St. Patrick’s the perfect time for potato dish

Boxty on the griddle, boxty on the pan; if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man.

So goes an Irish rhyme about boxty, Ireland’s potato pancakes. Potato pancakes show up in a lot of cuisines, but the Irish seem to have cornered the link between potato and country; “Irish potato” is almost a brand.

It’s generally accepted that potatoes were domesticated thousands of years ago in what is now Peru and Bolivia.

Potatoes were introduced into Europe and thus Ireland by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s. Before potatoes, Irish food consisted mostly of meat, grains and milk. It took more than two centuries, but potatoes eventually became the primary Irish diet, especially of the poor and tenant farmers.

Over the centuries, some version of the potato pancake became part of many cuisines, especially in Northern and Eastern Europe.

Recipes range from only raw grated potato (the Swiss Rösti) to varying amounts of raw potato, mashed potato and flour, with or without egg. Swedes have their raggmunk, the Jews have their latkes, the Russians have deruny.

Boxty are made with a combination of grated raw potatoes, mashed potatoes and flour – more flour than most versions of potato pancakes.

Serve them for breakfast American-style or top with a savory protein such as stewed meat, and you’ve got an Irish lunch or dinner.

Mix together one cup mashed potato with one cup grated raw potato (that’s two medium potatoes total), along with one cup all-purpose flour well mixed with ½ teaspoon baking soda, one beaten egg, one small grated or finely minced onion that’s been sauteed briefly in a tablespoon of oil, salt and pepper to taste.

Add enough buttermilk to make a stiff batter, stiffer than regular pancakes.

Spoon batter for hamburger-sized cakes into a pan or griddle over medium heat with a tablespoon or two of oil – not butter. Adjust the heat so the pancakes will get golden brown at 3 to 4 minutes per side. Don’t rush them. You’ll want to serve your boxty with melted butter, applesauce or gravy.

Potatoes these days may not enjoy the best reputation, but they do have a high percentage of vitamin C and potassium.

It turns out that the poor Irish folks’ diet of only milk and potatoes has most of the nutrients your body needs; you might, however, die of culinary boredom if you only ate one kind of potato for years on end.

Potatoes are a member of the deadly nightshade family, so the potato plant itself is poisonous. Potato tubers also have some amount of the poison solanine, which develops more under light conditions and show up as green on the surface of the potatoes. Always store potatoes in a dark cool place (not the refrigerator) and cut out any sprouting eyes or green areas.

Green potatoes may look Irish, but your digestion will hate you for eating them.

One legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh tried to serve the new fangled vegetable to Queen Elizabeth in 1589, but the cooks served the greens instead of the tubers and nearly poisoned everyone to death. The potato did not win friends in England initially.

The issue of growing few varieties of a crop is still with us to some degree. Supermarkets sell perhaps three or four kinds of potatoes, but in fact there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of varieties of potatoes, in all sizes, shapes and colors.

Of course, you can’t really be sure that the red potatoes you bought from the supermarket last month are the same variety you’re buying this month, since many potatoes look similar and producers don’t market them with varietal names.

For most of us as cooks, the most meaningful distinction is between the starchier white or brown-skinned potatoes (good for baking), the waxier red-skinned ones (good for boiling), and the in-between yellow-fleshed ones. But in truth, some potatoes taste better than others.

You can often get more varieties at local farmers markets where local growers are more experimental and don’t have the shipping and storing issues that huge corporate farms have. And your local growers will tell you the potatoes’ names.

I have a friend in Maine, a state that is one of the Top Ten U.S. producers of potatoes. (Yes, Idaho is No. 1) When I visited him last fall, I was pleasantly surprised at the dozens of varieties of potatoes I saw in the farmers markets in Brunswick and Portland, including Adirondack Blues and Reds (with colored flesh), Purple Vikings (purple skins with white flesh), Green Mountain (a delicious white potato), and a yellow French fingerling called La Ratte.

The purple- and red-fleshed varieties are especially interesting, because the color indicates more antioxidants — as is true of any brightly colored food. Some cooks use them to make a red, white and blue potato salad for the 4th of July.

If you can’t travel to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, you could always drive to Lewis County, W.Va., and the town of Ireland, where this weekend’s fun will include a Celtic concert, a parade and Irish road bowling.

With the mild winter we’d had, I predict a lot of green around the participants as well as on them. (Just make sure there’s no green on your potatoes.)

—George Oliver, a food writer in Martinsburg, may be reached at

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