If I could only choose one vegetable to eat for the rest of my life, the choice would be easy.
I like asparagus, but the only way I eat it is roasted. Carrots are nice but not very versatile. If I never again had to eat broccoli or cauliflower for the rest of my life, I would die a happy man. I eat a lot of beans and peas, but if forced to choose, I would have a hard time choosing just one variety. The hipsters can have all of the Brussels sprouts they want as they hold no appeal to me — never have, never will, no matter what you do to disguise the flavor. I love spinach, but that particular leafy green isn’t adaptable enough to spend the rest of my days eating it. Celery is bland; cucumbers make me burp; squash is boring (and so is zucchini); kale is nasty; and cabbage stinks.
Tomatoes are a fruit, though if they were a vegetable, they would be in close contention.
The choice for me would be simple. If I had to eat only one vegetable for the rest of my life, it would be potatoes. The basic, unassuming, white Idaho potato gives me more joy and happiness in the food world than any other vegetable.
Talk about versatility? The potato is your guy. He can be scalloped, baked, chipped, mashed, fried and soufflé’d. French fries make people happy. It’s true. I have always believed that it’s hard not to be happy while eating a French fry.
Potatoes are almost always my go-to vegetable, but mashed potatoes might be the king of all vegetable side dishes. It’s the ultimate comfort-food side dish. There is beauty in simplicity. A perfectly mashed potato is certainly a thing of beauty.
I have excellent recall when it comes to food and can tell anyone where and when I ate the best version of a particular dish. The two best mashed potato dishes I have eaten in my life were from my friend, famed New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen, and at my grandmother’s dining room table (and I’d have a hard time choosing a winner between the two).
As a child I spent hundreds of lunches and dinners at my grandmother’s house. She always served one of two starches — rice and gravy or mashed potatoes. No matter what the protein — and it was usually fried chicken, roast beef, turkey, or leg of lamb — rice and potatoes ruled the day.
My grandmother’s mashed potatoes were lumpier than most. I find that people fall into two camps when it comes to mashed potatoes: pro-lumps or no-lumps. I love lumpy mashed potatoes. I also don’t mind the skin included in a batch of mashed potatoes, although my grandmother never served hers that way.
At his New Orleans Riverbend shotgun house mainstay, Brigtsen serves mashed potatoes that would rival any vegetable at any restaurant at any level. Brigtsen has a keen talent for seafood preparation and has forgotten more about Creole cooking than I’ll ever know. Years ago, I ate his version of mashed potatoes as a side dish to accompany a nightly feature he was offering, and I can remember thinking to myself, “This is perfection. Seriously, true perfection.”
It is rare to achieve perfection in the culinary world, though I can always judge the quality of a restaurant by how well they prepare chicken and potatoes. If one can impress and dazzle with dishes as plain and simple as chicken and potatoes, the likelihood of what they can do with more complicated and complex vegetables and proteins is a good bet going forward.
This past Thanksgiving, I finally cooked a batch of mashed potatoes that I believe would rival my grandmother’s or Brigtsen’s versions.
My mashed potato cooking process has evolved over the years. I peel and cube potatoes and let them soak in water for several hours. I boil them in salted water and then drain them in the sink once a knife inserted into the cooked potato releases freely. After draining, I return them to the dry but still hot pot, which is key to help excess moisture evaporate.
The next step is one in which I have never written down portion amounts, but I take half and half, butter and sour cream and combine them all in a container and heat them up on the stovetop (or in the microwave). Once the three wet ingredients are heated (not boiling) and stirred well, I gradually add the hot liquid mixture to the hot cubed potatoes in the pot. I still have my grandmother’s potato masher, and hand-mashing potatoes is the only way to go for perfect lumpiness. I alternate adding liquid and hand-mashing until I reach my desired level of lump to mash. Salt and pepper are stirred in at the end. Mashed potatoes — to my taste — need a lot of salt and even more pepper.
Again, there is beauty in simplicity, and it doesn’t get any simpler — or more enjoyable — than perfectly mashed potatoes.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
BRIGSTEN’S MASHED POTATOES
YIELD: 10 CUPS (10-12 SERVINGS)
NOTES FROM THE CHEF:
Mashed potatoes seem like such a simple dish, and they are. However, I have learned many things about mashed potatoes over the years, and one thing is true: little things can make a big difference. Whether you are using Idaho Russet potatoes or red potatoes, size does matter. I have found that smaller potatoes are better for mashing than large ones. The smaller potatoes come out sweeter and less starchy. At Brigtsen’s, we use “B” size red potatoes, skin-on, for our mashed potatoes. They are about the size of a golf ball. I add a little salt to the water when I wash them, and this seems to help remove any dirt from the potatoes.
Always use the best cream and butter available. We use 40% butterfat heavy whipping cream and unsalted butter. Always cook the potatoes until they are very tender, almost falling apart. Always mash the potatoes while they are still hot. Always make your mashed potatoes by hand. Don’t use an electric mixer. If you over-work the potatoes, gluten forms and your mashed potatoes will be, well, gluey. I use a heavy-duty wire whisk with an up-and-down motion to mash the potatoes. Always reserve a little bit of the water that you cook the potatoes in; add a little bit to the mashed potatoes. This helps keep them light and fluffy. Finally, try and make your mashed potatoes at the last minute, just before dinner is served. This is when they are at their best.
• 4 pounds small red potatoes (preferably “B” size).
• 16 cups water.
• 2 cups heavy whipping cream.
• 1/2 pound unsalted butter.
• 1/2 cup potato water (the water in which the potatoes were boiled).
• 1 tablespoon salt.
• 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper.
• Wash the potatoes very well; put them in a deep pot with 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 30 minutes. Drain the water off the potatoes, reserving 1/4 cup of the water.
• In a small pot, add the cream; cook over low heat just until the cream is scalded. Add the butter and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and set aside.
• In a mixing bowl, add the cooked potatoes, potato water, salt and white pepper. Mash the potatoes with a heavy-duty wire whisk until the potatoes are broken up into small pieces.
• Add the cream/butter mixture and continue mashing with the whisk until the potatoes have absorbed all the cream. Use a spoon to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. Serve immediately.