Mashed Potatoes

People watching is a favorite pastime of mine. A true Seatellite, I am often found in a coffee shop, getting my daily (OK, twice daily) fix of caffeine (double tall americano, room for cream). The busy hub offers glimpses of people also going about their lives at varying paces, and when I have the time I pause for a moment, take a table, and watch.

One thing I always take notice of is shoes. I have often thought a person reveals a bit about themselves from the shoes on their feet. Clothes change daily, but shoes are a true commitment and often give better insight into true personality.

This said, the same can be estimated of a restaurant by it’s mashed potatoes. Not yet have I worked in a restaurant that didn’t serve mashed potatoes, and each revealed a bit of their soul through their preparation of the side dish, a constant component on ever changing seasonal menus.
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My first job in the kitchen was at a growing Seattle restaurant group called the Bluwater Bistro. A upscale American bistro with a menu designed for mass appeal, their roast chicken, stuffed pork chops, and dry aged new york steaks all sat atop garlic mashed potatoes. Garlic cloves boiled with the potatoes presented the flavor subtly, adding mass appeal to the dish, and insight into the restaurants use of American standards to gain a large customer base.

Lampreia, a restaurant known for it’s pure, minimalistic cuisine prepared nightly by the savant chef served their potatoes in just that fashion. Potatoes hand chosen by Scott Carsberg at the market early in the week for their particular starch content, are peeled and boiled in salted water. Passed by hand through a fine mesh drum sieve to achieve the finest texture, the puree is then moistened with whole milk, mounted with butter, and seasoned to perfection. Before going to the table, each portion is individually rewarmed and lightly whipped with additional cream, placed in a miniature dutch oven to retain warmth, and served separate from the plate, to be enjoyed as the diner feels appropriate.

The Fat Duck’s potatoes were a true reflection on Heston Blumenthal’s intellectually grounded cuisine. Treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant, a correctly chosen variety of potato was boiled, passed through the drum sieve, and mixed with an exacted and tested combination of milk, salt, and clarified butter. This recipe, treated for service in a Michelin 3 star restaurant appears as Pomme Puree in the cookbook Blumenthal wrote called Family Food. A reflection on his duality, Blumenthal is driving cuisine into the future yet puts the same attention to the simplest and most traditional of dishes, and places it on the simplest of tables, your home.

At Eva, a restaurant that is built on a solid foundation of locally sourced organics, seasonal ingredients, and close relationships with those that grow and produce the food they use, the potatoes were kept as close to their natural state as possible. Dug recently from local soil, skins sometimes left on, and occasionally studded with Neuske bacon, Chef Amy McCray calls them smashed potatoes, and leaves them earthy, lumpy, and hearty. Offering a flavorful and memorable experience, the meals at Eva are meant to be as comfortably satisfying as their smashed potatoes.

During my first week at the Rainier Club I was given a glimpse at the kitchens soul by learning their preparation of mashed potatoes. Peeled and weighed to the portion, the potatoes are cooked in large batches, held in single layer trays in a steamer. They are then milled through a ricer with the salt and pepper for proper distribution, and mounted with butter. Mixed by the aid of a large stand mixer, the potatoes are moistened with an aromatic cream. The cream, steeped with varying herbs and peppercorns, adds a hint of luxury and a sense of dignity to the potatoes. The recipe is calculated exactly, balancing everything a large kitchen like the Rainier Club needs to take into consideration; controlling cost through exacting portions, speed in preparing large quantities, and a consistently luxurious and high quality product.

I often consider how I would prepare the humble potato for mashing had I a kitchen of my own. I would most likely combine a bit of everything I have learned, first and foremost keeping the earthy quality of the potato intact. I would hand choose the potatoes like Scott and perhaps even serve them in adorable little dishes on the side.  I might add clarified butter like Heston, leave the skins on like Amy, and aromatically steep the cream like the Rainier Club. If the mood strikes, I’ll know to boil cloves of garlic with the potatoes for a subtle addition of the flavor, or stud them with bacon, adding all the rendered fat for extra flavor. For my own touch, I would add sour cream. A rich acidic balance, the addition of sour cream, or perhaps thick Bulgarian buttermilk would make these potatoes my own, and offer you a hint at the balance I insist all my cuisine holds.

7 Responses to “Mashed Potatoes”

  1. KQ Adams says:

    Dear Dana,

    I am enjoying the addition of your voice and thoughts to the site, and agree that the counterpoint of a behind-the-scenes perspective along with Hillel’s eater’s perspective lends the overal narrative a new balance.

    I think I’d benefit as a reader, and perhaps other readers would benefit, if you could explain more of the culinary terms you use, or the practices they describe. I don’t think you have to riddle the text with definitions, or even hyperlinks, but if you elucidated one or two new terms per column I know I’d appreciate it. For example, your brief summary of aromatic cream was exactly the level of detail I’d want, but I don’t know what “weighed to the portion” means. Also, I certainly understand the concept of choosing potatoes by the starch content, but can you give us a clue as to how it’s done?

    Thanks,

    KQ Adams

  2. matt lynch says:

    Try cooking fingerlings with the skin on in clarified, peeling while hot. cover the bottom of a drum food mill with diced butter, potatoes on top, mill the peeled fingerlings with the butter 1:1, than season and fold in cream.

  3. JJ Johnson says:

    Two words: Brown Butter (or ‘Beurre Noisette’ if you will). Very simple technique which takes mashed potatoes to the next level…

  4. cuisinier says:

    Hi dana, as we are talking potatoes, there are many, many different ways and means to prepare them, as there are cooks who do that. You already know this. One thing I always keep in my mind is that the intended outcome is paramount. Not all styles and procedures are appropriate for any one dish. As a finishing technique, it is fun to add truffle oil, or duck fat, or both. Apple smoked bacon fat is nice but can be overwhelming to some degree. I always enjoy the small La Ratte or Rose Finn or Russian Banana fingerlings best. Our local farms won’t be seeing these until later. Goat cheese and other flavors work well also as an additional sense of depth and flavor. Enjoy!

  5. dana says:

    hey! Great suggestions for potatoes. I love the brown butter idea. I might have to use that!

    An aromatic cream is one that has been steeped with herbs, peppercorns, and bay leaf for about 20 minutes.

    As for weighing to the portion, each person is allocated 3 ounces of potatoes. If you have a banquet of 10 people, you need 30 ounces, or just under 2 pounds of potatoes. If you have a banquet of 100 people, you need 300 ounces, or just under 19 pounds of potatoes. So instead of just throwing some potatoes in a pot, and hoping you have enough, or making too much to insure that everyone has some, it is calculated.

    Potatoes all have a different starch content. There is no way to tell exactly while in the grocery store, no thumping them to see. Instead, you need to choose a particular variety that you know to have the starch content you want, like yukon gold, or a yellow waxy potato. Cuisinier has suggested a few other heirloom varieties that make for a beautiful potato.

    The starchier the potato, the creamier it feels in the mouth. But I still enjoy a good old earthy tasting russet from time to time.

  6. David says:

    “Potatoes hand chosen…at the market early in the week…”?
    Really.

  7. kindageeky says:

    Great post, I really need to get a drum sieve, any ideas where to find a good one? What sort of mesh is appropriate?

    Thanks,
    Kindageeky

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