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A jack of all trades
 
 

A jack of all trades

Or a thousand and one ways of being a neat potato

Present in every field today the potato is pulling off an uncommonly industrial career. When processed by the potato‑starch industry, you find it returning in the form of dextrin, adhesives or starch in such food products as: beverages, biscuits, confectionary, delicatessen, etc. It is also used by the pharmaceutical, textile, wood and paper industries. It has even penetrated into mineral‑oil drilling: starch derivatives are used during prewashing of bore‑holes. Far more recent is industrial processing for human nourishment purposes. Taking advantage of the growing demand for prepared products, this sector is expanding. At present potato products are numerous and varied. We will focus on these products in this chapter. They can be divided into four major families:
  1. dehydrated products for the preparation of purees. These are the oldest products.
  2. crispy products among which we find the various types of chips and extruded aperitif biscuits.
  3. precooked products such as French fries, fried potatoes, pommes rissol?es, croquettes and others.
  4. peeled potatoes, precooked or not.


The fact that we had to wait for the demand for precooked products to develop before the West became concerned about industrial potato processing does not imply that numerous attempts had not been made in the past.

Indeed, a long time ago the Andean Indians already resorted to a technique which, rudimentary though it was, was none the less effective in preserving nutritional value. The part of the harvest which had to be preserved for at least a year was exposed to frost at night. This brief congelation had the effect of softening the tubers. Women and children then trampled them with their bare feet in the same way our ancestors did with the grapes intended for wine‑making.


Croquettes

The resulting pulp was then dried in the sun. Completely dehydrated, the remaining potato powder could be preserved for as long as necessary in the attics. The women would boil it in water to prepare a chuno, which looked like a thick broth. The aroma of this concoction appar­ently did not stimulate the proud conquistador's appetite. Parmentier's contemporaries were hardly more enthusiastic when the great French defender of the tuber obstinately tried to make them sample bread made from potato flour instead of wheaten flour. This bread neither lacked ingenious preparation, nutritional value, nor dreams for the future of humankind.


French fries

It lacked only an essential constituent, that is the grain which a famine‑stricken and warring Europe was in dire need of. Well, you failed miser­ably there, Mr. Parmentier.Sailors, of course, could not afford to be choosy. We know that as early as the 18th century, part of the provisions carried on board ships setting sail for far­off expeditions, consisted of dehydrated potatoes. After all, one had to take the rough with the smooth! As a matter of fact, it was during the war of 1914 to 1918, when concern began to grow about the armies' food rations, that a small potato‑processing industry sprouted simultaneously in the U.S.A. and in Europe. At the end of this world conflict it died out, only to surface again in the U.S.A. in the forties.


Pommes Dauphines

In fact, potato processing for the purpose of stimulating our taste buds, and no longer as a solu­tion to hunger, began in 1946 with the industrial preparation of chips and of deep‑frozen French fries.

On February 16th, 1946 the New York Herald Tribune annouced that deep‑frozen French fries made by the meal‑tray specialist for the airline companies were on sale at Macy's, New York's largest department store.


Potato rissoles

A new generation of potato products had been launched! Its pioneer, Maxson Food Systems, gave the signal for others to expand the range of products and this soon met with the approval of the consumers. Stimulated by the New World, it was not long before the Old Continent began to develop this budding industrial sector with Holland as its past and present leader. In spite of the fact that the channels of distribution were rapidly expanding, there were some difficulties in marketing the whole range of manufactured products. Think of the oldest family of potato products, the dehydrated products which descend from the Inca techniques.


Saut? potatoes

For instance, the ordinary potato mashed at home ‑and which is now being whisked from a packet into a very light puree (the French call it ?mousseline?) with carrots, cheese. spinach, or cabbage... and has become a favourite garnish in modern dietary cooking. The deep frozen potato products went off with a bang! It is incredible to think that when our everyday spud is transformed into fried or saute potatoes. baked in the oven, made into a croquette or a gratin dauphinois, it scores as highly as the countless vegetables, no matter whether it is served alone or in an appetizing mixture.


Pur?e

The racks for aperitif articles are a feast for the eyes; each lime they are stocked new conceptions of salty tit‑bits take us by surprise. For beside the chips, which we may now think of as conventional, we come across a vast assortment of entertaining shapes whose originality, lightness and agreeable flavour compete with each other.

The imagination and the know‑how of the processing industry have probably not had their final say.


Pommes Noisettes

In any case, a number of research and production teams have not taken for the gospel truth the article in the very serious Larousse dictionary ‑ the 19th century one, of course ‑ which solemnly states that: ,,a radical procedure has been proposed to preserve potatoes: steam them, dehydrate them in hot air and reduce them to flour. It is possible that this flour will keep, but it will not be easy to prepare French fries or potatoes in their jackets with it. Less than a century after this truism, we are all tucking in a feast of crisp golden brown French fries which ‑ we can't help it ‑ sometimes are strips of potatoes reconstituted from potato flour and fried in deep fat. But that's not all, by no means.


R?sti

Although we, the consumers, have forgotten the use of the fire­place for simmering stews, fish‑soups and other good things, we have not yet forgotten the flavour of a tasty potato straight from the fields and roasted in the embers. Thus ingenious processing companies offer us the triumphant potato cooked by exposure to dry heat, served in its skin and which, without anymore ado, provides us ‑ from the deep‑freezer to the oven ‑ with that simple pleasure which Colette so aptly expressed: "in the embers alone the potato becomes a choice flour." Was it the French writer who passed on this recipe for roasted potatoes to the industrial­ists who now prepare them from dehydrated pulp?