A mash made in heaven: how to make the perfect comfort food
In times like these, we all need solace from our food, but if you’re going to do it you might as well do it right
There are many foods touted as immune system boosters. There’s really no hard evidence at all for most of them, but that might not matter. We do know, quite definitely, that stress is hugely damaging to our immune systems, and if ingesting ginger or green tea, or whatever you believe in, has a positive effect psychologically, then chances are good that it’ll have benefits physically.
Culinary comfort may be one of the most effective de-stressors we have. It certainly triggers the feel-good hormones and lowers the stress ones. Even if that’s only for the duration of cooking and eating dinner, it’s a good thing.
Of course everyone’s idea of comfort is culturally specific, so I’m not suggesting that any one thing might be a global panacea, but for me and many I know, mash can carve out a space of simple bliss to wallow in briefly.
Only a good version of course. I emphasise that because curiously, this is something which both home cooks and restaurants often disrespect. Or perhaps, like so many of us, it’s just misunderstood?
Mash deserves all the care and understanding that one might bestow on a souffle or the freshest porcini mushrooms. It starts with the nature of the spud of course: unless you’re a classically trained chef, stay away from waxy potatoes. The resultant puree is lustrous and dense rather than fluffy, and moves easily into glue territory if you don’t have a degree in spud chemistry.
Potatoes marked as Mediterranean are usually waxen. Fantastic for rosti or gratin, but dangerous for mash. Spuds marked as all purpose tend – locally - to be the floury sort. They’re what you want for producing billowing clouds of comfort on your plate.
Next, the method: boiling in or out of skin is often the debate. With skins left on, as my paternal gran cooked them, your potatoes are surest not to get water-logged by the time they’re soft, but it’s murderous getting the skin off the boiling hot tubers (if you mash when the they’re cooler, the starches have set, and a lumpy granular fate awaits).
Whichever way you choose, make sure to have the milk warm before mashing. Cold milk gives a less fluffy result. The butter should be at room temperature or soft, not melted.
For a mash of heavenly suede-like smoothness, a potato ricer or mouli is the ultimate gadget. But with determination, you can get super-smooth results using a fairly kak supermarket hand masher, or even a fork. What you should never do – but you probably know this – is chuck the spuds into a processor. Once the starch is activated, it’s super-glue for dinner.
Start mashing with the addition of just enough milk and butter to make things easier. Once smooth, add all the butter (I like a good tablespoon for four servings) and only as much milk as is needed for a soft mix which holds it shape.
Salt to taste. And as fat is so good for our nerves and general health, switching 25% of the milk with cream is never a bad idea. Wallow in the soft mounds of comfort you’ve created, while you forget about everything else for a while.