small intestine and thus benefits the colon and supports those probiotic bacteria that are so good for the gut.
Avoid sprouting potatoes and those with a greenish color; they contain solanine, a toxic alkaloid caused by exposure to sunlight. Store potatoes in a cool, dry, dark place, away from onions (they both emit gases that are bad for the other), in a paper or burlap bag. Wash them only when you’re ready to use them. Freezing potatoes, cooked or raw, is not recommended.