The beauty of a baked spud
"What's taters, precious?" Poor Gollum, not to know.
Most of us Kiwis are with Samwise Gamgee. We like our taters. It's like he tells Gollum - "P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S. Boil 'em, mash 'em, put 'em in a stew."
Twenty per cent of New Zealanders eat them fresh every day. Not just hot chips, then. And a whopping 97 per cent of us, according to official statistics, do like a nice spud.
Why do we call them spuds? Not, apparently, from the acronymic urban myth that is the Society for Prevention of Unwholesome Diets - rather from the colloquialisation of old and foreign words for the spade used to dig out the taters.
The Irish have probably got a lot to answer for in terms of potato popularity here in New Zealand. In the 1840s, a great potato famine hit Ireland.
Probably THE great potato famine, at least that's how we learned it at school.
A million people died and a further million left for foreign shores.
Those who washed up here continued a strong growing tradition. Potatoes had been introduced into Ireland (from South America via England) in the 1700s. A crop for the gentry, not the commoners. But a glance at any Irish cookbook will show how central they've become to the everyday diet.
In fact, my Irish cookbook has more index entries for potatoes than any other food substance. They span soups, starters, mains, vege dishes, breads and desserts. Phew.
I could eat potatoes every day for every meal, thanks to the many ways of preparation and my Irish ancestry. Or is it down to the fact that my mother eschewed them while pregnant with me, due to some "deadly nightshade" scare of the seventies?
But my absolute favourite isn't a biggie in New Zealand at all.
The jacket potato. Important enough to have its own menu section in most British pubs and cafs, baked potatoes are mostly relegated to a side dish here. But for me, they're a main event. There's something glorious in the simplicity of a soft, fluffy potato with golden, crunchy skin.
While British celebrity chefs have their own take on how to cook jacket potatoes par excellence, it's really as easy as this: get a floury type of tattie and wash it.
Then you need a little bit of salt and oil and a lot of time and heat. An hour at 220C should do it. Microwaving misses the point, which is the contrast between skin and steamy insides. Ditto frozen ready-bake varieties recently launched with enticing smells emanating from the ads in British bus shelters. No way. But nice try.
Baked potatoes have been popular in the UK for ages.
I'm picking they must've been well- munched in Victorian times, seeings as food vans selling them tend to harp on that era. We do know that street hawkers sold up to 10 tonnes of potatoes on the streets of London each day in the mid-19th century.
That's a lot of cheap, filling food.
Apparently, the No 1 British filling for the jacket potato is baked beans and cheese. Other popular toppings include plain cheese, tuna mayonnaise, prawn cocktail and chilli con carne.
None of them to be knocked before they're tried. The trick is to have a fuss-free accompaniment.
Leftovers or whip-togethers are great, and Jamie Oliver suggests salmon and cream cheese, while Nigel Slater has a cheese and bacon creation. Yum.
But still, I could quite happily eat mine with just butter, salt, pepper and a second potato on the side.
NOT SO HUMBLE BAKE SPUDS
Elevate your baked potato to a treat in a jacket with some clever toppings:
Mix smoked salmon shavings with lemon zest, black pepper and a skerrick of sour cream.
Mash half a Boursin cheese into each large baked potato.
Make a salsa of diced tomato and avocado and finely chopped chilli and spoon into the quartered baked potato.
Mix equal amounts of parsley pesto with soft goat's cheese. Scoop out the baked flesh, combine all ingredients, then replace.
For a baked potato version of a prawn cocktail, combine 1 tsp chilli sauce with tsp creme fraiche and 2-3 thawed, cooked prawns (per potato). Slice the potato into quarters and spoon in the "cocktail".