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Nathan Wood: Mulling over mashed potatoes and gravy, part three

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published November 19, 2012

Though praising and bashing the eats in Ann Arbor is my customary modus operandi, I’m shifting course a bit this time around in honor of Turkey Day. Join me as I mix together a few family favorites, a blue-ribbon culinary technique or two and some real-deal tips and tricks that — served with a pinch of sarcasm — will have you cooking up the perfect Thanksgiving dinner in no time. In this third installment of my five-part Thanksgiving series, we’re whipping together every kid’s favorite: mashed potatoes and gravy.

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without a pulvinate portion of potatoes and a generous glug of gravy. I would know.

I still remember — like an unrelenting nightmare — the wretched Thanksgiving when my family decided pan drippings from the roasted turkey would suffice as gravy. My favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner … gone. I think I cried myself to sleep that night.

But worry not! By following these simple recipes (and not in the footsteps of my lazy family members), you’ll be well on your way to a table of smiling faces and satisfied stomachs.

Mashed Potatoes Ingredients:

5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
½ cup (1 stick) softened butter
4 ounces softened cream cheese
4 ounces sour cream
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt (plus more, to taste)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Peel the potatoes and chop them into rough, two-inch cubes. Better yet, find someone else to do this for you. Throw them into a large pot and cover with cold water. The reason we’re using cold water — besides it being unnecessarily dangerous to kerplunk chunks of potato into boiling water — is that they cook more evenly this way. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 30 minutes.

Check that your potatoes are fully cooked by poking them with a fork. If you can achieve this feat without meeting any resistance from the potatoes, then they’re ready to be mashed.

Strain the spuds in a colander and promptly transfer them back to the empty pot. Use a potato masher for no more than a few seconds to get a preliminary mash. Add the rest of the ingredients and go to town. Though we’re trying to eliminate all major chunks, we’re not shooting for wheatpaste, so mash responsibly.

Serve in one of those big china dishes you only get to use on Thanksgiving with your nicest serving spoon and a pat of salty butter. Voilà! Silky, dense, creamy, rich potatoes guaranteed to please everyone (except calorie-counting Cousin Connie).

Now, onto that gravy.

The secret to making a large quantity of high-quality gravy is being clever. Since there are rarely enough pan drippings to make a sufficient amount of gravy, we’re going to have to get some help from the store. But, if we’re tasteful about it, no one has to know.

Gravy Ingredients:

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
¼ cup turkey fat
½ cup flour
1 cup skimmed turkey drippings
1 cup homemade turkey broth
1 can (2 cups) store-bought turkey broth
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

Set a two-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and turkey fat. To obtain the turkey fat, pour all pan drippings into a bowl and let rest until the turkey fat rises to the top. Skim off a quarter of a cup and discard the remaining fat.

Add the flour, and mix to thoroughly combine. Cook this paste, known as a “roux," for a minute or so until lightly browned. This gets that raw taste out of the roux so that by the time we’re finished, it may look like paste, but it won’t taste like it.

This part requires a lot of concentration and a strong arm: Add the cup of homemade turkey broth — which we made in last week’s column— to the saucepan little by little while whisking vigorously. Do not stop whisking or you’ll get lumpy gravy. Continue whisking vigorously while adding the remaining wet ingredients.

Season with poultry seasoning, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Crank the heat up high and continue stirring until bubbles begin to form. It’s at this time that you’ve achieved peak gravy thickness. Cooking the gravy for much longer will cause the thickening power of the roux to break down, yielding runny gravy, so set the heat to low and keep the gravy uncovered on the stove until ready to serve.

With a subtle kick from the garlic powder, complexity from the Worcestershire sauce, deep flavor from the slow-roasted turkey and richness from the butter, no one will ever guess you used store-bought broth. But just to prove my point, pull out a spoonful of the velvety gravy every time someone walks by, blow on it and — while cupping your hand beneath the steaming spoon — say: “Here, try this.” Watch their faces light up, accept their compliments and take pride in the fact you’ve made gravy fit for the gods.