Secret Ingredients to Make Mashed Potatoes Exciting Again

Here’s news that’s news to no one – potatoes are bland.  They belong to that same category of bland, white dishes that include tofu, grits, and rice – and it takes some special techniques to coax some culinary beauty out of your everyday spud.

For a lot of people, that means loads of butter and sour cream.  When prepared this way, the mashed potatoes are transformed into a crude delivery device for the fattier, more flavorful condiments that are mixed within.  It’s fine, really, especially when the mashed potatoes are merely an extra cast member milling around in the background of a scene starring that most famous of celebrities, Roast Turkey.  But last year, I came across a recipe that truly elevates mashed potatoes to a level worthy of all of your holiday meals.  This makes mashed potatoes the star, or, at the very least, a supporting actor.

I wish I could find the original source for this preparation – so, know that this is not my own creation, although it’s very easy to riff off of.  It may have been in one of the seasonal Cook’s Illustrated publications, or in an issue of the magazine itself.  Suffice it to say, though, that the details of the recipe are easy enough to remember off of the top of your head (as I did) and deliver a stunning rendition of what everyone typically regards as an obligatory contribution to the table.

We start with the basic components of every mashed potato recipe – potatoes, chicken stock, and butter.  But, realizing that plain potatoes are bland, and that mashing them only produces bland mashed tubers, we need to add some more flavorful ingredients to the mix in the form of parsnips and celery root.  Parsnips, which look like white carrots, carry a pronounced sweet, earthy flavor that complements potatoes quite well, and celery root contributes a hybrid spud/celery taste that adds complexity to the final dish.  We coax the most flavor out of these two vegetables by sauteing them in melted butter until they’re golden and soft.  Whereas every other mashed potato recipe will have you cooking and mashing the potatoes first, then adding melted butter and stock, this recipe begins with the butter and uses it to full effect.

It’s easy to fear celery root.  A celery root is knobby, and dirty, completely unapproachable and very hard to handle if you are unfamiliar with it.  For one thing, you can’t peel a celery root with the same kind of peeler that you use for potatoes, or with any kind of peeler, for that matter.  The only way to tackle celery root is with a sharp chef’s knife, and you’re going to feel as if you’re wasting most of what you’ve purchased – hack off the nubby, dirty end of the celery root (which depletes nearly a third of it), then carve the skin away from the rest.  When you’re done, rinse whatever remains under cool water to rid it of any excess dirt.  If you do this first, you’ll feel much more at ease when I tell you to peel the parsnips as you would carrots – something that will take all of two minutes.

You’ll know that this recipe is different the moment the parsnips and celery root bits begin to brown in the butter – the smell, a sweet, buttery aroma tinged with starchy components, will waft throughout your kitchen.  After they’ve turned a nice bronze color (easy to judge since everything starts out white as snow), add the peeled and diced potatoes, stir to combine with the butter, then add about a cup of chicken stock.  Bring everything to a simmer, then cover and let cook until the potatoes are soft enough to mash.

The wonders of this dish are many – for one thing, it only uses a single pot, and doesn’t require you to cook the potatoes beforehand.  The spuds will steam themselves done in a harmonious array of butter, stock, parsnips, and celery root.  The normally bland nature of the potatoes is vanquished by the flavors contributed by the other ingredients, none of which are condiments like sour cream.  Everything here is an integrated part of the finished dish, and not an add-in thrown in at the end to boost flavor.

Mashed Potatoes with Parsnips and Celery Root

1 large celery root (celeriac) or 2 small, peeled, rinsed, diced

2 parsnips, peeled, diced

Potatoes (estimate according to how many people are eating), peeled, diced (keep submerged in water until use)

1 stick of unsalted butter

1-2 cups of chicken stock

Flat leaf parsley and/or chives, chopped

Salt

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, until the butter has stopped foaming.  Add the diced celery root and parsnips and toss around to coat with the butter, then let that cook until the vegetables have browned.  Drain the potatoes from their submersive H2O prison and add to the pot, again stirring to incorporate with the other ingredients, then pour in about a cup (more for more potatoes) of chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover.

After 30 minutes, poke a potato piece with a fork to test for doneness.  Potatoes are done when a fork slides easily through them.  When tender, remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and use a potato masher to mash the contents of the pot.  If the potatoes seem dry, add more stock.  If the potatoes are too loose, you may keep the pot over low heat, uncovered, to simmer off some of the excess moisture – just keep on stirring to prevent the bottom from burning.

Taste the potatoes, add salt as necessary, and stir in the chopped parsley and chives.