the happygirl guide to perfect mashed potatoes

It started several years ago on a Thursday morning in November. We were having ten people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a very traditional meal with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. My best friend, Shereen, lived next door and the day before Thanksgiving we went shopping at Safeway. In the produce section as I grabbed cranberries Shereen looked at the list and got a 5 pound bag of  Yukon Gold potatoes. I looked at Shereen and the potatoes. "I think we need more. Do you think we need more potatoes?"

She looked from me to the potatoes. "No," she said "This is fine for ten of us, right? Do you think we need more potatoes?"

"I do. Let's get another bag." And so we left the store with ten pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes. The next morning dawned sunny and cold.  Shereen came over bright and early. We ate warm pumpkin bread and drank coffee as we started dinner. As a vegetarian the thought of sticking my hand in a cold turkey and pulling out a package of wet, pink turkey parts was too much for me. Shereen, ever the best friend did the deed as I poured the cranberries in a colander.

Next was the potatoes. We started peeling. We peeled and we peeled and we peeled. In the middle of peeling we actually had to take a break because there were so many potatoes. I looked at Shereen over the mound. "I think we need more."

"What?" she said. "Seriously. There are ten of us. "

"I know but what if people want seconds?" I smiled at her as in "Really we need to do this." Shereen laughed. "OK, let's send the boys." L. and Shereen's husband Matt made the first of several trips to Safeway that day for more potatoes and eventually heavy cream for homemade whipped cream.

We now had 15 pounds of potatoes but what we didn't realize is that we needed pots big enough to cook them. Luckily, we had several huge crab pots that we have received as wedding gifts that were in the garage unopened. Fifteen minutes later we had three enormous pots of potatoes boiling. We opened the windows once they began steaming up.

As the potatoes cooked we now had to transfer them to bowls, one enormous bowl after another until I remembered that as a wedding gift we had received this GIGANTIC stainless steel bowl that we at first thought was one of those stand alone cool sinks that you place atop a marble slab in the bathroom. L. foraged in the garage and he came into the kitchen literally with his arms around the thing. It was so big it actually fit 15 pounds of mashed potatoes. I wish we had videotaped us trying to mash 15 pounds of potatoes with 2 pounds of butter and almost half a gallon of half-and-half. Shereen and I actually had to take turns stirring this huge cauldron of mashed potatoes. We started laughing until we were crying, sending the boys (L. and Matt) into the kitchen thinking disaster had struck and we had either cut off a finger or burned the turkey.

Just so you have this in perspective, we had a regular 12 pound turkey, and the usual amount of sides you would think would work for ten people as well as a cauldron of mashed potatoes that took center stage on the kitchen island. There was a logical reason for this, you see. I grew up poor living with my young mom and my grandparents. There never was such a thing as leftovers. Sometimes if there wasn't anything to eat that night, dinner was a slice of white bread in a bowl with some milk and a little sugar. I was determined that on our first Thanksgiving in our new home we made 2800 miles from our hometown in New England that if any of our friends wanted seconds, they could have enjoy seconds or thirds. Everyone likes mashed potatoes and I was determined everyone was going to enjoy as much as they wanted.

Dinner was sensational. We're blessed to live in a cul-de-sac with wonderful neighbors. Did we eat all the mashed potatoes? Hardly. We didn't make a dent in that stainless steel sink bowl. We did, however, get a good laugh at dinner when the boys asked us to tell the story of why we were pushing mashed potatoes like they were drugs. And as everyone  left that evening, they went home with at least a one gallon Tupperware bowl of creamy deliciousness. My grandmother would have been so proud.

The potatoes were good that day but what I learned in the past few years is that I did what is a common mistake with mashed potatoes. I over whipped them with a hand mixer. That makes the potatoes gummy and hard.  Last night as my husband L. was helping raise money for breast cancer research I was making him the perfect autumn dinner of baked chicken and the most sublime mashed potatoes I'ver ever prepared. Here is the secret to the perfect mashed potatoes:

1.) The item you never knew you needed: a potato ricer. I recommend the Oxo Adjustable Potato Ricer from Williams-Sonoma. Instead of mashing down the potatoes you add the potatoes to a handheld gadget that puts enough pressure on the potatoes to squeeze the vegetable through small holes producing a mound of fluffy potatoes. You have to do it in small scoops but it is worth it.

2.) After peeling the potatoes cut the potato into even two inch squares.

3.) Use salted butter and whole milk. I tried half-and-half as well as heavy cream and skim milk but if you use Yukon Gold potatoes, whole milk and butter will give you the perfect mouth feel, not too light, gummy, heavy or gritty.

4.) When adding the butter and milk be sure to add the butter first. Cook's Illustrated says that when you add the butter first it coats the starch molecules of the potatoes. Adding milk first will make the mashed potatoes heavy and give it a gummy mouth feel.

