When I look out my back window this time of year and marvel once again at nature’s stunning gifts that help sustain us as we brace for the inevitable frigid winds, icy roads, and snow packed driveways that lie ahead, I begin to think about making some old-fashioned dinners based on recipes from my mom’s varied repertoire – beef stew, fried chicken, stuffed pork chops, and mashed potatoes among them. Whenever my Graham cousins were coming for a visit, Mom would ask what they wanted for dinner. They always gave her the same answer: “Whatever you would like to make is fine, as long as you have your famous mashed potatoes.”
I am writing about the mashed potatoes on an early November day, because the dish is one that is nonnegotiable for the Thanksgiving menu, and this is the time that I begin to plan. I always roast the turkey, but the dinner is a cooperative effort. Our adult kids, my brother, and my sister-in-law contribute their specialities – onion tart appetizer, sausage dressing, pecan topped butternut squash, creamed onions, and pumpkin cheesecake are our current favorites. One year my nephew brought pumpkin soup, and my niece came with a vegan main dish, courtesy of her mom.
The stray childhood chums, boyfriends, and girlfriends who came and went over the years could be counted on to bring the wine. I often had to set up food and drink stations to accommodate all the contributions. Sitting in the living room with a cup of tea or a glass of wine before the final countdown, looking around the room and listening to all the voices chattering at once, truly gladdened my heart. It will be different this year, but we will pull together and try our best to make it a good day.
For many years, before poor health sapped her stamina, my mom would come to our house the day before Thanksgiving to help me with the preparations. Despite a small kitchen, especially by today’s standards, we never seemed to get in each other’s way. One ritual I truly miss is her sitting at my kitchen table, cutting the raw vegetables into uniform pieces for the appetizer tray and peeling the potatoes as we chatted. She would then supervise the preparation of the mashed potatoes, which involved a few careful techniques that accounted for their popularity.
The ingredients are pretty standard; the difference is in the details. They are best when the potatoes are cooked in their jackets, then peeled, mashed, and served on the spot, but, for convenience, Mom and I took a few short cuts on Thanksgiving. No one noticed the difference.
Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes (to serve 6 – double for 12)
6 large potatoes all of the same variety
1 tsp of salt for the cooking water
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons of butter
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
Peel the potatoes, and cut them into halves or uniform large chunks. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add the 1 tsp of salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until the potatoes are tender. Check by piercing with a fork after about 15 minutes and at 5 minute intervals thereafter until the potatoes are soft but still holding their shape.
Drain the potatoes, and, while they are still warm, press them through a ricer or mash with a potato masher. Heat the milk and butter in a microwave safe bowl or measuring cup until the butter is melted. Add about 1/4 cup of the mixture at a time to the riced potatoes, mixing in well with a wooden spoon after each addition. When they reach the consistency you desire, season with salt and pepper. Then smooth over the top with the wooden spoon and pour on a light coating of the remaining milk and butter mixture. Cover with foil and refrigerate until about 30 minutes before serving time. Reheat in a 350 degree oven until hot, remove the foil, and beat in the milk and butter coating to return the potatoes to a creamy consistency. Dust with paprika and serve.
If pressed for time or your oven is crammed, just remove the foil and reheat the mashed potatoes in the microwave. Then proceed to beat in the milk and butter as directed above.
Note: For variety, add two or more peeled garlic cloves to the cooking water and mash along with the potatoes.