This week we will discuss what goes on beneath the earth – not with roots, but with tubers. If the roots are the foundations of the house, anchoring it to the earth, the tubers are the basement, where important things are stored for a time of need. The tuber is not a root, but rather a segment, or several segments, of the stem, used for accumulation – a type of storage for important nutrients (except water). And as such, the tubers are usually thick and round and bereft of the stem-color-green attained from chlorophyll. The base of the tuber shoots out roots, while its top sends stems, branches and leaves upward. This is what it looks like:
Over the past few weeks, you have been receiving fresh, yummy potatoes from our winter rounds. They’re called “spring potatoes” because even though they were seeded in wintertime, they are harvested in springtime, yet most of their growth happened in the cooler season. In Israel, potatoes are grown in two seasons: the autumn seeding, September-October, ripening and harvested from December to April, and those seeded from January-February, ripening and picked during the months of May and June (those that you’re currently receiving). The rest of the year here in Israel, we eat spring potatoes from cold storage.
The potato is the winter representative of the Solanum tuberosums, cousins of the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Unlike these guys who enjoy the heat, the potato needs cool weather to yield tubers. High temperatures will make the plant grow tall and prominent, but with hardly any tubers under the earth, and sometimes none at all. A too-cold temperature will hinder the plant’s ability to grow, and it will remain small and weak, damaging the tuber’s source of energy for growth. The ideal solution: moderate, cool weather – not too cold or too hot. In short, an Israeli winter.
As the tuber is in fact a sub-soil stem, when it meets daylight, the chlorophyll begins to develop and turns the tuber green. This is not something you want to happen, which is why you make a little mound at the base of the stems, keeping the moisture in the roots to prevent the earth from cracking and to protect the tubers from the light. As the potatoes grew, we mounded them once again so we could weed them and add some expansion space. Over the past few weeks, we inserted our pitchforks into the mounds to crumble them, extracting beautiful, fresh yellow potatoes. A fresh tuber after extraction is in a comatose state due to the growth inhibiters within it. After a while, these substances subside and growth material develops, which makes the tuber bloom and sprout. In order to keep it asleep, we store it in dark, refrigerated conditions.
The potato originated in the Peruvian Andes, Chili and Bolivia, where it was grown by local Indians. They used all sorts of Solaneum’s for food. At the beginning of the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the area, they brought home some of the strange little tubers. The Spaniards weren’t too keen on eating what they coined “edible rocks,” but the conquering soldiers armed themselves with potatoes for their emergency vittles as they travelled to Spain and England.
In fact, except for the Irish, the Europeans wanted nothing to do with the strange vegetable that suffered from really bad PR: In the 16th century, a British botanist developed a cultivated species of the potato, but when he presented the potato dish to the queen in an elegant meal, it turned out the chef had cooked the leaves and tossed the tubers. The queen was mortified (off with his head!). The Scottish did not find any mention of potatoes in the Bible, thus declared it impure. Botanists discovered that it belongs to the Belladonna family (a poisonous plant whose extract was used as a sedative) and worried that it too was toxic. The innocent potato was even blamed for causing leprosy, when it was discovered that the solanine in the tuber can create a rash. But the Irish couldn’t afford to be choosy. They were starving, and the tubers grew wonderfully well in the wintry Irish climate and earth.
The potato arrived in Germany in the 16th century, but was considered animal fodder and prisoner rations till the 18th century, when the king instructed the farmers to plant potatoes in order to save themselves from famine. He distributed tubers and instructions, and threatened to chop off the noses of those who disobeyed him. And what about France? Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French chemist who fought in the Seven Years War, was held prisoner by the Prussians and given a steady diet of potatoes (considered animal fodder). Yet upon his return to France, he made it his business to popularize the lowly tuber. Parmentier circulated an article in praise of the potato. For the king’s birthday, he brought him a potato bouquet, which the queen, Marie Antoinette, donned in her hair. Thus, potatoes became a desirable fashion accessory in France, but not yet a desirable food. Parmentier did not despair, and threw lavish parties where he served twenty potato dishes. Wisely, he planted a few more acres of potatoes, and set a guard to watch over them by day. As per his plan, the farmers presumed that if he took such stringent measures to guard his plot of land, it must contain something valuable. Sure enough, they crept in by night and stole the plants. In no time, potato plants were sprouting throughout French fields, becoming a status symbol and highly sought-after food in all of Europe as well. Potatoes were brought to Israel at the end of the nineteenth century to the villages established by the Baron Rothschild.
