The potato may be a food staple in much of the world, but its origins were hardly auspicious. First nurtured from an unpromising group of plants that grew at high elevations in South America, the earliest potatoes were knobby and misshapen and had a bitter taste. Still, the unslightly tuber was cultivated in Peru some 2000 years ago and thanks to some selective breeding, eventually morphed into a comparatively attractive and undeniably delicious root vegetable.
In 1537, the Spanish forces of Jiminez De Quesada were the first Europeans to encounter the potato, in what is now Colombia. The potato migrated to Spain in the 1550s, and by the 1590s, found its way to Great Britain, where it was initially shunned. Some believed the potato was poisonous. Others, like Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, refused to even plant them because potatoes weren’t mentioned in the Bible. Irish Catholics, though, soothed their fears by sprinkling their seed potatoes with holy water and planting them on Good Friday.
Elsewhere in Europe, however, the potato flourished. In Sweden, a royal edict in 1764 promoted the spud, as did a decree from Prussia’s Frederick the Great, who ordered cultivation in select areas of the country. In France, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, an army officer during the Seven Years War, convinced King Louis XVI of the potato’s charms, and established a sizable potato plantation near Paris. A savvy marketer, Parmentier had ditches dug around the potato field and installed guards, instructing them to protect the plants vigilantly. Local peasants, curious about the evidently valuable crop, sneaked into the fi elds under cover of darkness, stole the potatoes and planted them in their home gardens. The potato’s popularity blossomed.
But in the mid-19th century, the tuber suffered a tragic setback in Ireland. In the late 1830s, a fungal disease swept in from Belgium and, fostered by Ireland’s mild, damp climate, wiped out the country’s potato crop in the 1840s. The result was the Great Famine of 1845, and by 1851, approximately one million Irish had died and another million were forced to emigrate.
Today, the ubiquitous potato is one of the most versatile vegetables around. It can be mashed, scalloped, boiled, deep-fried, pan-fried and baked, and made into dumplings, pancakes, fritters, rissoles and gnocchi. Any way you slice it, this uber tuber has captured the global imagination.
Irish Beef and Potato Stew
The inspired addition of that Irish pub staple, Guinness beer, and red wine give this hearty beef stew extra body. Serve with crusty bread—and think of the Emerald Isle.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds stewing beef, cut into
- 1-inch cubes
- 8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 6 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
- 1 cup Guinness
- 1 cup good quality red wine
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp dried thyme
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp butter
- 3 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into
- 1-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 cups carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp parsley (for garnish)
- In large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add beef and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for about one minute. Add next nine ingredients (beef stock through bay leaves) and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.
- While the meat and stock simmer, melt butter in separate pot over medium heat. Add potatoes, onions and carrots. Sauté until vegetables turn golden, about 20 minutes.
- Add vegetables to beef stew. Simmer, uncovered, until vegetables and beef are very tender, about 40 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Tilt pot and remove fat with a spoon. Transfer stew to serving bowl, sprinkle with parsley and serve. (Can be prepared up to two days ahead. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before serving.) Serves four to six.