Skip to content

Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Simplicity of the Perfect Potato

March 10, 2021

If I could only choose one vegetable to eat for the rest of my life the choice would be easy.

I like asparagus, but the only way I eat it is roasted. Carrots are nice, but not very versatile. If I never again had to eat broccoli or cauliflower for the rest of my life, I would die a happy man. I eat a lot of beans and peas, but if forced to choose, I would have a hard time choosing just one variety. The hipsters can have all of the Brussels sprouts they want, as they hold no appeal to me— never have, never will, no matter what you do to disguise the flavor. I love spinach, but that particular leafy green isn’t adaptable enough to spend the rest of my days eating it. Celery is bland, cucumbers make me burp, squash is boring, so is zucchini, kale is nasty, and cabbage stinks.

Tomatoes are a fruit. Though if they were a vegetable, they would be in close contention.

The choice for me would be simple. If I had to eat only one vegetable for the rest of my life it would be potatoes. The basic, unassuming, white Idaho potato gives me more joy and happiness in the food world than any other vegetable.

Talk about versatility? The potato is your guy. He can be scalloped, baked, chipped, mashed, fried, and souffle’d. French fries make people happy. It’s true. I have always believed that it’s hard not to be happy while eating a French fry.

Potatoes are almost always my go-to vegetable, but mashed potatoes might be the king of all vegetable side dishes. It’s the ultimate comfort-food side dish. There is beauty in simplicity. A perfectly mashed potato is certainly a thing of beauty.

I have excellent recall when it comes to food and can tell anyone where and when I ate the best version of a particular dish. The two best mashed potato dishes I have eaten in my life were from my friend and famed New Orleans chef, Frank Brigtsen’s and at my grandmother’s dining room table (and I’d have a hard time choosing a winner between the two).

As a child I spent hundreds of lunches and dinners at my grandmother’s house. She always served one of two starches— rice and gravy or mashed potatoes. No matter what the protein— and it was usually fried chicken, roast beef, turkey, or leg of lamb— rice and potatoes ruled the day.

My grandmother’s mashed potatoes were lumpier than most. I find that people fall into two camps when it comes to mashed potatoes— pro lumps or no lumps. I love lumpy mashed potatoes. I also don’t mind the skin included in a batch of mashed potatoes although my grandmother never served hers that way.

At his New Orleans Riverbend shotgun house mainstay Brigtsen serves mashed potatoes that would rival any vegetable at any restaurant at any level. Brigtsen has a keen talent for seafood preparation and has forgotten more about Creole cooking than I’ll ever know. Though years ago, I ate his version of mashed potatoes as a side dish to accompany a nightly feature he was offering, and I can remember thinking to myself, “This is perfection. Seriously, true perfection.”

It is rare to achieve perfection in the culinary world. Though I can always judge the quality of a restaurant by how well they prepare chicken and potatoes. If one can impress and dazzle with dishes as plain and simple as chicken and potatoes, the likelihood of what they can do with more complicated and complex vegetables and proteins is a good bet going forward.

This past Thanksgiving, I finally cooked a batch of mashed potatoes that I believe would rival my grandmother’s or Brigtsen’s versions. My mashed potato cooking process has evolved over the years. I peel and cube potatoes and let them soak in water for several hours. I boil them in salted water and then drain them in the sink once a knife inserted into the cooked potato releases freely. After draining, I return them to the dry, but-still-hot pot which is key to help excess moisture evaporate.

The next step is one in which I have never written down portion amounts, but I take half and half, butter, and sour cream and combine them all in a container and heat them up on the stovetop (or in the microwave). Once the three wet ingredients are heated (not boiling) and stirred well, I gradually add the hot liquid mixture to the hot cubed potatoes in the pot. I still have my grandmother’s potato masher and hand mashing potatoes is the only way to go for perfect lumpiness. I alternate adding liquid and hand mashing until I reach my desired level of lump to mash. Salt and pepper are stirred in at the end. Mashed potatoes— to my taste— need a lot of salt, and even more pepper.

Again, there is beauty in simplicity, and it doesn’t get any simpler— or more enjoyable— than perfectly mashed potatoes.


This week’s recipe: Frank Brigtsen’s Mashed Potatoes

Recent Posts

My Kind Of Town

CHICAGO— No one would ever accuse me of being a creature of habit. Other than my morning breakfast routine, I…

Read more

My Top 25 Cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows,…

Read more

Travel Connections

QUEENS, NEW YORK— After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing—…

Read more