Potatoes made European history in the 19th century after the crop was badly injured due to a late blight, inflicting major damage and resulting in widespread famine. In 1845 the blight fungus immigrated to Ireland as well (probably on the deck of an American ship), spreading fast and leaving a massive trail of devastation. The small quantity of potato varieties caused an escalation from fungi to major plague, generating a total collapse of Irish potato farming and the greatest famine in Ireland’s history.
This famine sparked a massive immigration to America, where the new immigrants were quick to begin planting crops (the potato, of course) in the fertile soil of their new homeland. Thus, the charming tuber returned to the continent of its forefathers (albeit some hundred miles north…). More about the fascinating history of the potato, a tale encompassing prejudice, love, hate, abundance and destruction, can be found in this fascinating article (Hebrew).
Today, potatoes are popular worldwide and serve as a major source of carbohydrates. Even in the Far East, where nutrition is rice-based, potatoes are used to vary the cuisine. Potato tubers supply digestible carbs, vitamins B6, C, iron and potassium. The peeling is very rich in dietary fibers, which is why it is best not to peel a potato prior to baking or cooking it.
The thousands of potato species across the globe vary in shape and color: round, elongated, flat, white, yellow, pinkish-red, purple and others. At the close of this past winter we grew four varieties: yellowish potatoes called “Nicola” and “Vitabella” and red species named “Desiree” and “Delila.” They’re all simply delicious! For details about the various types of potatoes grown in Israel, click here.
Potato seeds are in fact the tubers themselves, with stems stretching out from them, roots shooting down, and special underground hunting stems from which new tubers develop. This time we received small seeds for part of the species. The plants they produced were thinner than what we’re used to (fewer stems, probably due to the small seed) and they did not develop as well as usual…perhaps the cold and wet weather (blessed and desired, true, but sometimes – as in this case – detrimental) slowed down the development of the plant and created stress. Others were attacked by leaf diseases (Bacterial speek), greatly minimizing the size of the potatoes. small. But they were very yummy!
Store potatoes in a cool, dark place.
As mentioned, potatoes turn green when they are exposed to light for any length of time. The green hue is the result of the chlorophyll, a natural plant pigment which is tasteless and harmless. The problem with green potatoes is that in the areas where the chlorophyll develops, an alkaloid called solanine can also develop, tasting bitter and toxic when consumed in large quantities. A greater concentration of solanine is found in the peeling or just below it, which is why older potatoes should be peeled. Cooking or steaming them reduces the solanine by 60-70% compared to a raw potato. The greening is caused by light, but also temperature, age, species and ripeness. Light potatoes turn green faster than red ones.
The potato “eyes” are in fact small buds developing from the tubers which are, as mentioned, the accumulative organ as well as the reproductive organ from which a new plant grows. The buds develop even when the tuber is young and they are absolutely not a sign of old rotting potatoes. This year we got some “eyes” when the potatoes were still underground, before they were actually harvested! Potato “eyes” are not a problem, and they are not evidence of solanine. If the potato is not green, simply remove them and enjoy the potato.
Potatoes keep quite well at a temperature between 8-28 degrees. A higher temperature will make the tubers sprout, then go bad. At a lower temperature (in the refrigerator, or at 6 degrees and lower), the starch within the potato turns to sugar, giving the potatoes a sweetish taste and causing them to burn faster when fried.
Read this poetic post from the charming blog Shira Achila about potatoes and their potential, plus with a nice recipe (Hebrew).
May we enjoy a nice summery-though-moderate week, perfect for the potato.
Alon, Bat-Ami, Yochai, Dror, Orin and the entire Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Zucchini, fakus, lettuce, melon/watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, Amoro pumpkin, eggplant, New Zealand spinach/Swiss chard, parsley/dill.
Large box, in addition: Garlic/scallions, yellow and green string beans/cherry tomatoes, butternut squash/acorn squash.
Fruit box: Banana, apricut. Small boxes: apples, peach. Large boxes: cherries. nectarines.
Wednesday: Zucchini, fakus, lettuce, melon/watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, Amoro pumpkin, eggplant, New Zealand spinach/Swiss chard, parsley/dill/cilantro.
Large box, in addition: Garlic/scallions, yellow and green string beans, butternut squash/acorn squash.
Fruit boxes: Banana, apricut, apples, cherries. Large boxes also: plums.