Jun 242014

basket of potatoes

When I started researching gluten free diets I found that a lot of older cookbooks put much emphasis on potatoes. Newer cookbooks focus more on gluten free baked goods. Before giving up gluten we ate potatoes now and then, but I never really used them as much as I do now. Rediscovering the potato has been one of the greatest blessings to our new diet.

Horizontal Potato PeelerLike many people I avoided them because of the tiresome prep-work. Peeling potatoes is a bit of a chore, and when you’re not accustomed to doing it, it seems like more of a chore than it really is. When I upgraded my old, clumsy potato peeler, peeling potatoes became a lot easier. My new one, which is several years old now, fits very comfortably in my hand and maintains a sharp edge. If you dread the idea of peeling potatoes then do yourself and your budget a favor. Take a trip to the nearest discount department store and peruse the potato peelers with a critical eye. Some have a horizontal blade and some have a vertical blade. Choose the type that is most comfortable for you to use. I prefer a horizontal blade, similar to the one pictured to the right. Also make certain the handle is easy to hold and fits comfortably in your hand. Then buy it and don’t allow yourself to feel a smidgen of guilt. Every worker needs her tools. Potatoes are a mainstay of the GFCF diet. You need to be able to prepare them as quickly and easily and as comfortably as possible. If you are avoiding potatoes because you don’t want to invest in a new potato peeler then you are practicing false economy. Potatoes are so affordable. They taste good and have so many nutrients that you owe it to yourself and your budget to make preparing them as effortless as possible.

Some people avoid potatoes because they believe them to be fattening. When we first gave up gluten and casein we ate potatoes several times a week and I still lost weight. I do not feel like potatoes are a fattening food for me, not in the least. Potatoes are high in Vitamin C and have a ton of potassium, even more than bananas. When you eat the peel they provide fiber too. If you’re on a special diet that prohibits potatoes then I don’t expect you to eat them. If you are simply avoiding them due to the superstitious belief that they might be fattening then I encourage you to reconsider. Potatoes are family-friendly, easy on the budget, nutritious and give meals that elusive comforting quality that speaks of home and family.

Best Buys

All Purpose Potatoes

Potatoes in BagTen and 15-pound bags of all-purpose potatoes are usually the least expensive. My practice is to look over the potato section of my market and choose which ever type has the lowest unit price, or price per pound. Bags of potatoes usually have a variety of sizes and shapes within. I look for bags with larger potatoes when possible because it’s easier to peel 4 large potatoes than 8 or 10 small potatoes. Sometimes, usually in the spring, all the bags have dozens of small potatoes with thin skin. When that’s the case I simply make roasted potatoes (with the skin still on) or smashed potatoes (with the skin)  rather that bothering to peel them all.

There are so many varieties of potatoes these days that it can be pretty overwhelming. Some are yellow, golden, purple, red. Some are small, some are the size of a child’s lunch thermos. Some have light thin skin, some have dark, smooth, thick skin, with perfect eyes. For the most part, I ignore them. They are pretty and I’m sure they taste good and make you look like you know what you’re doing at the check-out counter. To me though, they aren’t worth the extra cost. I’ve seen tiny, purple, finger-shaped potatoes that cost as much per pound as sirloin steak! To me this is a ridiculous extravagance. Plain all-purpose  or baking potatoes, whichever are cheapest at the moment, serve just as well.

Instant Mashed Potatoes

greymashedpotatopotInstant mashed potatoes are actually less expensive than making them yourself from fresh potatoes. They don’t taste as good I’ll grant you, but they are very affordable and almost everyone likes them. Large boxes in a store-brand are usually the least per ounce. Idahoan® brand instant mashed potatoes taste better than any other type I’ve ever tried. I admit that when I can afford them I do prefer them because the quality really is superior. For the most part however, I make do with a store-brand.

Instant mashed potato flakes are sometimes used in gluten free baking. They add moisture and flavor to baked goods. I only use the cheapest type of instant potatoes in baking because the flavor isn’t noticeable one way or the other.

