Culinary Geography: Roasted Potatoes

So back in 2013 I started a culinary geography series but have hardly written anything for it since then.  I plan to change that by writing about all the amazing recipes I found since then.  So get ready for some good food and my adventures in cooking!

Being a twenty-something college student, my knowledge of recipes and cooking has been limited but over the past few months I have been figuring out how to cook various dishes from dinner meals to desserts.  Today’s post will feature one of my favorites (and the one I cooked today), roasted potatoes.

Roasted red potatoes.  Photo by Laylita Day

Roasted red potatoes. Photo by Laylita Day

I started out by googling different recipes and eventually created my own version.  I tend to forgo exact measurements when cooking something my own way because it makes it more fun and better suited to one’s personal taste.

This is a fairly easy recipe, it just requires a bit of time.  It takes me about an hour or so to do all the chopping and then another 15-30 minutes for everything else plus an hour for cooking time.

Here’s what you need (you can add or remove any of these according to your preference):

Red or small brown potatoes (as many as will fit in your pan- I use a rectangular baking pan)

Celery (as much as you want – I use about 3-4 stalks)

Onions (1 big one or 2 small ones)

Garlic (as much as you want – I use 2 bulbs)

Bell peppers (1 of each: red, orange and yellow)

Olive Oil (enough to coat all veggies)

Butter (as many cubed chunks as you like – I use about 2-3 tablespoons)

Parmesan Cheese (as much as you want)

Salt (as much as you want)

Oregano (as much as you want)

Basil (as much as you want)

Thyme (as much as you want)

Parsley Flakes (as much as you want)

Prep:

Start by cutting and peeling the potatoes into wedges.  Usually one potato will yield 4 wedges.  Put these directly into the pan.  Afterwards chop the rest of your vegetables into whatever size you like.  I leave them pretty big because they will shrink after cooking.  Add those directly to the pan as soon as you finish chopping each one.

Once that’s done you coat the vegetables in oil and top it with the spices/herbs and the cheese.  Then mix the vegetables with your hands as best you can so that the spices/herbs and cheese can coat all the vegetables.  Your hands will get super messy but that’s really the best way to do it.  Last add cubed pieces of butter to the top of the vegetables.  Try to spread the cubes out evenly across the pan.

 

Then cover it with some aluminum foil.  Make sure the foil is slightly bigger than the pan so you can fold the edges over the pan’s sides to seal in the vegetables.  Then pop it into the oven at 450 degrees F for 1 hour.

Done.  Enjoy!

Small brown potatoes after served.  Photo by Laylita Day.

Small brown potatoes after served. Photo by Laylita Day.

Potato Geography

So where’s the geography in all this?  For that part I’ll discuss the history and movement of potatoes from South America to all over the world.

According to the International Potato Center (IPC), potatoes originated in the Andes Mountains in South America.  The potato is the third most important food (after rice and wheat) with more than a billion people consuming it globally.  There are also more than 4,000 varieties of potato with most of them coming from the Andes.  There are also 180 varieties of wild potato, which while being too bitter for consumption are valuable for biodiversity, allowing them to produce resistance to pests, disease and climatic conditions.

One of the reasons for the wide spread and popularity of potatoes is their ability to grow almost anywhere.  They can produce from sea level up to 4,700 meters (almost 3 miles) and includes the range form Southern Chile to Greenland.  Other reasons for the potato’s widespread cultivation can be attributed to the fact that one hectare of potato yields two to four times more food than grain crops and its efficient water usage.  The potato produces more food per unit of water than other major food crops and it is seven times more efficient in using water than cereals.

Potato varieties.  Image from International Potato Center.

Potato varieties. Image from International Potato Center.

Currently the potato is grown in over 100 countries around the world.  Potato production increased during the 1960s and provides food security for places such as South America, Asia and Africa.  In fact, China happens to be the world’s largest consumer of potatoes with an expected 50% increase during the next 20 years.

In terms of wild potatoes (inedible), which are the ancestors of today’s cultivated potatoes (the varieties that we actually consume), a study done by Robert J. Hijmans and David M. Spooner titled “Geographic Distribution of Wild Potato Species” says that wild potatoes occur in 16 countries.  The majority though, about 88%, come from Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Peru.  Unsurprisingly Peru had the highest number of varieties, totaling 93.  The second highest was Bolivia with 39.  To be even more geographically specific, species richness was found in northern Argentina, central Bolivia, central Ecuador, central Mexico, and south and north-central Peru.

Potato Species Distribution using grid cells.  Image from Robert Hijmans and David Spooner (2001).

Potato Species Distribution using grid cells. Image from Robert Hijmans and David Spooner (2001).

In contrast to the above study done on wild potatoes, another study by Donald Ugent titled “The potato in Mexico: Geography and primitive culture,” explores the uniqueness of cultivated Mexican potatoes.  Unlike potatoes found in South America, potato cultivation seems non-existent in the archeological record for Mexico.  In fact, Central America is home to sweet potatoes rather than regular potatoes.

Earliest records of potato cultivation stem from the observations of two researchers from the 1800s.  Specifically Alexander von Humboldt mentioned them in 1803 and also thought that perhaps the potato had been introduced by Spaniards who traded throughout the region.

Other accounts say how potato cultivation was probably very limited and that is why it was overlooked by travelers.  Even today potatoes are not widely grown in Mexico with most of the production occurring in the upper altitudes of the Central Mexican Volcanic Cordillera between 2,900 and 3,800 meters.  Elsewhere maize, peppers and beans are more easily and economically grown because of the fertile valleys.  One of the reasons discouraging potato growth at lower altitudes is the problem of late blight, which is more easily resisted at colder temperatures.

Thus while the potato has many features that make it good an easy to grow, it is still susceptible to blight and disease, such as the famous Irish Potato Famine of 1845 and 1852.

Mexican potato cultivation.  Image from Donald Ugent (1968).

Mexican potato cultivation. Image from Donald Ugent (1968).

To end on a happier note, potato nutrition, according to IPC, includes low-fat carbohydrates and one-fourth the calories of bread.  When boiled they have more protein than maize and about twice the calcium.  An average serving of potatoes with the skin on provides about 10 percent of the recommended daily amount of fiber.  So celebrate the greatness of potatoes and go cook some up!

 

 

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