Potatoes are the highlight of Thanksgiving
November 8, 2019
With Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, many of us have already started planning our turkey day menus. Some of us will defer to an annual tradition and share the day with the family matriarch or favorite neighbors, while others will host a meal at home. We fall into the latter category and this year will likely substitute Cornish game hens for a turkey, since there’s just the two of us.
No matter the type of poultry, one of the highlights of our feast will be fluffy, creamy mashed potatoes. Jack uses them to deliver gravy; I consider them a butter-carrier. Making good mashed potatoes requires a bit of science as well as some artistic flair for the best results.
The primary step to good mashed potatoes is, of course, the potato. You’ll want to choose those with the highest starch content, so stay away from fingerlings, and red or purple potatoes which are waxier and sturdier, best used in stews or salads instead of a mash. Select large, brown Russet potatoes (sometimes called Idahos), avoiding any with nicks or bruises.
Peel them with a vegetable parer and toss them into a bowl of cold water to keep them from browning while you peel the rest. You’ll want to cut the potatoes into uniform one-half- to one-inch pieces and place them in a large pot of generously salted cold water. Starting them cold helps ensure they’ll cook evenly.
If you’ve done any research online, you’ll find each chef has a “secret” ingredient they’ll toss into the pot before cooking their potatoes. These range from sage or bay leaves to rosemary sprigs. Some advocate cooking the potatoes in milk or stock for added flavor, but I prefer the basics.
Bring the pot to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender. Avoid overcooking them, and you’ll avoid mushiness. Drain the potatoes in a colander (saving some of the cooking water to make your gravy) and return them to the pot. Cook them for another minute or so to completely evaporate any remaining water clinging to the potatoes.
Before you start mashing, melt a generous amount of butter in a small pan and gently heat some milk or cream in another. Again, here are places to add flavor with herbs and seasonings, such as chives or garlic, but for the master recipe, we’ll follow the simplest process. Using melted (not cold) butter makes the potatoes better able to absorb the rich flavors.
Now that you’re ready to mash the potatoes, step away from the food processor, immersion blender or hand mixer. Each of these is too effective and will turn your potatoes into a slimy mush. The best tool is an old-fashioned potato masher, one with a flat, round disk perforated with sharp holes. This will give you an ideal texture and keep the potatoes intact.
Add your melted butter to the potatoes and start mashing, keeping as many bigger chunks as you prefer. Splash in the warmed milk or cream, mixing just until you reach the perfect consistency. Season generously with salt and pepper, and you’re ready to serve.
Now, for the elegant presentation of swirled mashed potatoes formed into a tower as seen in the photo, pack your potatoes into a pastry bag fitted with a large open star tip. Extrude the potatoes to form a circle at the base, filling the inside and adding more layers on top. Once you’ve got your tower formed, pop it under the broiler for a quick moment to form some crisp, brown edges.
I’ve included my basic recipe for mashed potatoes, along with a recipe for loaded potato soup that you can make with your leftover mashed potatoes – that is, if you have any leftovers.
Basic Mashed Potatoes
2 lbs Russet potatoes
1 T salt
4 T butter
1/2 C cream
salt & pepper, to taste
Peel the potatoes and cut into uniform pieces. Place in a large saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Add salt and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook just until potatoes are fork tender; do not overcook. While potatoes are cooking, melt butter in a small pan and gently heat the cream in another; set aside. Drain potatoes and return them to the same pot. Cook over medium until all traces of moisture have evaporated, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add melted butter to the potatoes. Mash with a potato masher or ricer. Stir in warm cream and season to taste. Yield: 6 servings.
Loaded Potato Soup
6 slices bacon
1 diced onion
1 T flour
2 C chicken broth
2 C mashed potatoes
1 C half & half
1 C shredded sharp cheddar
sour cream, for garnish
sliced green onion, for garnish
Cook the bacon in a soup pot or Dutch oven until crisp. Set aside on a piece of paper towel to drain. Discard most of the fat, leaving 1 T in the pot. Add diced onion and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle onions with flour and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Slowly add the chicken broth, whisking to dissolve the flour. Stir in potatoes and half & half; cook until heated through, about 5 to 7 minutes. Crumble bacon, reserving some for garnish, and add to the pot. Add 1/2 C cheddar cheese and stir to combine. To serve, ladle soup into bowls and garnish with crumbled bacon, cheddar cheese, sour cream and green onions. Yield: 6 servings.