No Small Potatoes

Potatoes just might be the most universally loved and utilized member of the produce community. They’re customizable, filling and affordable (the median potato price in the United States was 72 cents per pound in 2018), and it seems there’s no end to the many shapes and textures a spud can take on. Consider, for example, the beloved French fry. You know a side dish is widely accepted when it's sold for 99 cents at fast food restaurants as well as alongside filet mignon at a vastly different price point. Therein lies the beauty and power of the potato. What else can be both an utterly low-brow treat and a high-end, starchy work of art?

Countries all over the world boast popular, potato-based dishes that have become far-flung favorites. Anyone who has experienced the pure, pillowy joy of gnocchi or the glory of a perfectly crisp latke is surely grateful to Italy and Eastern Europe. Switzerland’s rösti are a lacier, larger, equally delicious cousin of latkes. India prominently features potatoes in many staple dishes like aloo gobi, a mix of potatoes, cauliflower and spices. In Spain, you'll find the tortilla Española, which is a delicious, frittata-like cake made of potato, egg and onion, served on a plate to display its crispy edges in all their splendor. All of these dishes — and their common ingredient — aren’t new. Potatoes were first domesticated in South America around 5000 B.C., by Peruvians who not only grew, but also worshipped them.

All this is to say that potatoes have made the rounds. We enjoy them during celebrations, on rushed weeknights, and sometimes after a night of one too many cocktails. Potato salads make their way to barbecues and picnics throughout summer, and mashed potatoes are a classic on any holiday dinner table. The baked potato might look humble, but once it’s loaded with toppings, it really does win in the simple side category. Wash it, throw it in the oven, dress it up a little, and you're good to go.

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Fresh potatoes are widely accessible, cost effective, delicious and versatile enough to make their way into countless meals. Plus, they offer nutritional value; a medium baked potato contains four grams of protein and 28 percent of the recommended daily value of Vitamin C. This is in addition to a litany of other health benefits, such as potassium and niacin, that potatoes have to offer. These naturally gluten-free, tuberous beauties are considered a sustainable crop, and they are very easy for home gardeners to grow. Varieties such as Kennebec and Yukon Gold thrive in Central Texas, even for novice growers.

Because potatoes are such a staple, let's use them for all they're worth with new, inventive dishes. The potato is ready to step out of that "usually roasted" box and step into a more elevated space. Why not give your regular potato-cooking method a break and give grilling or braising a try? Step up your roasting game by boiling your spuds, lightly smashing them with a fork, then roasting them with herbs and olive oil to make them extra crispy. Serve alongside a garlic yogurt for bonus points. You can also change things up by manipulating the shape and size of your cuts and experimenting with different cooking vessels to achieve varied textures. Potatoes are sturdy enough to hold up under most cooking techniques (except the food processor, maker of all glue-like mashed potatoes), meaning there is a world of options, and therefore a world of textures and flavors, at hand. I will never turn down the simple perfection of a superbly cooked French fry, but the classics deserve to be spiced up, too, and I, for one, look forward to seeing what exciting form the potato will take on next.

By Dani Colombatto