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March 2000 Issue
Potatoes and Ireland: A History of Good Eats
by Victoria Smith
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Somebody said that Spring is on the way. I certainly hope so. I'm sick of this. And we worry about the homeless people and animals in this miserable cold.

I wanted to write about potato recipes for St. Patrick's Day, our favorite March holiday, and so I asked my mother, who's just about entirely Irish, for some background on the potato famine in Ireland. She sort of sputtered, and asked me just how old did I think she was, anyway?

Potatoes are native to the Americas, anyway, not to Ireland. They had been introduced into Ireland, and formed the staple of what was pretty much a one-crop farm economy. When the crop failed repeatedly in the 1840s, more than a million people starved to death in Ireland. Many more left the country altogether, some for Australia, many to America. Mom's grandmother's uncles (track that, if you will) came to America at about that time -- but because of the California Gold Rush, not because of the famine. They found gold, but their claim was jumped, and they were murdered. Mom's grandmother didn't get here until 1877. She was a toddler, (2 years old, with a brogue - she must have been a real cutie), and didn't know about potatoes, famine, or claim jumpers, either. She came in through Castle Garden. Ellis Island wasn't open yet.

Well, Mom told me a lot about the famine, but it certainly was depressing, and I'd rather talk about good food, anyway.

Potatoes. Where do I start? Some day I'll fill a cookbook with only potato recipes. To start with, the French call them "pommes de terre", or "apples of the Earth". They do have a texture and appearance similar to that of apples. I love apples, too.

Jiffy casseroles...sure. Refried beans with cheese and cracker crumbs stirred in, and a thick crust of instant mashed potatoes with garlic over the top. Yum. Don't even need a recipe for that one. (Mom's cousin Judy used to call them "smashed potatoes" when she and Mom were kids.

But I did promise you, so here are some other ways to cook these wonderful vegetables. (Are they vegetables? I don't know. I don't care, either. I just can't get enough of them.)

 

Mrs. George Washington's Potato Rolls

  • 2 large potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter (She didn't have margarine, but we can certainly use it)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups potato water
  • 3/4 cup scalded milk
  • 1 yeast cake
  • 7 cups sifted flour (approximately)
Peel and cook the potatoes for about 30 minutes or until tender; drain them and save the water. Mash the hot potatoes, adding the salt, sugar and margarine, and beat well. Add the potato water and hot milk and cool until lukewarm. Add the yeast and stir in 4 cups of flour, beating well. Then add enough of the remaining flour to make a dough stiff enough to knead. Knead on a floured board until smooth and elastic; brush the top with more melted margarine and place in a large greased bowl. (Solid vegetable shortening is what I use.) Cover and let rise for 5 hours in a warm place until the dough has doubled in bulk. Place on a floured board and pat to a thickness of about ½-inch, but do not knead again. Pinch off small pieces and shape into small rolls. Place them on greased (solid vegetable shortening works) cookie sheet and let them rise until very light and more than doubled in size. Bake in a hot (400F) oven for 20 minutes or until done.
  • Yields: 48 small rolls
  • Preparation time: About 6 1/2 hours. I dare you. But they are good.
 

 

Hearty Corn and Potato Chowder

  • 2 cups fresh, or frozen, thawed, whole kernel corn
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cups unpeeled, cubed Idaho potatoes
  • 1/2 cup sliced celery
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 3/4 cups fat-free half and half, or skim milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • parsley and chives, finely chopped, as garnish
Sauté corn and onion in oil in large saucepan until onion is tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Process 1/2 of vegetable mixture and all of the stock in food processor or blender until finely chopped, using pulse technique.

Add potatoes, celery, and thyme leaves to saucepan; heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in half and half; cook until hot through, 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour into bowls; sprinkle with parsley and chives.

Note: If a thicker soup is desired, mix 2 to 3 tablespoons flour with 1/3 cup of water. Heat soup to boiling; stir in flour mixture and boil, stirring constantly until thickened, about 1 minute.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation time: about an hour
 

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