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Alimentary, My Dear

This Spud's For You

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

April 18, 2006

Maybe it's the Irish blood coursing through my veins, or maybe it's the fact that my grandmother was born in a potato field. Whatever the reason, I love potatoes. And I'm not alone. Potatoes keep many of us going, day in and day out. We fry them, bake them, and boil them. We even make salad from them. And that's just the start. Potatoes play a supporting role in countless casseroles, soups, and stews. So it's no surprise that we lug spuds home in ten-pound bags with traces of soil still clinging to their skins, as well as buying them already cut up and cooked in serving-sized freezer packs.

You want variety? Potatoes deliver. Ring the changes on thin-skinned whites, waxy reds or yellows, and starchy russets. Not enough choice for you? No problem. Some Foodies dote on purple potatoes, while others search out diminutive spuds from heritage strains harking back to the potato's South American roots. Whether they like them plain or fancy, though, a lot of folks besides me love potatoes. And there's more to this affection than the earth apple's versatility. After all, broccoli can also be deep fried, sautéed, mashed, and baked, but not too many people go to the local drive-through and order up a MaxiBurger with broccoli fries, nor does meat-and-broccoli hold a prominent place in popular culture. What's the potato's secret? Is it the subtle flavor, the stick-to-the-ribs goodness, the superb keeping qualities? Or is it all of these things? I don't know the answer, but there's little doubt that…

Potatoes Belong in the Backcountry

Yet raw potatoes aren't exactly lightweights. There's a lot of water trapped in these tubby tubers, and water is heavy. Of course, this drawback isn't confined to potatoes. It's common to all fresh vegetables and fruits. At least potatoes travel well. They take hard knocks in stride, and they require no refrigeration. (Indeed, raw potatoes really don't warm to cold temperatures.) In any case, the weight and bulk of a few potatoes won't add up to much on a weekend adventure. You say you don't fancy spending your weekend peeling spuds? OK. How about canned potatoes? They make an even heavier load than raw potatoes — and don't forget that canned foods aren't permitted everywhere — but at least the salty water they're packed in can be used in soups or stews. No can do? Then check out the precooked potatoes in the big fridge in your local HyperMart's Produce section. You'll need to keep these spuds cold between home and camp, though.

Moreover, there's a limit to how much water you can carry in your boat. It doesn't make any difference if the water's inside a potato skin. That's why freeze-dried and dehydrated potatoes make a lot of sense on longer trips. You don't have to spend a fortune here. While freeze-dried potatoes may reconstitute a little more quickly than dehydrated spuds, the difference is small, and from here on out I'll lump both together as dried potatoes. Don't be put off by unhappy memories of old-style instant mashed potatoes, by the way. You know the kind I'm talking about — the contents tasted about as good as the box and vice versa. We've come a long way since then. Explore the shelves in the HyperMart. Browse the catalogs. You'll find dried potatoes in every imaginable form: flaked, sliced, diced, and julienned (cut into strips). In fact, the only real question left is…

What's for Dinner?

And the answer? Whatever you want, providing you have the time. With raw potatoes you've got about as much scope as you would at home, though you'll have to cope with the limitations of camp kitchens. You won't find too many electric convection ovens or microwaves in the backcountry, after all. Still, this doesn't mean baked potatoes are off the menu. It just takes a bed of hot coals. (I don't need to remind anyone to make sure that the fire danger is low before striking the first match, do I?) Wrap russet potatoes in foil and bury them in the coals. An hour and a half later, fish them out. (Small potatoes take less time; large potatoes, more.) That's all there is to it. Now split them open and garnish with a generous helping of cooked beans. You've got a lot of alternatives here, from black beans mixed with salsa to canned pork-and-beans. Or sprinkle your spuds with a fistful of grated cheese.

Is an hour and a half too long to wait to eat? Then grill your potatoes. Slice them into quarter-inch-thick slabs, baste both sides with olive oil, season to taste with salt and pepper — add herbs and spices, too, if you want — and grill the slices over hot coals until done, turning them occasionally to prevent sticking. As was true of baking, russets work best here, but any potato will do in a pinch.

Or maybe you're in the mood for skillet-fried potatoes. And why not? Cube or slice them and get cooking. Most vegetable oils will work fine, as will animal fats like bacon or sausage grease, though olive oil is NOT a good choice here. (It burns at too low a temperature.) In fact, potatoes cooked with sausages or bacon are delicious. Push the boat out a bit and stir in some sliced onions and green pepper, too. For an even heartier one-dish meal, top with grated or cubed Cheddar cheese just before serving (but after the frying pan's off the fire).

Another favorite is traditional salt potatoes. Fill a large pot with water. Mix in enough salt to make the water as salty as the sea. Now bring the salt water to a boil. Next, add small white potatoes — skins and all — and keep the pot boiling until the spuds are tender. Then drain off the water. It's time for some serious eating. Each diner spears a potato on a fork or skewer, dips it into melted butter, takes a cautious bite (boiled potatoes are hot!), and dips again until there's no more potato left. This isn't a meal for calorie-conscious hypertensives, obviously, but there's no better lunch after a hard pull against a cold offshore wind. Think of it as a sort of rough and ready potato "fondue." And speaking of fondue, why not go the whole hog and substitute cheese fondue mix for the melted butter? Why not, indeed!

But what if you don't have any fresh potatoes in your food pack? Then fall back on dried. You'll find plenty to choose from on the shelves of your HyperMart. Quick-cook mashed potatoes, hash browns, potatoes au gratin, potatoes O'Brien.… They're all easy to prepare. Just follow the directions on the package, adding herbs and spices to taste. Each of these makes a fine side dish right out of the box. Add meat and veg, and you've got a meal. Here are a couple of examples: Make a pot of potatoes au gratin according to package directions. Just before they're ready to eat, stir in some canned ham that you've cut into bite-sized cubes. That's all there is to it. Or make one of my favorite meals, a sort of potato pie. It, too, begins with a package of potatoes au gratin. Cover the bottom of an oiled skillet with slices of dried potato from the box. Top this layer with onions (either dried or sliced fresh), sprinkle with dried cheese from the envelope in the package, and garnish with dried thyme leaves. Then lay down another layer of potatoes, and add more onions, cheese, and thyme. Finish off with a final layer of dried potato. Now add the required amount of water — Gently! You don't want your carefully constructed "layer cake" to float away — and cover the skillet. Simmer over a slow fire until the potatoes are tender. (If they begin to dry out before they're cooked through, add more water.) When the potatoes are almost done, sprinkle grated Swiss cheese evenly over the top, replace the cover, and heat until the cheese melts. Mouth-watering!

Is there an enthusiastic angler in your boat? Good. Try fish fillets with a potato crust. Empty a box of julienned potatoes into a bowl and add just enough water to cover the spuds, leaving them to soak while you fillet your fish. Now rub the fillets with salt, sprinkle with pepper, and daub with butter or cooking oil. Next, squeeze any excess water from the potatoes — don't be too vigorous; a little moisture is good — and coat the fillets with a thin jacket of potato before frying in hot oil, gently flipping the fish when the first side is golden brown. You'll never have a better shore dinner.

Potatoes have traveled from the New World to the Old and back again. The reasons are easy to understand. Few foods are as versatile, as delicious, or as filling. And they're at their best in the back of beyond. One thing's for sure: however you like to prepare potatoes, this spud's for you.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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