28 June 2017The Potatoes of Summer

I love potatoes, so last summer I decided to try growing them in my garden. They did reasonably well and I dug them all out last fall. Or so I thought. This spring, potatoes started coming up everywhere. In the middle of lettuce. In the middle of cucumbers, under a tree, next to a rose bush. At first I thought "Great! More home grown potatoes with no effort!" Now I'm looking at a potato glut. Good thing I love potatoes.

Potatoes originated in the high mountains of South America, where they sustained populations for centuries, and are still a staple food. Europeans took them home, and potatoes took hold in cuisines across Europe and Western Asia. They're eaten everywhere from Scotland to India and Africa. They became a staple food in rural Ireland, until the potato blight wiped them out in the 19th century.

So how did such a hearty and versatile food become Public Enemy #1 for dieters? In our world of 24/7 diet advice, potatoes have gotten a bad rap. We're advised to avoid them because

  1. They're white
  2. They're high carb
  3. They're high calorie
  4. They taste good
  5. They have a high glycemic index

Let's review these accusations. They're white. Yes some are, although many aren't. There was a popular fad diet several years ago that claimed weight would melt off if you just gave up all white foods. Milk, bread, potatoes, rice, etc. Obviously that diet didn't work, since the obesity epidemic got worse, but the suspicion about potatoes lingered on. Are potatoes high carb? Yes, absolutely. About 90% of the calories are carbs, of which a small portion is naturally occurring sugar. They're also high fiber, very low fat and have a modest amount of protein.

What about high calorie? A large baked potato (weighing 10 oz) has almost 300 calories; a more modest 2 inch 4 oz potato has about 130 calories. But if you load your large baked potato with a tablespoon of butter and a couple of tablespoons of sour cream, you've just added 200 more calories, primarily fat.

Do potatoes taste good? Is this a trick question? But strangely this is always a problem for certain members of the Food Police Brigade. As if enjoyment automatically means a food should be prohibited.

High glycemic index. According to the testing techniques developed to support the glycemic index theory, potatoes supposedly raise blood glucose and therefore insulin more than most other foods. Meaning they are bad. This conclusion is based on a test that involves eating a small amount of plain potato on an empty stomach after an overnight fast. No other foods. And then the study subject sits around for a couple of hours getting blood draws. Is this how we typically eat potatoes? Or any food for that matter? In any event, recent research has questioned the usefulness of the glycemic index as a reliable predictor of glucose response to foods. We eat mixed meals, not single foods.

Here are some other things about potatoes that the critics don't tell you:

  • Potatoes are filling. They're 75-80% water, which helps produce satiety. Foods that enhance satiety help reduce appetite and food intake, helpful for dieters.
  • Potatoes are a good source of many key nutrients, such as vitamin C, potassium and fiber.
  • Potatoes are low sodium and low fat.
  • And of course, they taste good.

There are almost 4000 varieties of potatoes, and is the third most important food crop in the world, behind rice and wheat. But potatoes yield 2 - 4 times the quantity per piece of land that grain crops yield, and use water more efficiently for growth. They're botanically related to tomatoes and peppers. In fact, when potato plants flower, they produce little inedible fruits that resemble cherry tomatoes.

The potatoes we eat are tubers that develop underground, and are harvested by digging. If you leave bits of potato behind after harvest, you'll get more potatoes next year, as I learned. Can there be too many potatoes? Probably not. We think of potatoes as comforting winter food, but they're great for summer meals too.

Here are my two favorite ways to use potatoes in summer:

Grilled: boil whole potatoes until they are barely fork tender. Cool and slice in half. Or if they are quite small (2 inch diameter or less, or fingerling potatoes), leave whole. Toss the cooled potato slices with oil in a bowl. I use olive oil, but other vegetable oils will work.

Season lightly with salt, pepper and any herbs or spices of choice. A dusting of paprika or ground chili are good options. Dill - dried or fresh minced - is also good. Heat your grill and cook the potatoes, turning once, until they're fork tender, but not falling apart. You can transfer them to the warming section of the grill if you're cooking other foods. Serve as is, or garnish with ketchup, salsa or a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Assuming you start with large potatoes, roughly 8 oz each, and cut them in half, and one half potato retains about 1 tsp oil, 1/2 grilled potato serving will have roughly 140 calories, 2 grams protein, 2 grams fiber, 2.3 grams fat.

Potato salad: You might think of potato salad as a rather gloppy mess of potatoes buried in mounds of mayonnaise. It doesn't have to be that way! I prefer a lighter, more Mediterranean style salad, with other vegetables and a dressing of olive oil. Boil about 2 lbs of red or gold or fingerling potatoes until just done, not mushy or falling apart. Allow to cool completely. When they're cool, slice or chunk them, according to your preference. You want approximately 1-2 inch bite-sized pieces.

Put them in a large bowl and start adding chopped fresh vegetables:

  • 1/4 large red onion, minced
  • 2 large carrots, grated
  • 3 stalks celery, in 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 green pepper, minced
  • 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/4 cup minced flat leaf parsley

Toss the vegetables with 3/4 olive oil and cider vinegar to taste. I start with 3 TB vinegar and go from there, depending on how tart I want it to be. Add salt and pepper to taste. This yields roughly ten 3/4 cup servings as a side dish. Each serving has 225 calories, 2.4 g protein, 16 grams fat, 19 grams carbs and 3 grams fiber. If oil pools in the bowl or on plate, there will be somewhat fewer calories and grams fat.

If you want to zing it up a bit, add a minced fresh jalapeno (or less, to taste). Or make it more of a meal by adding 1 large can drained tuna or 3-4 chopped hard boiled eggs. Make it a presentation by arranging on each plate on a bed of dark lettuce or fresh spinach.

There's one more way I enjoy potatoes in summer: as a snack. I keep pre-cooked potatoes in the fridge and just slice one up, add salt and pepper, and eat when I want something delicious, filling and healthy with modest calories and no sugary taste.

For each of these recipe ideas, using a mix of potato varieties creates a lovely colorful dish. Potato salad made with multicolored fingerling potatoes, cooked and cut in half, is especially pretty. Or how about purple potato salad? Not your mother's potato salad, but delicious and unique, and perfect for summer meals.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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