They didn’t create all of the varieties, about 400 years ago the potato was brought to Europe, and Europeans added to the number of varieties. Oddly, when the potato first came to Europe there were some deaths from people trying to eat the toxic leaves of the nightshade plant.
The Goodness Within
Potatoes contain all vitamins and minerals, except A and D. Hence it’s importance in poorer societies relying on potatoes for their main staple. Before the Great Potato Famine of Ireland in 1845, a typical Irish family would eat around 50 pounds of potatoes a week. Russian peasants ate potatoes, made vodka out of potatoes, and made an inhospitable land prosper by growing potatoes in less than ideal soils.
They are even making their way into Asian cuisines. China and India are now the worlds’ largest producers of potatoes but as much as I like samosas and boiled potatoes in Thai curries, I prefer mine mashed.
The Essentials of Good Mash
Mashed potatoes are one of those dishes that can either be perfect and soul nourishing, or downright unpalatable. This is because they don’t need much to be great, but what they need, they have to have. Salt, pepper (or not), milk or cream, and butter are all you need to make mashed potatoes delicious. Without these, they are just a starchy, bland mess.
Luckily, potatoes are very forgiving. Too much salt? Add more milk. Too much milk? Put them back on the burner for a quick minute. Too much butter? Wait, there is no such thing as too much butter!
Mashers are also great vehicles for other flavors. They take on the flavor of garlic and herbs beautifully. Some of the best mashed I’ve ever had just had salt, cream, butter, garlic, and dried basil.
One thing I personally don’t believe in is gravy. I may be alone on this, but I don’t think gravy is necessary. It’s used to add moisture and flavor, but if you do that to start, all it does is mask flavor.
The Secret to Making Great Mash
To make great mashed potatoes, there is a basic method (below). For the purpose of this article, I will be talking about Russet potatoes, although any potato can be mashed. Whether or not you peel your potatoes is up to you.
Peeling isn’t necessary, unless the spuds are old and have a green layer. This is solanine, a toxin. I believe in keeping the inherent nutrients that are present in the skins, so I don’t peel mine, unless I intend to pipe them with a piping bag.
Getting the Potatoes Just Right
Cut your potatoes into about 2 inch chunks. I usually cut the potato in half lengthwise, then quarter, depending on size. If you cut the potatoes too small they tend to over cook and become mealy.
Remember to store your cut potatoes in cold water or they will brown. When boiling your potatoes, start with cold water, or the starches will flush out to quickly and the finished product can be grainy.
Basic Mashed Potatoes
1-½ pounds Russets, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 Tbsp salt (1 ½ tablespoons for the water, the remainder for the finished product)
¼ cup cream
¼ butter, sliced into pats
Pepper, white or black, to taste
Cover the potatoes with cold water. Add 1 ½ Tbsp salt. Bring to a boil.
Potatoes are done when you can stick a fork in them and the fork comes out easily.
Strain. Return to the pot, or place in a mixing bowl.
Adding the Goodies
Add most, but not all, of the butter, cream, and pepper. Hold some back so that you can adjust the final product.
You can use a whisk or a mixer to whip your spuds, but if you use a mechanized method be careful to not over-mix. We want to make the potatoes smooth, no or few lumps (I like to leave a few in for the home cooked feel), but not work the starch in the potato. Taste often and correct seasoning and consistency as you go.
Enjoy! Mashed Potato! Mashed Potato!
Images from Wikicommons