Hacks from my Happy Place – XV

I want to use this article to talk specifically about one item. That item is mashed potatoes.

I grew up with mashed potatoes being a staple as a side dish. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive at any time of the year and the fact that they are a product filled with starch means that they are very filling, always good for the budget-conscious.

The process I learned growing up about making them was pretty basic. Peel and dice the potatoes. Put in a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until potatoes are tender. Drain. Add butter (margarine) and some milk and begin to mash (by hand or with an electric mixer). Add milk as needed to acquire the desired consistency. Place in serving bowl. Serve.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that process, and it is continued on routinely.

However, one of the things about peeling potatoes is that all of the vitamins and minerals are in the peel of the potato, not in the meat of it. Once a potato has been peeled, it has pretty much lost any of its nutritional value. Perhaps that is why we see restaurants starting to use red or fingerling potatoes – any potato that has a very thin skin – and leaving some, or all, of the skin on the potato for boiling and serving.

Here’s my thing about that, and why I love it so much. You see, in addition to keeping some nutritional value, I’ve begun to abhor the task of peeling and dicing potatoes. It’s such a time-consuming and monotonous chore! I’ve been lucky enough to discover that my bestie’s husband likes this chore (probably because he likes to nibble on raw potato pieces while he’s doing it!), and this has allowed me the freedom of not feeling like I’m a slave to it!

My bestie is lactose-intolerant. (My bestie is also intolerant of having to cook, by the way!) Since we do Thanksgiving and Christmas together, it is my task to do the actual mashing of the potatoes without using milk. And this is not a problem! You see, one day when I was watching Rachel Raye, she talked about using the potato water instead of milk, suggesting that the potato water is full of the potato flavor. I tried it – and she was right! The actual flavor of the potato was much more prominent and added a vibrancy to the taste! I’ve been making them that way ever since!

Now, I admit, I’m still lazy about the peeling potatoes process, so I have succumbed to the instant potatoes method for myself. If I’m going to be covering the potatoes with something like gravy, or the sauerkraut from pork and sauerkraut, the potatoes assume that flavor, and it all works out. When I really DO want the flavor or real mashed potatoes, I simply use red potatoes and leave the skins on because, they are very thin skins and because, I’m keeping the nutritional value. Win-Win!

I know, from experience, that when you are going to go through the task of making real mashed potatoes, you make more than you anticipate needing to feed however many people you are feeding! Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is not about “waste not, want not” – it’s about “food aplenty” and “leftovers”! So, what can you do with leftover mashed potatoes?

Of course, they can be re-heated via the microwave or in a saucepan with a little extra butter (margarine) to re-moisten them. But how many days in a row do you want them again, especially when you’ve finished off the rest of the leftovers from the original meal? Now what?

The answer is two words: Potato Cakes. Potato cakes are basically leftover mashed potatoes, with a few extra ingredients, turned into a batter that you make like pancakes! The basic recipe is one cup of flour for two cups of potatoes (you can guesstimate this without measuring the potatoes) and one egg for each two cups of potatoes. From there, you can make different varieties. As a side dish to another entrĂ©e, add chopped onion (optional), salt, pepper and any other seasonings you feel are appropriate. For example, you can add Italian seasoning if you are serving them with something that it tomato-sauce based. You can actually turn them into breakfast by adding a little bit of vanilla to the batter, (omitting the salt, pepper and onions) and serve with syrup. Get creative and add some blueberries or chocolate chips or whatever else you might put in pancake batter! If you have a lot of leftover mashed potatoes, mix them thoroughly with the flour and egg and then divide – make a batch of savory AND a batch of sweet! The batter can be refrigerated for a couple of days, and you might just need to add a little bit of water to thin it back down before using!

Mashed potatoes do freeze. As with refrigerating, they may appear a little ‘watery’. Just stir them up until the liquid is absorbed back in and reheat. You can also freeze them in two-cup batches and thaw them out to make potato cakes. So go ahead!! Peel, dice and cook a whole slew of potatoes to make mashed potatoes while going through the effort, and you’ll have a variety of options for the leftovers without having the task of peeling, dicing and boiling again!

Happy Mashed Potatoes, my friends! Any way you make them, they are yum, yum good!

Good old creamy mashed potatoes!
Crunchy potato cakes! Yes, please!

Hacks from My Happy Place – III

If you’re like most people I know, you serve meals with an ‘entree’, a ‘starch’ and a ‘vegetable’. That was what was considered a balanced meal when I was growing up. My mom tended to use canned vegetables because they were handy and just needed heating. We all liked corn the best, peas, green beans, wax beans and carrots were tolerable. My older brother and I fought over the lima beans (which we didn’t get very often!). Most of the time, there were always a couple of spoonfuls of the canned veggies that were left over at the end of the meal – not enough to save for any reason – so they were disposed of when cleaning up afterwards.

If that’s something that happens at your house, STOP! Stop throwing those leftover veggies away! Instead, drain any of the liquid and place them in a large zippered bag and toss it in your freezer! Every time you have a little bit of a leftover vegetable, drain it and add it to the bag. Pretty soon you’ll have a collection of mixed vegetables similar to the bags of frozen mixed vegetables in your grocery store’s freezer section. And why do those bags exist? Well, they are perfect for use when it gets cold and a big pot of vegetable soup is a hearty, warming meal! Add some beef broth (vegetable broth for you vegetarians out there), a can of diced tomatoes, juice and all, and voila, you have soup! Of course, you can add beef, whether leftover from a cooked beef roast or browned hamburger if you’re watching your budget but want to add meat. Without adding meat, that big pot of soup will, when you make it, cost you only the purchase of broth and a can of tomatoes – you basically have the veggies for free!

For this next hack, I need to give credit to Rachel Ray. I saw her do this on one of her shows, tried it, and never looked back…. Did you know that the tastiest, creamiest mashed potatoes are made without milk? I grew up learning that milk and butter (margarine) were added to cooked potato pieces to turn them into mashed potatoes. But now – and since long before I had a lactose-intolerant guest join me for meals – the secret is to use some of the starchy water from cooking the potatoes in place of milk. Most of the flavor and taste of the potato cooks out into the boiling water. By using this water instead of milk, you actually add some of that taste back in! I was surprised at the deeper flavor of potato the first time I tried this!!! I’ve also found that my mashed potatoes seem creamier. To try this, simply drain some of the potato water into a measuring cup, equal to the amount of milk you think you’d add. Melt your butter/margarine over the potatoes after they are drained and start mashing them. Then simply add the water, some at a time, until you reach the level of creaminess you desire. Then taste them! That’s right – sneak a forkful or spoonful for yourself and taste them! Life changer!

Growing up with PA Dutch heritage, summer was all about pickling. While many of you enjoy ‘red beet eggs’, I learned to pickle the beets and then make pickled eggs. My mom canned bread and butter pickles, and made a sliced cucumber and onions dish that was also pickled. If you’ve ever seen Harvard Beets in your grocery store, Harvard beets are just pickled beets with the juice thickened. If you’ve ever sampled something called Chow-Chow, you’re eating pickled raw vegetables. Pickling is very easy. The key to remember is two parts sugar to one part cider vinegar. With the red beets, you just add this to the juice you get from the canned beets. The best pickled dishes are left to marinate for at least 3 days in the picklimg juices, which allows the flavor to permeate the item(s) you’re pickling. Seriously, if you like pickles, try pickling fresh veggies of different kinds. At a picnic on a hot summer day, the taste is refreshing and cool!

If you have some hacks or hints that serve you well in the kitchen, please share them with me through the comments box. If I share them in a future blog, you’ll get full credit!