Friday, December 2, 2011

I can mashed potato (do you love me?)

There were a couple things at Thanksgiving that I wasn't too worried about, because I was using a trusted recipe--the crostata, the baked beans. And then there were a couple things that I just wanted to get on the table for the sake of completeness without worrying too much about the quality--the bread, the ice cream, the turkey itself.

And then there were the mashed potatoes. Potatoes might be my favorite category of food: boiled, fried, roasted, or hashed-brown, I have yet to encounter something that can be done to potatoes that I haven't found tremendously enjoyable. So mashed potatoes became a little bit of an obsession on my part in the final few hours leading up to T-Day. I knew that I wanted my mashed potatoes to be smooth and creamy; I dig the fluffy gravy-indundated version too, but at this particular dinner I had a craving for cream and butter bound by a few molecules of potato starch. I knew that I wanted to add in some celery root, because I love it as a vegetal counterpoint to the richness of potatoes and I'll take any excuse to cook celery root. And, most importantly, I knew that I wanted no lumps. Like, none. Like, a princess should be able to sleep on a mattress filled with these mashed potatoes to no ill effect.

So, without further ado, this is what I did.

This recipe incorporates elements from Thomas Keller's puree of garlic mashed potatoes from Ad Hoc At Home, Dorie Greenspan's celery root puree, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's rich and creamy mashed potatoes.

Creamy mashed potatoes with celery root and garlic

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
1 head of garlic
2 pounds yukon gold potatoes
2 pounds celery root
2 cups heavy cream

First, make garlic butter. Melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan. Slice the top off the head of garlic, exposing the tops of the cloves. Discard the garlic top. As soon as the butter has finished melting, add the garlic to the saucepan, cut side down. Turn the heat on the stove to its lowest setting and cover the saucepan. Your goal is to cook the garlic as slowly as possible until it's completely brown but not burned. The butter should be kept warm, but not sizzling. Flip the head of garlic after about 15 minutes to start cooking the other side. After 20-30 minutes, you should be able to remove the head of garlic from the saucepan (careful, it's hot) and smash it on a cutting board, separating the soft cloves from the garlic paper. Discard the paper, return the peeled cloves to the saucepan, and keep cooking, 20-30 more minutes, until the cloves are completely soft and brown. After turning off the heat, let the cloves cool in the butter slightly, then puree in a blender to make a completely smooth, brown garlic butter. You can keep the butter in the fridge for a few weeks.

If you want, you can peel and smash all of the cloves of garlic before starting, but I think this takes too long and garlic juice really starts to burn your hands. It's a little easier to get the garlic completely submerged in the butter if you use two heads of garlic and two sticks of butter--and who would object to having extra garlic butter? You can also strain the butter and use it separately from the pureed garlic.

Also, if you don't like garlic, feel free to use regular butter. Whackadoodle.

You want to start cooking the vegetables a few hours before you're ready to serve. The celery root will take a little longer to cook, so do that first. Cut the bottom off of the celery root until you get past all the rooty dirty parts that extend up into the flesh. Slice off the top, then lay the celery root flat on a cutting board and slice down the sides to remove the skin. Cut the celery root into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Transfer the celery root to a large pot, cover with cold water by 1 inch, and put the pot on the stove over high heat. Add 2 tbsp salt to the water and stir to dissolve.

Peel the potatoes and slice them into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Transfer them to a large pot, cover with cold water by 1 inch, stir around with your hands, and then pour out the water. Repeat these rinses with water until the water comes out mostly clean--it took me only one rinse, but some potatoes have more starch. Cover again with cold water by 1 inch and put the pot on the stove over high heat. Add 2 tbsp salt to the water and stir to dissolve.

Meanwhile, melt the garlic butter in a small saucepan and add 1 cup of cream. Heat over low heat just until the mixture is warmed through. Set up a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. You could also use a hand mixer with the beater attachment if that's what you have.

When the pots containing the potatoes and celery root come to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer--a full boil would break them apart. It might take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to cook the vegetables completely. Keep testing small pieces of the vegetables with a knife. They should be tender the whole way through, but not dissolving into the water. When they are completely cooked, drain them into a colander, and shake to remove as much water as possible. If one vegetable cooks much faster than the other, pour it back into the pot that you cooked it in and cover to keep it warm.

When both the potatoes and the celery root are cooked and drained, add the warm cream/butter mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the potatoes and mix on high speed until they're completely smooth. Add the celery root and continue mixing on the highest possible speed that isn't launching hot celery root around the room. Mix until the puree is as smooth as possible. Taste, and add salt if necessary.

Okay, now the fun part. You have to push all of the puree through a sieve. I hope you didn't have any plans this afternoon. If so, call up your friend/date/potential employer and say, sorry, you will be late to lunch/the symphony/your interview because you have to spend 30 minutes pushing celery root through a sieve. You can skip this step, but there will be lumps, and you didn't read this far for lumpy mashed potatoes.

You need two flexible rubber spatulas, a mesh sieve, and a large bowl. Place the sieve over the bowl and pour about 1/4 of the puree into it. If you wait 10,000 years, the weight of the puree will eventually push it through the sieve. Alternatively, you can push it through the sieve using one of your spatulas, and scrape the smooth puree off the bottom of the sieve using the other one. I use different colored spatulas so I don't forget which one is the "lumpy" spatula and which one is the "smooth" spatula. Push your first batch of puree through, then repeat three times, until all of the puree has gone through the sieve, scraping out any big lumps that won't go through before adding more puree. Small batches! Don't overload your sieve, and don't give up.

If you stop now you have pretty much perfect fluffy mashed potatoes with celery root. You can heat them up covered in the oven at a very low temperature, or in the microwave, stirring every minute or so to release any pockets of steam.

But if you want creamy mashed potatoes, here's what you do: in a large pot, heat 1 cup of heavy cream on the stovetop over medium-low heat, just until it's warm. Add the puree to the pot, in four batches, whisking to dissolve completely after each addition, and making sure the puree in the pot is warmed through before adding more. If you stop after adding half of the puree, you have a lovely cream of potato soup.

But if you go all the way, oh my. Soft and airy, ever so beautiful, melting off of your fork, thick with garlic, coating your mouth with butter and cream in every bite. Without a doubt the best I have ever had. These are the potatoes of my dreams, the ones that drift through my head every night while I'm sleeping on a waterbed filled with mashed potatoes.

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