Please pass the potatoes!

Soft spuds - the supreme comfort food.

potatoes 88 (photo credit: )
potatoes 88
(photo credit: )
When mashed potatoes are on the menu at Shabbat dinners with family or friends, mothers sometimes mention that they made them "because the children like them." The fact is that adults are equally enthusiastic about this potato preparation. The taste for creamy, soft spuds stays with us throughout life. Potato puree may be the supreme comfort food, but it is also popular on restaurant menus, even fancy ones. When I tasted three-star Parisian chef Joel Robuchon's world-famous potato puree, I was eager to get his recipe. His secret? Lots of butter, up to half the weight of the potatoes. Robuchon, a purist, seasoned his mashed potatoes only with salt. Most cooks add pepper too. At La Varenne Cooking School in Paris, where I spent six delicious years, after I sampled potato puree seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg, it became one of my best-loved recipes, even when prepared without all that butter. Most cooks keep their potatoes simple. An Irish recipe calls for simmering chopped green onions in hot milk and beating the mixture into butter-enriched potatoes. Cooks in southern Italy accent theirs with sweet and hot pepper. In central France there's a delicious rib-sticking puree called aligot, enriched with masses of semi-hard cheese as well as butter. In recent decades garlic mashed potatoes have become so common on both sides of the Atlantic that they have practically turned into a classic. Often restaurant chefs add roasted garlic. An easier technique at home is to cook peeled garlic cloves with the potatoes and mash them together. Once chefs saw how popular garlic mashed potatoes were, they let their imaginations run wild. When I dined at Cezanne's in Santa Monica, California, chef Desi Szonntagh featured delicious potato purees on his menu, with such flavors as horseradish and fennel. Chili, cilantro, pesto, olives, wasabi, orange juice and even raspberries flavored some chefs' mashed potato creations. At catered events I've even come across mashed potato martini bars, with the potatoes served in martini glasses and a display of ingredients for you to add, such as cooked asparagus tips, sauteed onions, mushrooms, or spinach, marinated artichokes, capers, sun dried tomatoes and shredded cheese. At first this presentation struck me as trendy and fleeting, but then I found potato stands at markets in Istanbul, Turkey, where mashed potatoes were served buffet style with a variety of toppings as street food. In France potatoes have long been paired with other ingredients for a simple, practical reason. "All mothers know that the most efficient manner of getting your sweet little one to ingest a green vegetable is to add it to a mashed potato with a good pat of butter," wrote Martine Jolly, the author of Merci Monsieur Parmentier, a book devoted to potatoes. (The book is named for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who is credited with popularizing the spuds in France by placing guards to watch over the potato plants growing in the king's garden, thus spreading rumors that they were precious.) Like French mothers, French chefs have paired potatoes with just about every veggie, 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. It's amazing that so much controversy surrounds the preparation of this simple dish. Some chefs recommend small red boiling potatoes. Others opt for baking potatoes, which mash easily due to their high starch content, but I find they readily fall apart during cooking and can become waterlogged. Some cooks peel the potatoes before cooking them, others peel them afterward, and still others leave the skins on. I side with those who cook them in their skins; if you peel them first, they can absorb too much water. To enrich the potatoes, the French chefs I studied with preferred milk to cream and insisted that it be added warm. For parve puree, you can enrich the potatoes with a little vegetable broth and extra virgin olive oil. TIPS FOR GREAT MASHED POTATOES * As soon as the spuds are cool enough to handle, peel them if you like, or leave the skins on to benefit from their nutrients and to give the puree a rustic look and that way everybody knows you didn't use instant flakes. * Puree the potatoes while they are somewhat warm. Use a potato ricer, masher or a food mill; a food processor or blender makes the potatoes gluey. * To keep mashed potatoes hot for about an hour, leave them in their saucepan and pour a few tablespoons of cold milk over them, without stirring it 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. * 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 them in a 175 oven, then brown them briefly in the broiler. CREAMY MASHED POTATOES WITH FRESH NUTMEG These mashed potatoes are light, smooth, fluffy, rich and delicately flavored. For a dairy-free dish, substitute olive oil for the butter and use soy milk, but be sure to choose a brand that is not sweet; or cook the potatoes in a flavorful chicken or vegetable broth and use some of the broth to moisten the mashed potatoes. If you're using broth rather than milk or soy milk, enrich the potatoes with a sauteed onion or two to three minced sauteed garlic cloves, and omit the nutmeg. 900 gr. medium-size white potatoes, scrubbed 2 to 4 Tbsp. butter, cut in pieces, or 1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil Salt and white pepper Freshly grated nutmeg 3⁄4 cup whole or lowfat milk, soy milk or chicken broth, plus a few extra tablespoons if needed 1 onion, chopped (optional) 2 to 3 Tbsp. additional olive oil (optional) 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 thoroughly. Peel when cool enough to handle. Mash with a potato masher in a large bowl, or puree in a food mill. Return potatoes to saucepan. In a small saucepan, bring milk to a simmer. Heat potatoes gently in their saucepan over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add butter and a little hot milk and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Over low heat, stir vigorously until puree is light and smooth. Add remaining milk gradually, stirring vigorously, adding enough so the puree is soft but not soupy; if it is too stiff, beat in a few tablespoons of milk. Taste, and add more salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if desired. To enrich the potatoes with sauteed onion, heat olive oil in a skillet, add onion and saute over medium-low heat, stirring often, for seven to 10 minutes or until tender and deeply browned. Stir half the onions into the potatoes. Spoon the remaining onions on top. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.