Archive for Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Replacing potatoes in Midwestern diet is no easy task

October 15, 2003


Here in the Midwest we're in the heart of meat-and-potatoes country, so anyone who disparages the potato is going to be on shaky ground. Even less popular in Kansas is being a vegetarian or a Democrat, but potato-bashing has third place locked up tight.

The potato in and of itself is a fine vegetable. It's high in Vitamin B and it provided subsistence to folks throughout the Americas and Europe for centuries. The problem is that many people -- particularly those of us who are middle-aged -- can't eat potatoes without developing a body shaped like a potato.

This may be the classic example of the adage "you are what you eat."

For some people, potatoes have been so much a part of the diet that any suggestion to give them up seems preposterous. Of course, we've all been told that it's not the potato itself that's bad for us but how we prepare them. However, in the Midwestern dietary scheme of things, a potato that hasn't been fried or slathered with butter or sour cream is no potato at all.

But the naked, unaltered potato isn't all that innocent after all. Potatoes are high in starch, which the body turns to sugar and ultimately to fat, and most weight-loss or weight-maintenance plans put the kibosh on starch.

That's why these are trying times for people who love potatoes.

I've had difficulty accounting for potatoes being so central to our Midwestern eating habits. It seemed possible that the Midwestern diet is still tied to farmers' and gardeners' customs, and potatoes always have been a staple of the rural table. For people who raise their own food, potatoes are a dream vegetable. They are easy to grow and they have a long shelf life.

That theory doesn't hold up when I try to extend it to other vegetables, however. A well-stocked root cellar also includes turnips and maybe parsnips and rutabaga, which most people don't eat much anymore. Nor do most people eat a lot of beets and cabbage, both of which are garden standards.

A really unflattering possibility is that many people cook less than they used to and potatoes are simply cheap and easy.

We're now a full generation past the advent of the microwave oven, which means that many people may never consider heating up the regular oven to bake a potato or boiling potatoes on top of the stove.

Here lately I've been doing a little experimenting with potato alternatives and with some tasty results. I particularly like mashed potatoes as a side dish to meat, but instead I've been mashing turnips and cauliflower.

For people who are on a low-carbohydrate diet, these are perfect alternatives because you can mash the vegetables with cream or half-and-half and then pile butter on top.

Other people can stick with margarine and a little milk or half-and-half. Even if you're not looking for a potato substitute, this is a good way to eat some unpopular but nutritious vegetables.

The turnips I had eaten before but the cauliflower was a new suggestion from a colleague who stopped in my office to rave about the dinner his wife had made the night before.

There's nothing to it. Peel and quarter the turnips or break up the cauliflower into flourets. Steam the vegetables until tender and then mash them as you would potatoes, adding butter, milk, cream or half-and-half. If you don't want lumps, press the cooked vegetables through a strainer. Serve them as you would mashed potatoes.

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