Given that my heritage is half Ukrainian and half Irish, it’s not surprising potatoes were a big part of my diet growing up.
Mashed potatoes, potatoes in beef stew, baked potatoes, Scalloped Potatoes for special occasions, or small, new potatoes boiled with dill, all made their way to our family dinner table.
China now is the No. 1 grower of potatoes in the world and the size of its crop equals the next three producers on the list: India, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. the U.S. rounds out the top five list. Canada is at No. 16 slot, right after those potato giants Iran, Algeria, and Egypt. The top 10 per-capita potato-consuming nations in the world remain clustered in Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and Britain (including Ireland), with only Rwanda joining that list.
Even though we aren’t a world leader in potato production, according to the Canadian Horticultural Council, potatoes are Canada’s largest horticultural crop in terms of acreage, yield and farm cash receipts. It’s still a big, and important, agriculture business.
Potatoes these days get quite the bad rap, possibly because of the way they become irresistible when fried up in any one of a hundred ways. French fries, potato chips, even baked potatoes loaded with cheese and sour cream and bacon bits all pack a huge calorie punch and aren’t going to win any healthy eating awards.
Potato defenders among nutrition folks will point out potatoes (with skins on) have more potassium than a banana, more vitamin C than an orange, and more fiber than an apple, all for the caloric price of 100 calories.
Potatoes, while grown around the world, are integral to many Canadian stories. Agricultural scientists at the University of Guelph created the Yukon Gold potato, which has grown into one of the best-known potatoes sold in North America.
Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island (population: 146,000), is Potato Central. It’s home to the Canadian Potato Museum and even a Potato Blossom Festival. The island has a sedimentary bedrock of soft, red sandstone which produces the rich, red soil that contributes to near-ideal potato growing conditions. This small place produces 25 per cent of Canada’s potato crop on 88,000 acres of fields and engages 12 per cent of the province’s workforce.
But perhaps the most-famous Canadian potato story is poutine, a from-Québec invention that starts with french fries, adding cheese curds and gravy (“la sauce”) on top, now found on artery-clogging menus around the world. There are many stories about its origins: If you have a few moments, sit back and watch Food Sleuth Marion Kane’s investigation, where she travels around that province seeking poutine stories:
Then there are regional specialties, such as St. John’s-style fish and chips. I haven’t seen this any place other than Newfoundland, and am surprised all the poutine lovers haven’t discovered it and demand it be served across the country. To a standard issue battered-and-deep-fried codfish and french fries (chips), you add dressing (bread-and-sage, like you’d stuff in a turkey), cooked peas and a whack of gravy over everything.
In winter months, I make “fake fries” by baking cubed or sliced unpeeled potatoes that have been tossed in olive oil, pepper, salt and paprika, or in olive oil and crushed rosemary. In the summer and fall months, my go-to potato preparation is a quick-and-easy potato salad. When the weather is going to be hot, you can boil up the potatoes in the morning to save turning on the stove in the heat of the day.
Kelley’s herb potato salad
While I enjoy a creamy, mayonnaise-based-dressing potato salad, I prefer this version. It has less fat and is simple to make, especially if you grow a few herbs in your garden or on your porch or balcony.
Take small, young potatoes and cut in half or in quarters, if they are a little larger: leave the skins on. You determine the quantity based on how much potato salad you want to make.
Boil in salted water until tender but not mushy: timing depends on what kind of potatoes you are using, so test frequently. Drain.
Dress the potatoes while they are still warm with a vinaigrette that is equal parts good quality olive oil and a mild vinegar: Balsamic is tasty, as is chive or basil. You can add a half-teaspoon of powdered mustard into the vinaigrette if you want it to have a little more bite.
Finely chop and add herbs: for a one-pound box of small potatoes, I use 1/3 to 1/2 cup of chopped herbs. My favourite combination is chives, dill, and basil, although Italian parley and tarragon will also taste great. A couple tablespoons of capers mixed in add a welcome salty tang. If your chives have already flowered, pinch off a couple purple or white blooms to add as decoration to your salad.
You can serve right away, still a bit warm, or store in the fridge. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
Main photo: Courtesy P.E.I. Potato Board