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The Ingredient Italians Hated For Centuries

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The Potato: From Rejection to Beloved Staple

This humble ingredient took over 300 years to gain acceptance in Italy, where it was initially hated. Today, it has conquered the world, becoming a staple ingredient for countless dishes. It is now one of the most economical, versatile, and comforting ingredients in every cuisine. Can you guess what it is?

We are talking about potatoes! While they might not be the first thing to spring to mind when thinking about Italian food, potatoes are used in numerous regional dishes throughout Italy. Naturally, we had to delve into the history and uses of these tasty tubers.

Potatoes in Italian Cuisine

In Italy, potatoes go beyond being simply mashed, fried, boiled, or roasted. They shine in dishes like potato gnocchi, crispy crocchette di patate (potato croquettes), and the rustic Neapolitan gattò di patate, which combines potatoes with ham and mozzarella. Potatoes also feature in many soups, stews, and pasta dishes.

However, Italians were initially slow to embrace the potato. Originating in South America, potatoes were brought to Europe from Peru in the 16th century. Their lumpy, gnarly, dirty appearance initially put people off, with some even comparing them to leprosy. It wasn’t until the population boom of the 1800s, coupled with disaster and famine, that potatoes began to be cultivated and consumed across Italy, eventually becoming a staple of the Italian cucina povera (poor cuisine).

What Are Potatoes?

Potatoes are starch-filled root vegetables from the plant Solanum tuberosum. There are 5000 varieties worldwide, including red, white, russet, yellow, blue, and purple, each with its own flavor, purpose, and characteristics. Generally, potatoes fall into one of two categories based on their ratio of solids (starch, sugar, fiber, salt) to liquid. Floury, starchy potatoes contain less water and tend to puff up when cooked, while waxy potatoes hold their shape better due to their higher water content. Although some potatoes are labeled ‘all-purpose,’ it’s preferable to use the correct variety for the dish you’re preparing to achieve the best results.

Tips and Gnocchi Cooking Course

One of our favorite ways to use potatoes is to make potato gnocchi. To ensure a light, fluffy texture, use floury potatoes and boil them whole with the skins on to minimize water absorption, which can make gnocchi tough and chewy. Cook similarly sized potatoes evenly, then use an Italian-style potato masher, which also conveniently removes the skins. Mix the mashed potatoes with egg, flour, and a sprinkle of nutmeg, then shape them into small pillows.

Important tip: never mash potatoes in a food processor. The heat and intensity will react with the starch, creating a sticky, glue-like consistency.

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