Do the Mashed Potato
French chef Joel Robuchon rose to fame for his inventive cuisine during the '80s, but he is probably most notorious for his sinfully delectable mashed potatoes. The insane recipe (500g of butter for every kilo of potatoes!!!) was not made public until after the chef's first attempt at retirement in the mid '90s. By then, the general public had taken a turn towards somewhat healthier eating, and the recipe's proportions definitely shocked many a gourmand. But I have to admit that the recipe is absolute heaven! And on chilly, cloudy autumn days, I like nothing better than to sit down to a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. Robuchon's pomme purée is just the cherry on the cake!
Mashed potatoes, executed flawlessly, are the ultimate comfort food. The silky smooth starch is the food equivalent of the biggest, fluffiest, softest woolly throw on a nippy day. Although consuming Robuchon's mash regularly would be pushing it health wise, regular ol' mashed potatoes made from scratch are a pleasant eat. It does sometimes seem like they require a little more work than one has the energy for after a hard day at the 'office', but I do feel deliciously spoiled when I -or my honey- goes to the trouble of mashing a few spuds. And do not doubt: mashed tatties on their own can replace a whole meal every once in a while!
There is no need for a precise recipe, but for perfect mashed potatoes, one should follow a few rules. After having spent over six months making mashed potatoes at a busy London restaurant, I think I pretty much have mashed 'taters down to a science. First of all, the potatoes must be of the starchy, storage type: new potatoes make for lovely crushed spuds in their jackets with olive oil, but are horrible when mashed smooth. The variety is of little importance (especially since few supermarket 'taters are named), however, the starchier potatoes tend to have yellow or russeted (rough and brown) skins. Secondly, the potatoes must all be of the same size for cooking: if you are boiling them, peel before cutting them into chunks about the size of a pullet egg... Potatoes that are smaller than a large chicken egg can be left whole; about the same size as a large egg, cut in two; anything bigger should be cut into thirds or quarters. You can also bake the potatoes before mashing them, and the result will be divinely fluffy, but it will take a ridiculously long time before you sit down to dinner. I've noticed that one can now purchase pre-cut, microwave oven-ready potatoes for mashing.
(It's hard to translate onto a computer screen, but I just went blank at the thought of microwaving a potato. I won't even go there. If you enjoy eating microwaved potatoes, I do not want to know about it.)
Overcooking will result in watery potatoes, which will turn into a gluey mess when mashed, so it is important that you keep a close eye on your potatoes: chunks the size of half an egg will take about 15 minutes to cook in vigorously boiling water. Spear the potatoes with a sharp, pointy knife: there should be no resistance from the spud, yet it should not break up when it slips off the blade. Also, the cooking water needs to be cold and salted (about ½ tsp per liter/quart) at the beginning of the whole process. And finally, whatever method of mashing you prefer, always crush hot potatoes: warm or cool potatoes are only good for glue.
When I order (or serve) mashed potatoes at a restaurant, I expect the purée to be perfectly smooth and silky, like baby food. But I have to admit that I have a soft spot for lumpy mash. I doubt my mum ever served lumpy potatoes -I seem to recall that she took particular pride in making the silkiest potatoes, despite her busy schedule- but for some reason I associate lumpiness with childhood food memories. So, to this day, I continue mashing my spuds at home with an old school potato masher: the metal contraption with large, square holes. If you prefer your mash to be the smoothest possible, I strongly suggest you invest in a good potato ricer. This tool is perfect for all sorts of puréeing (no vegetable will resist it), and is essential for making gnocchi.
I like to make an extra large batch of mashed potatoes, because it allows for seconds, and there is the slightest chance that there will be some leftovers... Cold mash is the ideal food medium: if you know a difficult eater, camouflaging the offensive food inside a scoop of hot mash will make it go down a little more easily: add cold mash to a pan of lightly sautéed greens to reheat; a splash of milk to loosen the whole lot... even kale can go unnoticed! But who am I kidding? I don't even wait for leftovers: I love mashed potatoes with wilted roquette, sautéed spinach, and buttery braised Tuscan kale!
Milk and butter are essential for my mashed potatoes, but when I feel particularly flush I will add a splash of heavy cream. Sour cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, and cheese are other dairy products that can make their way into a serving of pomme purée, which all goes to show that I am not -and will probably never be- quite ready to go vegan. If the cooking water was adequately salted, your mash shouldn't require any more salt, but pepper or ground nutmeg will round off all the flavours in your tatties.