Potatoes and Pot Bellies
“You know, there’s no such thing as a good potato,” my friend Jess told me a couple of years ago, after talking to a doctor about a new understanding of diet and disease called Syndrome X. “Yeah, right,” I said, and stopped listening to her, since potatoes are a prized staple in the Eastern European cuisines my husband and I grew up with, and giving up potatoes would be harder than giving up bread. Then Jess, who is exactly my age, proceeded to lose 30 pounds, and when she started wearing her clothes from her mid-30s, I began to think about potatoes again. Could Jess be right? Could my beloved potato (see picture of my 2005 crop) really be bad for you?
As befits any serious food lover, I subscribe to an online diet newsletter. I really enjoy this newsletter—dieting is my favorite spectator sport—and at about the same time my friend started slimming down, this newsletter published a Glycemic Index (GI) diet, which bans potatoes. In the GI world, potatoes are a starch, not a vegetable. The basic principle behind GI diets is that the higher the GI of a food, the faster your body absorbs food energy, the more insulin you will produce, and, the faster you will ‘crash,’ and crave more food. It was really shocking when I learned that potatoes had about the highest GI of any food you could find. Did you know that a baked Russet Burbank potato has a Glycemic index higher than white bread? If the pundits of the Glycemic Index are right, potatoes are indeed a villainous tuber, worse for you than white bread.
The Linus Pauling institute at Oregon State University has this to say about potatoes and Glycemic index:
. The value is multiplied by 100 to represent a percentage of the control food. For example, a baked potato has a glycemic index of 76 relative to glucose and 108 relative to white bread, which means that the blood glucose response to the carbohydrate in a baked potato is 76% of the blood glucose response to the same amount of carbohydrate in pure glucose and 108% of the blood glucose response to the same amount of carbohydrate in white bread (
Perilous Potatoes? Not good for the Jews. The Jews, like poor people all over Europe, love potatoes, because produce more calories and protein per acre than anything else. They grow in rocky, sandy soil, sloping land that isn’t good for grain. Ever since the potato gained popularity by being planted in a guarded royal field in France and consequently stolen, Jews have eaten potatoes almost every day. I grew up singing a song that celebrates (and perhaps, bemoans) this fact. It goes:
Mitvoch, Dienstag, bulbes
Donelschtig ,Freitag, bulbes
Shabbes hobt a bulbis kugele,
Zuntig, noch a mul, bulbes.
In English, “Sunday, potatoes,
Tuesday and Wednesday, potatoes.
Thursday and Friday, potatoes.
Shabbes we have a potato kugel,
Sunday, again potatoes”. I looked it up, and this song can be found on an album that captured Eastern European Jewish Life through folk songs made by Sidor Belarsky and Mashe Benya in 1956.
Could my Russian and Hungarian background, with its love of the potato, contribute to my problem with extra weight, as Jess suggested way at the beginning of this article? I have pictures of my Eastern European ancestors, and they were not fat people. Why not? The pat, obvious answer might be that in Eastern Europe, people ate potatoes and did not gain weight because they did not have enough of them. But the real answer may be different.
I asked Gerda Endemann, a nutritionist with a PhD from MIT, who teaches at Stanford and Foothill colleges and wrote a book called Healthy Fat, to give me an interview on the pros and cons of potatoes.
She considers potatoes a vegetable, not a starch, and a useful vegetable at that. “Potatoes have a lot of potassium and B vitamins, which is hard for adults to get.” When I asked about the questionable Glycemic Index of potatoes, Gerda replied that consuming protein or fat with the potatoes slows down the spike in blood glucose. She also pointed out that most potatoes in this country end up as Fries that accompany fast food, which is not healthy for a lot of other reasons.
Ah, so it isn’t that potatoes are intrinsically bad, it is just that they hang with the wrong crowd! This made me feel so much better that I made a batch of potato gnocchi, served them with low-fat turkey meat sauce, and invited Jess over for dinner.
(gnocchi di patate recipe from Machlin book)
GNOCCHETTI DI PATATE from “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” by Edda Servi Machlin AND ME
4 lbs. baking potatoes 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 cups unbleached flour 3 cups tomato sauce (see recipe)
6 quarts water 4 TB olive oil
Boil or steam potatoes until very soft. Peel while still hot and mash or force though a sieve. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead 2 minutes on a floured board. Cut into 6 or 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ¾- inch rope. At this point, I diverged from Ms. Machlin’s instructions , and cut ropes into 3/4-inch pieces, and rolled the pieces into balls, as it was much faster, and I had some ‘gnocchetti’ in Italy which were that shape and size and just wonderful.
Put 1 TB of the olive oil into your serving dish and place in warm oven. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add 3 tablespoons salt and one-fourth the gnocchetti. As soon as boiling resumes, and gnocchetti float to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place in a colander. Place the next quarter of the gnochetti in the water, then while they are cooking, walk over to the oven, take the warmed serving dish, and place gnochetti and ¼ of parmesan cheese in it, and put back in oven. Repeat until all gnochetti are done. Dress gnochetti with sauce as you go along, or serve sauce separately.
TURKEY (if you’re trayf) or SOY (if you’re not) Meat Sauce
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1.5 lb Ground Turkey breast or Soy ground meat substitute
1 jar or can tomato sauce
Salt, Pepper, Basil, Oregano,Sage
Saute onion in olive oil until translucent. Remove onion from pan to preserve it’s texture if you have extra clean dishes handy, or just leave onion in frying pan if you don’t. Over medium heat, brown meat or soyburger in olive oil, and add spices and herbs to taste. Add whatever tomato sauce you have in the closet. Put onions back in pan, and cook until warmed through. Plain sauce from Trader Joe’s works fine with ground turkey breast. This sauce should be very thick with meat and onions.
Serve in warmed serving bowl alongside gnochetti, or layer in serving dish with gnochetti.