Garlic mashed potatoes

My assigned dish for the Thanksgiving dinner that I always have with friends is garlic mashed potatoes…I love them, but don’t make mashed potatoes for one.  One of the reasons is that I want my mashed potatoes to be unctuous, with lots of butter and (at least) half-and-half–not something I should be adding to my diet often.

This year, I made my Thanksgiving garlic mashed potatoes as described inCook’s Country recipe for garlic mashed potatoes–it’s a one-pot method that produced a lovely result–with less effort that the way I had done them.  It’s always been my contention that I don’t want to cook potatoes for mashing in the jackets–I hate having to peel them while still hot, and I certainly don’t want to boil peeled potatoes in water–I want all that lovely starch to be available to absorb cream and butter–so I’ve always steamed them and then let them dry out just a bit before I start mashing.

This recipe took a different approach:  the potatoes were cooked with the minced garlic (after it was sautéed in butter) and then cooked in the half-and-half with a bit of water added.  Once tender the potatoes were mashed right in the pot, adding some more butter, and half-and-half.

I’ve looked at this recipe and wondering if this approach could be adapted to making mashed potatoes (decent ones) for one, or maybe two.  It would certainly be faster than baking a potato and then making mashed potatoes, since the potatoes are cut into 1/2-inch cubes before cooking and you do the mashing right in the same pot that you cooked them in–less clean-up to do, as well.

Adapting this recipe for one seemingly would involve just a ratio adjustment–but that will take a test run to see if it is so simple.  Since the original recipe called for four pounds of potatoes (designed to serve about 6 or so), it might take some tinkering, but sometimes mashed potatoes (like risotto) are necessary even when doing single-serving cooking.

Potato basics

Potatoes Solanum tuberosum) come in a myriad shapes, sizes and colors, with different starch and moisture content that makes different kinds suitable for different cooking methods.  There are red potatoes, white potatoes, purple potatoes, yellow potatoes, fingerling potatoes…. (I’ve put in the botanical name because these are different from sweet potatoes (even though we call both potatoes).

They are a wonderful vegetable–nutritious with lots of minerals and vitamins.  I think  they sometimes get a bad rap for all of the things we pile on–for example–a baked potato.  With “the works” added it’s certainly not low calorie…but we’re responsible for all that extra stuff that adds calories and “bad” fat.  There are lots of good things to do with potatoes that are quite healthy and then at times, potatoes turn into luxurious comfort food.

Potato blossom

potato blossom

All potatoes are created delicious, but not necessarily equal when it comes to performance.  You need to pick the right potato for what you want to do:  russet potatoes will be mushy in a potato salad.  Red potatoes (frequently called “new” potatoes–even though they are not) may not make the most luscious, decadent mashed potatoes.


rows of potato plants

potato plants

First, about what should and should not be called a “new potato“:  only a potato that is  harvested while immature is “new”–you can tell by looking at the skin.  On real “new” potatoes (all sizes) the skin is very thin and can be rubbed off the tuber;  you will likely see places where it has been abraded. Size does not tell you if a potato is new or not!  Even some very reputable and otherwise knowledgeable authors use “new potato” to mean red potatoes or boiling potatoes.  Newly harvested potatoes differ in moisture, starch and sugar content from potatoes that are fully mature.  They are wonderful in their own right if you can get them–it’s one of the joys of growing potatoes.  You can go out and get some really new potatoes.


Baking potato or russet potato

baking potato

The russet potato is the potato usually recommended for baking and for mashed potatoes.  They have lots of starch and less moisture than either red potatoes or Yukon gold potatoes.  They will make fluffier mashed potatoes and baked potatoes. They’re my preference for baked and mashed potatoes because I want “fluff” in my baked potato and I want to be able to add lots of butter and cream to my mashed potatoes.


Yukon gold potatoes

Yukon gold potatoes

The Yukon gold and Yellow Finn are rather middle-of-the-road potato, with medium starch and medium moisture.  If in doubt, and for an all purpose potato, these are my choice.  The flesh is pale yellow and I think a bit more “buttery” flavor than bakers or the red potato or even the round white potato (not pictured here).


red-skinned potatoes

red potatoes

The red-skinned, or red potato (sometimes called “new potatoes” or boiling potatoes) are usually described as “waxy”–that is low starch, higher moisture.  These, or round white potatoes,  would be my choice for potato salad, roasting, because they hold their shape well.



orange fleshed sweet potato

sweet potato

Then there are sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas),  which are commonly (and incorrectly) called yams.  Yams are a totally different biological entity.  These are only distantly related to the potatoes  discussed above.

Sweet potatoes likewise come in a variety of moisture content and colors.   The orange-fleshed ones are very moist, and as the name indicates, sweeter than the “real”  potatoes described above.  They are good baked and as french fries.  The white-fleshed ones are drier and those are my favorites for baking and making fries, but they are hard to find as a rule so when I see them, I bring some home.  There are purple sweet potatoes, too–again sometimes called yams, which they are not.  I’m going to be looking for these–I really like the purple potatoes, so I need to try these–they will certainly give a new look to sweet potato pie!


