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Potatoes versatile, tasty, cheap

Popular vegetable is a staple in most nations worldwide

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The names range from the elegant — French pommes de terre and German Kartoffel — to the lyrical — Hawaiian 'uala kahiki and Farsi sib'za'mi'ni. The Irish Gaelic word is pratai, transliterated to "praties" in English (though more commonly known in Ireland as simply "spuds"). The Zulu word is izambane, Serbs say krompir and Malaysia weighs in with ubi kentang.

It's hard to find a language that doesn't have a word for potatoes, because it's hard to find a country that doesn't eat them. Indeed, China — not chip-and-fry-loving America — is the world's largest producer.

Why are we all so crazy about potatoes? Sure, they're tasty and easy to grow in conditions wet or dry, cold or hot. They're also nutritious, with plenty of vitamin C (45 percent of your daily requirement in a medium spud), potassium and fiber. Plain, they have no fat and 100 calories per medium spud — few enough to occasionally feature on the dieter's table, high enough to keep people alive in poor countries.

Chef Cheryl Smith, host of Food Network's "Melting Pot," hits on the crucial point that has long appealed to both homemakers and chefs: Potatoes are cheap and adaptable.

"One of the reasons I love to use potatoes is because they're so cost-effective," she said. "They can be reused. If you bake them today, you can cut up the leftovers and make potato hash or croquettes tomorrow. They're so versatile."

Incas in Peru began cultivating potatoes around 200 B.C., and the Conquistadors took them to Europe in the early 16th century. In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced them to Ireland. There they became almost the sole food source for the poor, resulting in a huge population that was decimated when a fungus caused the crop to fail, repeatedly, in the mid-1840s.

Potatoes came to Virginia in 1621 and began to be cultivated seriously in New Hampshire in 1719. Since then, the quantities and types of potatoes have only increased, from waxy boiling ones to starchy baking ones. There's the "Irish potato," as Americans have long called any white spud; Red Bliss, perfect for potato salad; potatoes that are wholly red, skin and flesh; and potatoes that are wholly blue or purple ones, such as the Purple Peruvian. There are golf-ball-size rounds, potatoes shaped like bananas, tiny red-skinned ones called "Spanish Peanuts," fingerlings (named for their size and shape) and big long bakers.

Relatively new to the market and very popular are gold- and yellow-fleshed potatoes, led by the flavorful Yukon Gold. Out of the hundreds of varieties available, Smith goes for the Gold.

"I think the Yukon Gold needs very little work," she says. "It's got great texture and flavor, whether you use olive oil or butter, whether it's fried or roasted. It's the only potato I use for home fries. The others can be so mealy. I really like the texture of Yukon Gold.

"Otherwise, I like fingerlings for the texture. And they're really versatile presentation-wise. They're good either braised or roasted, and they look good on a plate. They have kind of the texture of Yukon and they're less starchy than Red Bliss, but there's no mealyness in them."

If you like mealyness — or flouriness, as some call it — in your baked or fried spuds, buy a potato with low moisture and a high starch content, such as the Russet, also called an Idaho. Waxy potatoes with low starch and smooth flesh are more likely to keep their shape when cooked, and they're better for potato salad. And medium-starch potatoes, such as the Kennebec or Yukon Gold, are multipurpose, for boiling, frying, soups, salads, even roasting.

Try to buy fresh, plump potatoes that are firm to squeeze and aren't shriveled or sprouting. Always store potatoes in a cool, dry place, and never in the refrigerator, which converts the starch to an unpleasant sugary taste. If you buy potatoes in a plastic bag, dump them into a storage bin or into a paper bag. This will slow the sprouting. And don't store your potatoes right next to your onions, which can speed up sprouting.

How you cook them is up to you. Few foods have the versatility of the potato. Even a seemingly simple recipe such as mashed potatoes is open to a huge range of interpretations, from milk or cream to buttermilk, chicken stock, roast garlic, chipotle pepper, pesto and so on. And when you branch out into other cultures, you have potato curries, cakes, stir-fries, soups, gratins, fritters, breads and endlessly more.

And everyone has his own favorites. "I like them mashed because that's the ultimate comfort food," says Smith, who throws in a recipe in her enthusiasm.

"I also like roasting them with rosemary and whole peeled garlic. Cut onions the same size as potatoes, whether in cubes or wedges or large dice. Toss the potatoes, garlic and onions with olive oil, fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, and cook, covered under foil, for 35 minutes in about a 350-degree oven. Then cook uncovered for 20 minutes. When you cover and cook it like that, the flavor concentrates. It's the best."