Dancing with the starch

Jan. 14, 2014 @ 09:49 AM

I won’t twerk. So don’t ask me.
I also won’t watusi, foxtrot or tango. Not a big dancer. In the first grade, I took ballet, tap and jazz for about six months. My 137-year-old teacher frightened me so much I quit. Thus my chance at being a Solid Gold dancer vanished into thin air.
But I will, however, at the drop of a hat, do the mashed potato — the edible kind.
There’s no purer comfort carb than basic mashed potatoes. Starch, dairy, salt and pepper; that’s it. They are the flannel footy pajamas of the food world. Eating a warm, buttery bowl of spuds feeds your very soul.
Basic Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
1 large Russet baking potato
5-6 medium red skin or Yukon Gold potatoes
1 stick of butter
½ cup non-fat buttermilk
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper

Peel potatoes and cut into similarly sized pieces.  They don’t have to be exactly alike, but each piece should be alike in volume, so they all finish cooking at the same time.  Place into a very large pot of heavily salted cold water.  Bring to a boil, and cook uncovered at medium high until a paring knife easily goes all the way through, about 20-30 minutes.
When done, drain potatoes in colander, and put them back into cooking pot.  Sprinkle about ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper over them.  Cut about 1/3-1/2 of the stick of butter into ¼ inch slices and place among the taters.
With a hand masher, begin mashing potatoes.  While mashing, be sure to move the masher around so you don’t leave any big unmashed chunks.  I don’t like them completely smooth, a little bit of lumpiness lets everybody know they aren’t instant—just call them “rustic”.
When they’re mashed to your satisfaction, switch your masher for a big spoon.  Stir in about half of the buttermilk.  If needed, add more to get them about the consistency of hummus, then stop stirring.   If you overwork them, they’ll get gluey.  And the mash will tighten up a bit while they sit, so make them a little looser than you want to serve them.
After about 5 minutes, uncover, spoon into serving vessel, check for seasoning, and dot with a little more butter.
Serves 4-6
That’s my most basic style.  But these puppies can be totally modified, depending on the accompanying dishes and your mood.

Mashed Potato Casserole
If the potatoes have been refrigerated, warm a bit in the microwave, so you can stir them.  Stir in ½ cup of shredded cheddar, some crumbled bacon, and sliced scallions.  Sprinkle a small handful of cheese and smoked paprika on top, and bake at 350 for 30 min.

The Kid’s Garlic Mash
Replace buttermilk with heavy cream.  While the potatoes are boiling put the cream in a saucepan on low.  Add 4 or 5 garlic cloves, and slowly poach.  You can discard the garlic after it flavors the cream, or you can add the softened cloves to the spuds and mash them as well.  When you stir in the cream add a couple of tablespoons of chopped flat leaf parsley.

Caramelized Shallot Taters
While the potatoes are cooking, thinly slice 2 shallots and slowly cook in a bit of butter until they're brown and fragrant.  Hold back 1 tablespoon of the shallots to garnish the top, and mix the rest into the potatoes.

Potatoes Plus
Boil a couple of parsnips, mash and add to the mixture.  Or (a favorite of mine), steam one head of broccoli for about 8 minutes or until just cooked enough to mash.  Place into ice water to stop cooking and set color.  After the potatoes are mashed, but before adding buttermilk, stir in broccoli.

Brown Butter Deliciousness
Switch the buttermilk for cream.  While potatoes are cooking, melt butter in a saucepan, and keep cooking until the butter has turned caramel color and smells nutty and yummy.  Mix potatoes as before.

So, there’s my mashed potato dance. And although I don’t dance very much, upon request, I will do the funky chicken. And the hokey pokey; after all, that is what it’s all about.

Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is momsequitur@gmail.com.