No matter what kind of potato you are buying, there should be not cuts, abrasions, or  soft spots.  For potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) you should check to see that there is no greenish discoloration.  This comes from exposure to light which produces solanine, a natural toxin.  The green is actually  chlorophyll, but it’s presence indicates the possible presence of a toxin, so green potatoes should be discarded.

When you get you potatoes home, they are best stored in a cool, dry, dark place.  Best is a temperature of about 40 to 50 ° F.   That’s certainly not the temperature of living quarters.  When stored at lower temperatures this can cause conversion of the starch in the potato to sugar and that will affect the flavor and cooking characteristics.  Lacking a suitably cool, dry and dark place I pass on the five-pound bag of bakers no matter how good the price, and bring home only what I’ll use in a short time (a week or ten days) and store them in the refrigerator (even though I keep my refrigerator really cold) otherwise they sprout before I use them all.

For lots more varieties and more suggestions for use see The Cook’s Thesaurus and the Potato and the sweet potato entries in Wikipedia for lots more great information on potatoes.

This is by no means a complete discussion of potatoes–I hope it gives you some basic information on  different characteristics of potatoes and which are most suitable for what use.   In the end, it’s your choice–want fluffy mashed potatoes, go russet; more rustic mashed potatoes–use red or try Yukon golds.  After all, you’re the one eating them  A son goût!

And here’s a bit of trivia for you for you next occasion for small talk:  2008 was the International Year of the Potato.  There is nutrition information and other fun stuff.

Comfort food: baked potatoes

It’s another chilly day here, but at least the rain has stopped and the sun is out off and on now, but the thermometer is still reading only 51 ° F .  Despite the chill, a neighbor and I ventured out to go to the wine tasting at the Wine Authorities.  as well as the usual great wines, there was cheese from the Reliable Cheese Company (with samples).  The Tomme de Savoie was very tempting, but when I saw the raclette, I passed on the Tomme since it’s only for me (and the cat). I got the raclette instead so that I could  make one of my favorite special comfort foods:  baked potato with raclette cheese melted over it.

Just plain baked potatoes are one of my favorite comfort foods!  I don’t mean anything fancy like “twice-baked” potatoes  (love those too)—just a really good baked potato that has seen neither the inside of a microwave oven, nor the inside of a foil package.

Russet (baking potato)

a baking potato

When you select your potato for baking, you want one that is as evenly shaped as possible, in addition to being a good potato in general.  (See potatoes.)

Here are three basic recipes for baked potatoes (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated).  Easy…and worth the time.  Cheaper than eating out too–you’d have to go to a really expensive restaurant to get as good a baked potato as any of these recipes will give you.

Basic oven-baked potato

This method will give you a baked potato with a really great  skin to munch on along with that lovely interior.

  • Preheat oven to 350 ° F
  • Scrub a russet potato thoroughly and dry well.
  • Place potato in the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
  • Remove and open immediately (to let steam escape) and serve.

Salt-baked potato

This method can give the potato a flavor boost, especially if you include herbs and/or garlic in the covered dish while the potato is baking.  It will give you the fluffiest inside and a tender but lightly crisped skin on the top.

  • Preheat oven to 450 ° F
  • Scrub a russet potato thoroughly and dry well.
  • In a small baking dish, place a layer of kosher salt about 1/2-inch thick (about 1 cup for this particular dish).
  • Place the potato on the salt, broad side down.
  • Cover with foil or place in a covered baking dish and bake in the middle position of oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes
  • Remove foil, brush the potato with 1 teaspoon olive oil and return to the oven until tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife.
  • Remove, brush off excess salt, open immediately, and serve.

Oven-baked sweet potato

This is for the orange-fleshed, wetter varieties.  If you have a white sweet potato (yum) it has much drier flesh, and I typically treat it as a russet potato.

  •  Scrub thoroughly. Prick lightly with a fork in three places, or multiple times with the tip of a paring knife.
  • Preheat oven to 400 ° F
  • Rub the potato with olive oil and place on a foil-covered pan, on the middle rack of the oven.
  • Bake 40 to 50 minutes until it’s tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
  • Open immediately, season to taste, and serve.
Wedge of raclette cheese

Raclette cheese

When you want to be a little extra special with even the most comfy of foods–just add more comfort food.  One of my favorite extra comfy foods is baked potato with cheese; and my all time favorite for baked potato with cheese is baked potato with raclette.  Never mind the butter, sour cream and all that stuff (admittedly wonderful), but in this case it’s totally unnecessary.

Raclette is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that is mellow, nutty and earthy.  A dish by that name is typically served with the cheese melted over potatoes (usually

black cat looking at potato

Is it mine?

boiled) and gherkins (pickles made from specially grown small cucumbers). While what I’m having here is not traditional raclette, it is a real treat.  (All cooking and recipes are tested and approved (or not) by Keiko, the cat.)

I made a salt-baked potato and finished it as directed in the recipe, and after opening it, laid slices of raclette over the top, and put it back into the oven to let the cheese melt (not under the broiler).

baked potato topped with raclette cheese

Comfort food for supper

The  main course was just that big baked potato and cheese, with a glass of champagne (no cornichons though)!  I had really intended to have a first course of roasted baby carrots and baby zucchini with vinaigrette dressing….but that was not just BIG potato–it was a HUGE potato, so it was my evening to have just that–I had fruits and veggies for breakfast and lunch anyway.)