Be certain to only buy plain instant potatoes, with no added flavorings or cheese or milk. The only ingredient should be potatoes. There are dozens of flavored mashed potatoes available but almost all of them contain dairy of some type. You want to be sure to buy only the plain, basic variety. Prepare them according to the box directions using dairy-free margarine and unsweetened soymilk or your favorite dairy-free milk. Then feel free to add dairy-free cheese or tofu sour cream, bacon bits, garlic powder, and anything else your heart desires. If your onions are sprouting, snip off the green part and add it to your mashed potatoes instead of chives or green onions. The flavor is lovely and the thrift will make your wallet breathe easier.

Frozen French Fries and Tater Tots and Hash Browns

French Fry PlateThese are processed and are probably not the healthiest thing I feed my family. I buy them anyway. My kids love them and while they cost more than fresh potatoes, I feel the variety and convenience make them worthwhile. If you bake them, rather than frying, they aren’t too terrible nutrition-wise. Considering that many families have fast-food French fries 2 or even 4 times a week, I figure giving my kids the baked version once a week isn’t the worst nutritional choice I could make.

Look for the lowest price per ounce in your grocer’s freezer case. In my area this means 5-pound bags of french fries and tater tots. I bake them according to package directions, except I always cook them longer than directed to make them crisper. Be careful with tater tots. Read the label to make sure the variety you choose is free of both gluten and casein. Most are, but not all.

Hash browns are very popular at my house for breakfast. Frozen hash browns cost more per ounce than french fries or tater tots but are still affordable. I serve them instead of toast with bacon and eggs and use them in omelets too. I buy a store-brand in 2-pound bags and find them very convenient to use. Leftover baked potatoes, shredded on a cheese grater, make fine hash browns too. Frozen hash browns are a luxury item so I don’t buy them as often as I would if my budget were bigger.

Fresh Sweet Potatoes

Cut Sweet PotatoesIn the fall and winter months sweet potatoes are quite affordable. They tend to cost more in the spring and summer. Around the fall and winter holidays they often go on super sale. At that time I serve them several times a week. We eat them baked, mashed, fried like hash browns, peeled, cubed and roasted with onions and of course, in pie. I prefer to use smaller sweet potatoes, not much bigger than my fist. I like smoothly shaped sweet potatoes, because they’re easier to peel. If the only ones available are huge and gnarled however, I don’t let that stop me. If you’re baking sweet potatoes, it helps if they’re all roughly the same size.

Sweet potatoes are high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and antioxidants. They are rich in a variety of minerals and fiber. You can cook them in any way you would normally cook potatoes. They can go into soups, casseroles, taste good mashed and baked. My mother and grandmother never prepared them much when I was growing up, so I didn’t really start using them in everyday cooking until my 30’s. In my 40’s, as I’ve focusing more intently on my health and that of my family, I find myself using them much more often. They are affordable, taste good, and lend healthy variety to a budget-friendly diet.

Canned Sweet Potatoes

I use canned sweet potatoes. They are almost always packed in a bucket load of sugar. I wish they weren’t. I wish I could find them packed in water, but nope. That is not to be. So I use the regular kind packed in sugar water. In the spring and summer, when fresh sweet potatoes are expensive, I usually use canned instead. When I buy canned sweet potatoes, I buy larger cans, which are usually the lowest cost per ounce. I almost always mash them. To do this, drain off the sugar water. Heat the potatoes in a skillet with a small spoonful of dairy-free margarine and mash with a fork as they heat. Serve when they are hot. It’s pretty easy and it tastes good too.

To sum it up, fresh all-purpose white potatoes and sweet potatoes are your best buys when you weight nutrition verses cost per serving. Their processed cousins such as instant mashed potatoes, frozen potatoes and canned sweet potatoes, have a place in my budget but are not the best choices for every day use. Since potatoes are naturally gluten free, and affordable on even the most itty-bitty of budgets, they have a firm position in my ongoing quest to eat healthfully, gluten-free and casein-free, on my limited food budget.

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