Understanding Potatoes

In classical cuisine, the potato is one of the most important of all foods.To many of us today, potatoes are considered an ordinary and humble food. Escoffier, however, treated the potato with great respect. His Guide Culinaire lists more than 50 potato preparations, far more than for any other vegetable or starch.

Considering how important the potato is in the cuisines of Europe and North America, it is surprising to think that this vegetable wasn't widely used until the last half of the eighteenth century. Although the potato had been brought to Europe from the New World a few hundred years earlier, it wasn't until then that an army pharmacist named Antoine-Auguste Parmentier began promoting its use.To this day,many classical recipes featuring the potato are called Parmentier (par mawn tyay).

Botanically, the potato is a tuber,which is an enlarged underground stem with buds (or eyes) that become new shoots.Traditional main courses in western cooking feature a protein item,one or more vegetables,and a starch.The potato is,of course, a vegetable, but because of its high starch content it usually serves the same function on the menu as grains and other starchy foods.

Potatoes are traditionally classified as either starchy, low-moisture varieties or as waxy, high-moisture varieties.The following section summarizes the main characteristics of these two categories as well as traditional uses for each. Today, many potato varieties are available that were largely unknown not long ago. As always, chefs love to experiment with new foods and to find new uses for them. For example,they don't feel limited to russets for baking. So, after reading about the two main categories of potatoes below, continue to the next section for an introduction to some of the many varieties available today.

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