When it comes to comfort, you can't beat mashed potatoes. But are they chic, trendy, all the rage?
You bet they are, at least in the restaurants where this down-home staple is taking on some '90s polish, paired with the likes of roasted garlic, saffron, kalamata olives, truffles, and chives.
Why the new passion for such an old-fashioned dish? "I think it's a return of comfort food -- with a twist to it," said restaurateur Susan Daniel, owner of Tabrizi's in Federal Hill, noting that the desire for comfort seems to be a general social trend. "High-tech requires high touch," she said. "We all want to remember what Mom used to cook -- but we don't want to go to the black-eyed pea to get it."
"They're easy to eat, they're tasty -- they're food you grew up on," agreed Harold Marmelstein, Polo Grill's executive chef.
Karim Lakhani, executive chef at the Latham Hotel, credits Citronelle restaurant creator Michel Richard for putting dressed-up mashed potatoes in the trendy category.
"Citrus in L.A. started it about seven years ago, with garlic mashed potatoes and basil mashed potatoes," Mr. Lakhani said. "At one point mashed potatoes were a 'poor man's staple,' " he noted; then chefs realized how versatile they are and how easy it is to add flavor to them that will enhance a particular dish.
Diners who know Citrus or Citronelle often ask for a side order of garlic mashed potatoes if the potatoes don't come with their meal, the chef said.
"Roasted garlic was the first 'dress-up' thing" for potatoes, said Holly Forbes, executive chef at the Harbor Court Hotel. "Then leaving the lumps in. You knew you were getting real mashed potatoes if they had lumps."
Ms. Forbes ticked off the various ingredients Harbor Court chefs have added to mashed potatoes "since the whole comfort thing took off" in the past four or five years: "Kalamata olives, celery root, sweet potatoes, Parmesan cheese, white Cheddar cheese, smoked bacon, leeks -- leeks are kind of a classic."
The flavors of another classic -- lemon, parsley and garlic from the traditional Italian sauce called gremolada -- transform potatoes into what one reviewer called "heavenly puffs of white cloud" at Due in Owings Mills.
"They're very popular here," said Due chef Mark Hofmann. "People ask to substitute other vegetables on the menu for the gremolada mashed potatoes." Adding parsley and lemon to rich garlic-mashed potatoes, the chef said, gives them an appealing "lightness" on the palate.
"From a chef's standpoint, they're versatile in presentation," said Chris Cherry, chef at Tabrizi's. "Potatoes are my personal favorite thing to cook."
The trick to adding other flavors to potatoes, Mr. Cherry said, is to heat the exotic ingredients with the
liquid first. It creates a richer flavor than simply adding garlic or cilantro to the mashed potatoes.
At Paolo's restaurant in Towson, where potatoes are mashed with saffron-infused milk and served with a beet- , orange- and molasses-flavored olive oil, general manager Charles Grazioli cited another reason to put potatoes on the menu: "We kind of like to have fun with our food and our presentations," he said.
For a special of braised lamb shank, chef John Pullis mashed sweet potatoes with turnips, currants and sour cherries, and garnished them with sun-dried cherries and sour cherry juice.
"He's always looking to reinvent things," Mr. Grazioli said, "making them adult and 1990s-friendly. You take something that's an American classic, the spud, and give the meat and potatoes customer something that makes his eyes pop out."
The first recipe is from Ms. Forbes at the Harbor Court Hotel.
Mashed Potatoes and Parsnips
1 pound potatoes (not new potatoes), peeled and cut into large chunks
2 good-sized parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 tablespoons butter (or to taste)
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
salt and pepper to taste
Drop potatoes and parsnips into boiling, salted water. Cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. Press through a food mill or ricer or use your favorite mashing implement.
Stir in cream and butter to desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at once.
The next recipe is from Mr. Marmelstein.
Garlic-Goat Cheese Whipped Potatoes
3 large Yukon Gold or other yellow-flesh potatoes
3 ounces soft goat cheese (no ash)
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled, split in half lengthwise, sprout removed
3 tablespoons soft butter
3 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Peel and quarter the potatoes. Place in pan with plenty of cold water with a pinch of salt and bring to boil. Turn down and simmer and cook until tender. Drain and slightly dry potatoes over medium heat in dry pan until moisture is gone.
Heat cream and garlic and cook slowly until garlic is tender. Strain garlic out and keep cream warm.
Mash potatoes and add cream, butter, creme fraiche, goat cheese and season to taste. Whip by hand or in mixer until potatoes are light and fluffy. Serve hot.