a mashing good time: experimentation with mashed potato

For a person with two science degrees, I really don’t think of myself as much of a scientist. I mean of all the jobs I’ve had over the years, apart from pruning vines, the ones that I’ve enjoyed the least involved heavy duty time analysing samples in a winery laboratory. Fortunately the casual nature of winery work meant that I didn’t ever have to go as far as wearing a white coat and safety glasses, but even so, I never felt at ease in the lab. Regardless of how critical the results were to the winemaking process, or how interesting, I could never imagine myself spending the rest of my life holed up there. But every now and then my inner nerd raises its four-eyed head and I find myself with an uncontrollable urge – the urge to experiment.

Last week I decided to cook a casual pub-grub-inspired dinner for a mate who works in the film industry. With bangers and mash on the top of the list, it seemed timely to do a bit of research into the perfect mashed potato or pommes purees.

The interesting thing was that I seemed to uncover a bit of potato controversy. On one hand I had the Australian foodie guru, Stephanie Alexander, swearing by the floury or mealy varieties such as Sebago or Idaho, yet on the other hand the US duo of Dean and Deluca were extolling the virtues of the waxy Yukon Gold. On turning to Mr Food Science himself, Harold McGee, I discovered that both waxy and floury spuds may be used. It’s just a question of the type of mash you are seeking in the end.

The waxy varieties tend to be preferred by the French. And while they do require more work to achieve a smooth texture, their inherent creaminess means that you get a lovely rich creamy mash with less added butter. The North American and it would seem Australian preference leans towards the fluffy, fine consistency of floury potato mash. But what sort of a masher was I? It had been ages since I had last wielded my potato ricer and with the stirring of my nerd within, I decided to embark on the only sensible course. It was time for experimentation, experimentation of the mashing kind.

As all good wanna-be nerds know, one of the best ways to present your results is in a table so please scroll down to Figure 1 to see one I prepared earlier.

The first thing I found was that each variety required a different amount of butter and cream to achieve my preferred mash texture, a lesson that you need to be prepared to be flexible with your additives. The floury sebago sucked up the most butter yet as expected, yielded the most light and airy texture.

While I didn’t mind the floury mash, my hands down favourite was the waxy bjinte which happily required the least amount of the not-so-waistline-friendly butter. With a sweet, unmistakable potatoey flavour and lovely rich creamy texture this was the perfect mash to support a couple of duck and pistachio bangers and a flash of tart balsamic onions.

front to back: kipfler, tasmanian pink fir, bjinte, sebago

Figure 1. Summary of the results of the stonesoup mashed potato extravaganza.

_______________________________________________________
sebago bjinte kipfler pink fir

_______________________________________________________
type floury waxy waxy waxy
potato 750g 750g 750g 750g
butter 250g 180g 225g 210g
cream 1/3C 3/4C 3/4C 1C
colour off white pale yellow golden dark yellow
flavour sl sweet intense potato bland buttery
buttery sl sweet creamy potato
bland creamy 
texture light smooth heavy super creamy
airy rich gluey rich
fluffy creamy unattractive smooth
___________________________________________

a classic pub grub dinner*
marinated wild barossa olives
duck bangers with balsamic onions & mash
rocket & radicchio salad
fig & whisky bread & butter pudding

* Note: For the recipes for the menu items not included in this article, click on the links in the menu.

duck bangers with balsamic onions & mash
serves 4

I’m not sure where the name bangers & mash comes from but it is commonly used in both the UK and Oz. Like most simple dishes the secret is to use the best quality sausages you can afford. Feel free to experiment with your sausage types.

Baking the sausages is a super easy way to cook them as you can just pop them in the oven and leave them alone. Although you do miss out on the lovely charred flavours that you get from a BBQ, the simplicity of this method makes it my favourite.*

The type of potato is really up to your preference in mash with waxy varieties giving a heavier creamier product and floury ones a lighter, fluffier texture. My preference is for the intense potato flavour of the waxy Bjinte. Feel free to play with the amount of butter and cream and even substitute in milk if you’re feeling the need to be more virtuous. Apparently Joel Robuchon’s legendary pommes purees are made with a decadent 50% butter and taste something like potato flavoured butter. Not for the artery challenged.

A potato ricer is like a giant garlic crusher and is really a must-have kitchen utensil if you love good mash. Apart from giving you great texture, it also saves the need to peel your potatoes – a happy bonus. To minimise the amount of water in your mash, it’s best to cook the potatoes whole but if you’re short of time you could chop them into smaller chunks. It is critical that you cook the potatoes until very soft or you run the risk of lumps in your mash, or even worse not being able to push it through your ricer.

If you don’t feel like cutting up the onions for the sauce, you could substitute a good store bought chutney or even some home made red capsicum chutney.

4-8 duck & pistachio sausages
750g (1 1/2lb) potatoes
180g – 250g (6 1/2 – 9oz) unsalted cultured butter at room temperature
3/4C – 1C pouring cream (35% milk fat)
thyme sprigs, to serve
balsamic onions, to serve (recipe below)

Scrub potatoes and place in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer uncovered for 20 – 50mins or until potatoes are very soft.

Meanwhile preheat oven to 200C (400F) and place sausages on a wire rack in a baking tray and prick each once with a fork to allow any excess fat to escape. Cook for 20-30 mins, turning once, until sausages are golden and cooked to your liking.

Drain cooked potatoes and push through a potato ricer, returning to the saucepan. Stir potato over a medium heat for a few minutes to dry out. Stir through warm butter starting with the lower amound and adding more to your liking. Heat cream until almost boiling then add 3/4C cream to the potatoes. Whip well with a whisk adding more cream if required. Season with s&p.

To serve, divide mash between 4 warmed plates and top with 1-2 sausages and a generous dollup of balsamic onions. Sprinkle with thyme and serve with a salad passed separately.

*Note: Since I wrote this post I’ve changed my preference for the best method for cooking sausages. Read all about it HERE.

balsamic onions
makes approx 1 1/2C

Cutting up the onions is a bit of a pain but well worth it as the tart sweetness makes this the perfect foil to the rich creamines of the mash. The real secret is to make sure you cook the onions very slowly over a low heat to achieve that gorgeously melting texture and then simmer like crazy to reduce the vinegar and promote the sweetness.

Feel free to make a larger batch as these onions also make a great pizza topping along with some crumbly feta and capers. You could also serve them on bruschetta with a topping of anchovy and they work well on a ham sandwich. They will keep in the fridge for a month or so.

1kg (2lb) approx 6 red onions, peeled and finely sliced
4T olive oil
1/2C balsamic vinegar

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add onions. Stir well then cover and reduce heat to low. Cook covered stirring periodically until the onions are meltingly soft and watery, approx 1hr. Remove lid and increase heat. Add balsamic and cook over medium heat until onions are caramelised and the vinegar has reduced. Season well. Store in a sterilised jar in the refrigerator.

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