They are a must-have on most Thanksgiving menus - white fluffy clouds slathered with butter or gravy. Turkey would be lost without them. So would stuffing, and cranberry sauce would seem far too assertive.
But too often mashed potatoes are taken for granted, a bland, familiar staple in need of a holiday makeover.
Don't blame the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians for that. They didn't have this dish at their feast in 1621. Potatoes weren't introduced to New England until the 1740s, according to Sandra Oliver, editor of Food History News.
No one knows just when - or why - cooks started mashing their spuds. But by the late 1700s, New Englanders were cooking up all kinds of potato dishes, which probably included mashed potatoes.
The appearance of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving made sense since it is a late autumn holiday, and potatoes are plentiful then. "Mashing up starchy vegetables was just something people did back in the late 1700s," says Ms. Oliver.
She has an 1845 cookbook titled "New England Economical Housekeeper," which includes a Thanksgiving menu recipe for potatoes and turnips mashed together. However, Oliver suspects they were a staple at Thanksgiving long before that.
Today's harvest celebration wouldn't seem complete without the now- traditional recipe - butter, cream, salt, and pepper. But since one of the best things about this holiday staple is its versatility, why forgo the opportunity to make a good dish great?
By tossing a few other ingredients into the pot - such as roasted garlic, fresh herbs, leeks, lemon, or grated Parmesan - you could give this classic dish more originality, more color, and lots more flavor. Even your most set-in-their-ways guests may return to the buffet table for a second helping.
Of course, before improvising, you'll need to master a few basics.
First of all, most cooks agree that the best choices for mashing are either russet potatoes or their less starchy cousins, Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn. Russets become light and fluffy when mashed, and the two richly flavored, yellow-fleshed varieties take on a buttery look and creamy texture.
Second, it's essential to boil the potatoes for just the right amount of time, typically about 15 minutes, and to test their tenderness with a thin skewer, not a fork, which makes holes that invite water and result in soggy spuds.
Also, take care with your choice of tools. Mashing potatoes in a food processor, a food mill, or with a hand-held mixer is risky, as these machines tend to overwork the potatoes, leaving them with a whipped or gluey texture. Some cooks like ricers, which guarantee potatoes without lumps. But an old-fashioned hand masher, though it takes a strong arm, works just fine.
Finally, follow an imaginative recipe that suits your guests. Vegetarians might like bits of wild mushrooms or sun-dried tomatoes laced into their potatoes; others will enjoy exotic flavor combinations such as potatoes with curry and ginger, prosciutto and Parmesan, or bacon and Gorgonzola. For those guests who are reluctant to stray too far from tradition, you might add only a squeeze of lemon juice, a few cloves of garlic, and a sprinkling of fresh thyme.
It's tempting to stick with the tried and true, but if you get more creative this year, you may find that everyone from Grandma Rose to Cousin Chester will love the results. And you might even inspire them to finally tweak the recipe for that pie they've brought to every Thanksgiving for the past 20 years.
Mashed Potatoes With Herbed Lemon Butter10 tablespoons unsalted butter (1-1/4 sticks), softened
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon minced lemon peel
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 pounds potatoes, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces
1-1/2 cups half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Mix butter, herbs, lemon zest, and juice in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Put potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook, partially covered, until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain. Return potatoes to the same pot.
In a small saucepan, heat half-and-half; stir into the potatoes.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of the herbed-lemon butter. Mix remaining butter into potatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mashed potatoes to large bowl. Top with butter that was set aside, and serve.
Curried Mashed Potatoes4 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small onions, chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons curry powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup heavy cream
About 1/2 cup coconut milk
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
Put potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook, partially covered, until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the curry powder, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute. Pour in the cream and simmer until thick and reduced by about half, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
When potatoes are tender, drain, return them to the same pot, and put them back over the heat to dry. Mash the potatoes until smooth, and, over very low heat, stir in the curried onion mixture. Stir in the warmed coconut milk, and season potatoes with cayenne and salt. Garnish with cilantro.
Mashed Potatoes With Prosciutto and Parmesan
3-1/4 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3-1/2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, finely chopped
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Scallions, for garnish
Put potatoes and garlic in a large pot, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook, partially covered, until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain; return potatoes and garlic to the same pot.
Meanwhile, melt 1/2 cup butter in a heavy small saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped prosciutto and cook about 2 minutes. Add 3/4 cup milk to potatoes and garlic. Mash well, adding more milk if potatoes are dry. Mix in 3/4 cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer potatoes to bowl. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup cheese; garnish with chopped scallions.
Serves 8 to 10.