- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In homes across America, Thanksgiving mashed potatoes are almost as popular as the turkey. Maybe more. They are soft and creamy, and no matter what the weather or mood, they make us feel good.

Mashed potatoes may be the ultimate Thanksgiving dish, but they are equally popular on restaurant menus. When I tasted three-star Parisian chef Joel Robuchon’s world-famous potato puree, I was eager for the recipe. His secret? Lots of butter — up to half the weight of the potatoes — and a little salt.

Many of us keep mashed potatoes simple but there are some traditional variations. An Irish recipe calls for simmering chopped scallion in hot milk and beating the mixture into butter-enriched potatoes. Cooks in southern Italy accent potatoes with sweet and hot peppers. In central France, there’s a delicious puree called “aligot” that is enriched with masses of semihard cheese, in addition to butter.

In recent decades, garlic mashed potatoes have become so common on both sides of the Atlantic that they are practically a classic. Restaurant chefs often add cloves of roasted garlic, which they have on hand for other dishes.

An easier technique at home is to cook peeled garlic cloves with the potatoes and mash everything together. Bradley Ogden of Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., simmers the garlic with cream, milk and butter and purees the mixture along with the potatoes.

At Cezanne’s in Santa Monica, Calif., chef Desi Szonntagh serves delicious potato purees with horseradish or fennel. Dallas chef Stephan Pyles came up with chili mashed potatoes with corn kernels and cilantro.

Pesto, olives, wasabi, orange juice and even raspberries are used to flavor potato creations. At catered events, you might even find mashed potato bars, where potatoes are served in martini glasses along with ingredients to be sprinkled on top, including asparagus tips, sauteed mushrooms, spinach or onions, marinated artichokes, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and shredded cheese.

I have seen similar treatments at potato stands in Istanbu, where mashed potatoes were served buffet style with a variety of toppings as street food.

French chefs have paired potatoes with just about every vegetable, from spinach to green beans to carrots to onions, and pureed them together. I find that cauliflower, celery root and turnips are particularly good this way.

For such a simple dish, it’s amazing that so much controversy surrounds mashed potato preparation.

Some cooks peel potatoes before cooking them. Others prefer to peel them afterward. Still others leave the skin and the nutrients on.

I side with those who cook potatoes in the skin. If you peel potatoes first, they can absorb too much water and produce a watery mash.

What is the best potato for mashed? Mr. Ogden recommends small red ones.

Others opt for russets or baking potatoes, which mash easily due to their high starch content. I have had problems with baking potatoes falling apart during cooking. I also think they can become waterlogged. I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes, which have great flavor even before any butter is added.

To give mashed potatoes a soft creamy consistency, add hot milk. Many chefs prefer milk to cream and insist that it be added warm. For a change of pace from butter, enrich the potatoes with a little olive oil.

Here are a few tips for making great mashed potatoes:

• Check simmering potatoes frequently so they cook until tender but don’t overcook. Overcooked potatoes taste watery.

• As soon as cooked potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them if you like, or leave the skins on and benefit from the nutrients and give the puree a rustic look.

• Puree potatoes while they are still warm. Use a potato ricer, masher or a food mill. A food processor or blender will make the potatoes gluey.

m Mashed potatoes don’t take well to reheating, but if you must make them ahead, spoon them into a buttered casserole, sprinkle them lightly with Parmesan or your favorite grating cheese, and reheat in a 350-degree oven. Then brown them briefly in the broiler.

• To keep mashed potatoes hot for about an hour, leave them in the saucepan and pour a few tablespoons of cold milk over them without stirring the milk in to prevent a skin from forming on their surface. Set the saucepan of puree in a larger pan of hot water over very low heat. Before serving, stir in the milk.

Creamy mashed potatoes with nutmeg

For a dairy-free dish, substitute 1 tablespoon olive oil for the butter and use unsweetened soy milk.

2 pounds medium-size Yukon Gold or white potatoes, scrubbed

Salt

3/4 cup milk, plus a few extra tablespoons if needed

2 to 4 tablespoons butter, cut in pieces

White pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

Put potatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to just cover and a pinch of salt.

Cover, bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 35 minutes, or until potatoes are very tender. Drain.

Peel when cool enough to handle. Mash with a potato masher in a large bowl or puree with a food mill or potato ricer. Return potatoes to saucepan.

In a small saucepan, bring milk to a simmer. Heat potatoes gently over low heat in the saucepan in which they were mashed, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 2 tablespoons butter and a little hot milk and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Over low heat, stir vigorously until puree is light and smooth.

Gradually add remaining milk, stirring vigorously, adding enough so that puree is soft but not soupy.

Taste and add more salt, pepper and nutmeg, if desired. Serve hot.

Makes 6 servings.

Mashed potatoes with peppers and garlic

2 pounds boiling potatoes, scrubbed

Salt

2 red or green bell peppers, or 1 of each

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 dried hot red chilies, such as japones, halved crosswise

2 to 4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

3 tablespoons grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese, optional

Freshly ground pepper

Put potatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to just cover and a pinch of salt. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 35 minutes or until potatoes are very tender.

Meanwhile, core and seed bell peppers, cut in strips and halve crosswise. Heat oil in a large skillet, add chilies and bell peppers, and saute for 7 minutes over medium heat, stirring often.

Reduce heat and saute for 2 minutes, or until cooked to taste. Add garlic to taste and saute over low heat for 15 to 20 seconds. Transfer mixture, including oil, to a bowl. Discard hot chilies.

Drain potatoes thoroughly, reserving 3 tablespoons cooking liquid. Peel potatoes, if desired. Return them to saucepan. Mash with a potato masher, leaving some pieces. Beat in 2 or 3 tablespoons potato liquid.

Reserve a few pepper strips for garnish and stir remaining pepper-garlic mixture into potatoes. Add parsley, cheese, if desired, and freshly ground pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with reserved pepper strips.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Mashed potato casserole with mushrooms

This is a family favorite that my mother often prepared for Thanksgiving. We love the layer of sauteed mushrooms and onions hiding inside.

2½ pounds boiling potatoes, unpeeled

Salt

3 tablespoons olive oil, vegetable oil or butter, plus more for greasing pan

2 medium onions, chopped

8 ounces small mushrooms, quartered

Pepper

1/4 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, milk or heavy whipping cream

2 large eggs, beaten

½ teaspoon paprika

Put potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil.

Cover and simmer over low heat for 35 minutes or until very tender. Drain and leave until cool enough to handle.

In a large skillet, heat oil or butter, add onion and saute over medium heat until light golden. Add mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste, and saute over medium-high heat for 7 minutes or until brown.

Peel potatoes while still fairly hot. Put in large bowl, cut each in a few pieces and beat with a mixer at low speed until coarsely mashed.

Beat in broth, milk or cream, then eggs, just until blended. With a spoon, stir in ½ cup of sauteed mushroom mixture. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper, or to taste.

Grease a 6- or 7-cup casserole and add half of potato mixture. Top with remaining sauteed mushroom mixture, then with remaining potato mixture. Smooth top and sprinkle with paprika.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven uncovered for 50 minutes, or until top is firm and light golden at edges.

Makes 6 servings.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).


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