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The Independent Culture
MANY EYEBROWS were raised when the renowned chef, Joel Robuchon, put mashed potatoes on the menu of his Paris restaurant a few years ago. But ever since, this simple and homely dish has been given the kind of attention it deserves. Of the countless ways of preparing the pop-ular spud, few are as worth perfecting as a velvet-smooth and creamy-puree. But what is the best kitchen implement for achieving that wonderfully light, flavoursome mixture with no unsightly lumps?

For centuries Irish cooks mashed their essential vegetable with either a wooden mallet or a long slim beater like a diminutive baseball bat. Gradually wood was replaced by metal tools that crushed the freshly boiled potato into the puree necessary for the best mash. In the 1880s the potato ricer was developed, where the hot potato is crushed between two perforated metal grabs - there is also a model where a flat lever squeezes the potato through a V-shaped sieve.

When I was a potter I used an old potato ricer to produce fine shreds of clay for decorating pots - just as 18th-century Staffordshire potters applied sieved clay to their figurines to represent hair. A contemporary German tinned-steel potato ricer is sold by Scotts of Stow at around pounds 10. Though the machine has its admirers, I find it a little slow when making a large quantity of mashed potatoes.

For speed, a simple masher that crushes the strained spuds - still in their cooking pan to conserve heat - with a direct downward pressure exerted through the handle can work extremely well. Stainless-steel mashers are standard these days, some have a perforated base, others a zig-zag bent metal foot. This traditional style of masher - sometimes known as a potato muddler in North America - is also useful for mashing other cooked root vegetables such as swede, turnips, celeriac or parsnips. Antique potato mashers are highly collectable in the US, where one devotee has amassed nearly 400 different models.

You might think that the easiest and quickest way of mashing potatoes would be in a food processor. Be warned: although you can sometimes get away with this method with cold cooked potatoes, hot, freshly-boiled potatoes can produce an unappetising substance akin to wallpaper paste due to the behaviour of starch particles when hot. Far better to use a mouli-legumes or vegetable mill which I find produces the most delicious intensely-flavoured mixture. The good news is that an Italian stainless steel mouli-legumes is now available from Divertimenti at pounds 17.95. And although the holes on the finest mesh are just slightly larger than on my old tin-plate machine, the method remains the same: a rotating paddle pushes the cooked potato through a rigid metal sieve to produce a perfect puree.

Those unfortunates restricted to a plain diet can serve the pureed potatoes straight from the mill. The rest of us can indulge ourselves and add a generous slathering of butter, cream, hot milk or olive oil. This needs to be stirred in gently with a wooden spoon - there should be no need to pummel the spuds or whisk away any lumps - at this stage the puree should be exactly that, totally smooth. Add salt and plenty of freshly milled black pepper - a seasoning which magically transforms the flavour of mashed potatoes. Sometimes I add a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg too.

The viscosity of your mash will depend upon two things. First, the variety of potatoes used and how they are cooked. A waxy potato produces a drier mixture and quite often a superior flavour. Some mashing varieties too readily absorb water when boiled, hence earlier cookery books advocated boiling, or even baking, the potatoes in their skins (peel them before mashing) to prevent waterlogging. If, despite all your efforts, the pureed potatoes are still too wet, dry out the mixture by stirring it with a wooden spoon in a heavy-based pan over moderate heat until the surplus water has been driven off as steam.

Secondly, viscosity depends upon how much extra liquid you add; clearly milk slackens the mixture more than butter. Of course, you can add as much as the mixture will support but the usual proportion is no more than 10 to 25 per cent of the weight of the puree.

The French like creamed potatoes very soft and almost fluid. On the whole, the British prefer a stiffer mix to accompany hot, chunky sausages and grilled pork chops. The Irish blend mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions to make champ, a delicious gutsy dish which, with the addition of chopped cooked cabbage, becomes colcannon - and virtually a meal in itself. Remember too, that cold left-over mashed potatoes combined with some chopped onion and sliced cooked cabbage and shallow-fried in bacon fat until brown on both sides becomes irresistible bubble-and-squeak.


Serves 2-4

1kg/2lb 4oz medium-size well-flavoured potatoes

12 teaspoon salt

4-6 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon thyme leaves, coarsely chopped

sea salt crystals

freshly milled black pepper

extra olive oil for serving

Peel the potatoes, cover with cold water, add salt and bring to the boil. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until tender but not collapsed.

Meanwhile soften the garlic - but do not let it brown at all - in two tablespoons olive oil in a pan over moderate heat for five to eight minutes. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

Strain the potatoes through a mouli-legumes. Discard the cooking water and puree the potatoes with the cooked garlic and its oil into a warm mixing bowl. Pour the remaining olive oil into the empty garlic pan and heat gently with the thyme to release the flavour of the herb. Stir into the pureed potatoes, add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into a hot serving dish, cover and keep until ready to serve. Serve in spoonfuls with sea salt crystals and the pepper mill to hand and extra olive oil for drizzling on top. !