What do you really need?
The question came up this week when my friend Chef Gordon Naccarato posted a question on his award-winning Pacific Grill Blog (http://blog.pacificgrilltacoma.com/) about sweet potato casserole with marshmallows: Necessity or abomination?
It got me to thinking about Thanksgiving necessities. For example, I’d be delighted with a large stuffed salmon over a turkey, especially accompanied by a largish platter of Penn Cove Selects as an appetizer. Pecan pie, cherry, or key lime could sub in for punkin and I’d be fine with that. Stuffing? Make mine bread, cornbread, oyster…it’s all good to me. Veggies? Brussels sprouts are the tradition around my home, but I’m good with lots of options there. Sufferin’ succotash anyone?
If you’re like me (and I know I am), it’s all good. Still, there is one Thanksgiving dish upon which there can be no discussion, no compromise, no negotiation. One dish so modest it barely merits mention in most cook books, glossy periodicals or televised food porn. You’ll find no featured centerfold in Gastronomica.
That’s right, mashed potatoes and gravy.
If you aren’t planning on serving this dish on Thanksgiving, don’t bother inviting me over. Not even opening that bottle of Chateau d’Yquem could make up for such a glaring omission.
Ample opportunities for trial and error have helped me develop what I think to be the optimal method of preparation for this dish, which (while humble) can soar on wings of ospreys and/or eagles if you do it right. “Sure,” you are now saying. “Anybody can make mashed potatoes and gravy. EVERYbody makes those.” And it’s true, everybody can make them and seldom are they really bad, unless the potatoes came out of a box and the gravy from a packet or can.
Still, like many things in life, a little planning and care can transform the prosaic into poetry. In this case, poetry on a plate.
As with everything, it starts with the ingredients. You need good potatoes. That 10 lb. bag of moldering russets on the basement stairs that cost 10 cents a pound isn’t going to cut it. I like Yukon Golds or Yellow Finns best, but am also fond of large reds. Either peel them or leave the skins on, whatever you prefer. I happen to like the reds with skin-on andYukons peeled, but that’s me. Cut into chunks and place in a pot big enough so that you can get a couple of inches of water over the potatoes, no crowding. Fill the pot with cold water. Notice how cloudy the water gets? Now drain it, that’s nasty starch you don’t want. Refill with cold water and salt very liberally. Be bold. Some say salt it enough that the water tastes like seawater, but I don’t go that far. I use kosher salt, but then that is all I have in the house.
Bring the potatoes to a hard boil and cook them until they are well done and very soft. A fork should easily pierce them without resistance. Once fully cooked, drain the potatoes in a colander (reserving at least 1-2 cups of the cooking water) and return potatoes back to their pot. Put the pot over medium heat and cook dry for a minute or two. Don’t scorch. This is a step that I omitted for decades, but it is key. You need to get every bit of the liquid you can out of those guys.
Once they are dry, its time for the mashing. Some are steadfast in their belief in the ricer as theOne True Way, but I believe there is more than one route to salvation. Personally, I am good with an old fashioned potato masher. I don’t like my taters too creamy or uniform and the masher performs admirably in this regard. Growing up, we used a Sunbeam electric beater and while I am generally disallowed from casting aspersions on my mother’s cooking, we part ways on this particular technique.
Now that you have your potatoes cooked and mashed, it’s time for imagination and the artistic impulse to take over. You could add some milk and butter and call it a day, but that would be the Readers Digest version of mashed potatoes. Sour cream (neither lite nor fat-free, this is not the time for healthy options) is a traditional option, but this is Thanksgiving after all and time to go for broke. If not now, when?
For me, going for broke means sautéing some chopped garlic in butter and then adding a largish splash of heavy whipping cream. Warm that mixture and then put it into the mashed potatoes and mix thoroughly.
If this concoction is insufficiently slutty for you, you can tart it up even further. Chives are good, but I prefer a handful of chopped Italian parsley. Once I added some nubbins of sautéed lobster mushrooms. This, I highly recommend. Chanterelles, now in season, work nearly as well.
So, let’s review. Good potatoes, salt the water, cook thoroughly, mash roughly, add liquid, accessorize to taste. Easy peasey. Now we’re cookin’.
This is an area where my tread needs to be light. As it turns out, my mother is very sensitive about culinary criticisms contained in my little essays here, regardless of whether the slight is real or merely perceived. So, before I fire up the gravy train, I am required by family law to make the following declaration: my darling mother makes the world’s best rhubarb pie, potato salad and snickerdoodles. Hands down no question.
Now that we have that out of the way, she makes gravy wrong. If you make gravy by mixing some flour with water, stock or other liquid and adding the raw slurry to pan drippings you are making your gravy incorrectly. Sorry Mom.
To make a perfect, velvety, rich gravy you need to roux. Here are the basics:
4 cups turkey or chicken stock (preferably homemade)
4 tbs skimmed turkey fat, butter or combination
Quarter cup flour
Warm the stock. Put the turkey/butter fat into a saucepan large enough to hold all the gravy and warm to medium. Stir in the flour and cook on low, stirring regularly while the roux foams until it becomes a nutty brown, probably 10-15 minutes. Add the warm stock and some of the reserved potato water. Whisk vigorously to remove any lumps until the gravy thickens. Season expertly and you have the perfect gravy.
If you are cooking a turkey, you can add any carving juice that comes out of the bird. Also, scrape up the caramelized brown bits from the bottom of your roasting pan with some white wine and add that as well. The result is virtually fool-proof and magically delicious.
It’s true, you can’t always get what you want. But if you serve mashed potatoes and gravy, you’ve got … ah, hit it Mick…
Happy Thanksgiving. Now go for a walk.