Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving! (a primer on mashed potatoes and gratitude)

No, I’m not in a time warp. I’m celebrating Thanksgiving Canadian-style. Today is the day on which Canadians celebrate and give thanks for a successful harvest. It’s not just about mashed potatoes, but about people gathering with food in the spirit of gratitude, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, because I believe it to be one of the most transformative forces in the universe. It’s been a trying year for many. Our jobs, our homes, our savings, have been tested, and sometimes lost. Our illusions of security and stability have been deeply rattled, if not dissolved. But even during the hardest times, we can find things to be thankful for, and doing so brings us back to the present, and back to basics. The silver lining, in these wanting days, is that we are remembering how much we already have.

I was thumbing through some papers the other day, and I found this little journal entry, dated December 19, 2008:

(Missoula, MT) Noah and I had lunch at Taco del Sol today—seems like everything happens there. We had just sat down with our fish tacos when I saw a disheveled derelict-looking guy walk over to the table next to us and set his taco down in front of him. He stood over his food, and pressed his hands together in front of his mouth. He was smiling, huge. Before he sat down he raised both fists in a little cheer.

“Yeah” he said, so excited to eat this good food. He was looking at it the way someone might look at a trophy or a new-born child. He admired it for a while before taking the first bite, and when he did, he chewed the food quietly, thoughtfully, like a prayer.

Later, while we were warming the car up, I saw him on his way down Higgins Avenue. One of his legs had a rough hitch while he walked, and one of his arms was turned grotesquely inward. I wondered if he was a veteran. It was 8 degrees. He had no gloves on and limped down the street, slowly. But his eyes were lit up, like the food he had just eaten was casting a warm glow, outward from his full belly. All day I couldn’t stop thinking about him, cheering over his taco. I’m learning so much about gratitude these days.

Our household has gone back to basics of late. Noah had his wisdom teeth removed last week, so I’ve been making a LOT of mashed potatoes—great practice for American Thanksgiving. I pretty much have it down to a science at this point, and believe me, mashed potatoes are a science. Below you will find my mashed potato primer.


Use a starchy potato like russets for the fluffiest mash. Peel and cut into large cubes.
  • Start the potatoes in cool, salted water. This ensures that they cook evenly throughout, whereas adding them to boiling liquid tends to overcook the outside of the cubes before the inside is done.
  • Cook the potatoes just until soft. They should break apart with a fork when pierced. Do not overcook.
  • When mashed potatoes are over-processed (or over-cooked), the starchy molecules can break down and make them gummy. To prevent gluey mashed potatoes avoid over mixing. I use a hand mixer on the lowest speed, for no more than 1 minute.
  • Heat your liquid. Whether you’re using chicken stock, milk, sour cream, half and half, cream cheese, or all of the above, combine and heat in the microwave before adding to potatoes. This will help prevent the potatoes from becoming gluey—it’s less stress to the starch granules, and we want to keep those intact.
  • Use enough liquid. I use about 1 cup of liquid per 2 large russet potatoes. It took me a while to figure out that potatoes can take quite a bit of liquid, and are best when made moist enough that the mixture yields easily to a spoon—not heavy and firm, not runny and lifeless, but light and fluffy.
  • Don’t be shy with the salt. Potatoes can take a lot of the stuff. I add at least ½ teaspoon per 2 large russets.
  • Do not melt the butter before adding; instead, add it cold. I owe this valuable tidbit of information to cookbook author Diane Morgan, and her informative newsletter. I used to melt the butter before mixing the potatoes, but no matter how much I added, the flavor seemed to get lost. Then I learned from that potato molecules are highly absorbent, and if the butter is added hot, it just gets soaked into the starch molecules. This blocks the butter from hitting your tongue. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat butter, I want to taste it. So add some cold, diced-up butter to the bowl just before mixing, and you’ll get a lot more flavor bang for your buttery buck.
  • Got it? Start in cold salted water. Cook till fork tender. Drain and place in a mixing bowl. Add hot liquid, hefty salt (and pepper), and cold (salted) butter. Blend briefly with a hand mixer, and avoid over mixing.

    Follow those tips and you’re well on your way to perfect mashed potatoes, and we can all be grateful for that.

    1 comment:

    April Cavin said...

    It's always important to stop and recognize what's truly important in life-- thank you for reminding me to do that.

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