Here is the recipe I used last night after dozens of trial and errors:

The Perfect Mashed Potatoes
2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes (it's important to use Yukon Gold potatoes. Last night measured about 8 potatoes)
1 stick of salted butter
1 cup of whole milk
salt and pepper to taste
Start a pot of boiling water.
Peel potatoes and cut into two inch cubes.
Add potatoes to water and boil for approximately 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. (At 20 minutes test a cube to see if it's cooked. It should flake using for a fork to penetrate. Taste it. It should feel smooth and not grainy.)
Add potatoes to colander to drain then add to potato ricer. Rice all the potatoes in small batches then add back to pot on low to medium heat. Divide stick of butter in 4 sections and add to potatoes. Slowly incorporate whole milk depending on how thick or thin you like your potatoes. Keep in mind that the potatoes will thicken up on the stove. Just gently fold in the butter and milk.DO NOT OVERMIX THE POTATOES or use a hand mixer. This will affect the starch in the potatoes and make them hard.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
And by the way, we heard from one of our neighbors after that Thanksgiving that their family of four had mashed potatoes and potato pancakes for an entire week after that Thanks For Mashed Potatoes Day.
Here's to making many happy dinners!

insights: the bunny who was not a coyote

Once upon a time there lived an extraordinary bunny. She was exactly what a bunny should be. Her fur was soft, white and fluffy as virgin snow, her ears were the radiant pink of a conch seashell and her jump, well, her jump had the perfect amount of ebullient bounce.

With each morning Bunny bounced out of her nest determined to be the best bunny she could be. She was careful in selecting the ripest kale and organic vegetables she could find. And when she did find a bounty of delicious vegetables she brought her family and friends in to share in her good fortune. Bunny was happy and loved.

charming things: meet me. ok.

L. and I were at the Portage Bay Cafe in downtown Seattle not long ago and when he parked the car I got out and saw this metal cover in the street. L. and I looked at it and we have no idea what it's for other than a cheeky hello.

Meet Me. OK.

charming things: the girl and the dogs

Yesterday I went for a run at Greenlake Park in Seattle. It's a beautiful space centered around a lake. There is a beach, a performing arts theatre, a kayak area,  a community center and a fairly level path that is typically filled with runners, rollerbladers, moms and dads with strollers, senior citizens and bicyclists.

I discovered this special place last year. Yes, we've now lived in Seattle for a few years now (from New England) but I never got a chance to get to know Seattle since I was always on the road for my job at MSN. When things went south in 2009/2010 I decided there was only so much grieving I could do and I needed to get out of the house. Well, to be honest, actually I needed to get out of bed. I believe that exercise helps heal you. So I found Greenlake one day, put one foot in front of the other and walked 1/2 mile then a mile and now depending on the day I'll go at least 2.8 miles around the lake. I know where the ducks like to hang out and when the new moms do yoga together out by the water. I see the same faces and we nod to each other. It feels like a community.

You never know what you'll see at Greenlake Park. I love this guy too. This senior citizen was offering Spanish lessons. When I took this photo, a young guy had just stepped up to take advantage of this cool opportunity. There are the walkers and the runners and the bikes but Greenlake also seems to draw the unique personal transportation inventions like the standing bike or the sort of homemade part skateboard part skates that I saw a guy happily using last week. Yesterday though I saw something that made every single person who walked by smile.

entertainme: reviews "footloose" and "the big year"


Remakes can be a tricky thing. Some movies more than others seem sacred like “Back to the Future,” “The Way We Were” and “Grease.” Before seeing the new remake of “Footloose” I would have said this film belongs in that category as well. And I was wrong. Happily wrong.  “Footloose” was a touchstone to a generation in the 80’s. Kevin Bacon’s ‘angry dance’ is one we all remember. You just can’t remake a film like this but thankfully director Craig Brewer (“Black Snake Moan” and “Hustle & Flow”) decided to take this on.

I’ll get to the point quickly here. Yes, see this film. Yes, you will like as much as the original. If you were a fan of the music, you’ll be pleased to know that Brewer found a clever way to keep the original “Footloose” theme song. It’s still there. It’s still good but the rest of the music has been updated in a fresh way. Featuring Kenny Wormald ("Ren MacCormack") and Julianne Hough ("Ariel Moore")  in the lead roles, “Footloose” (2011) is the story of a city kid, Ren McCormack making his mark in the small town where he moves to live with his aunt and uncle after his mom’s death. Hough is Ariel, the preacher’s daughter who struggles against living in the shadow of her dead brother. In a town where Rock n’ Roll is banned and there is a curfew, what is left to do but dance, of course.  And dance, they do. Both Wormald and Hough have dancing backgrounds which make this film thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

Stealing this film, however, is Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) as Willard, Ren’s best friend. (You’ll remember Chris Penn in the role in the original 1984 version.) With his unique humor and country boy attitude Willard is the guy you want as your wingman. I caught up with Miles recently and we talked about his role in this iconic remake.

charming places: adventuregirl log day 4: the vision quest

The Vision Quest
I know this is going to sound unbelievable. I know. My friends kiddingly call me Spock since I treasure logic but this, I can't explain so I'll just lay out the facts.
It was 6:18am when I glanced at the clock. I woke up happy and opened the sliders to the patio. The sky was still dark blue over Red Mountain Resort and the air smelled like fresh laundry drying in the sun. I noticed a bunny sleeping beneath the sage bush. I was quiet and slowly moved into a few good morning yoga poses on the red rock patio that was still warm beneath my feet and breathed in the cool desert air. I got dressed: white t-shirt / black yoga pants and my Merrell hiking shoes. Hair in a ponytail and Baby Coppertone waterproof sunscreen. I was good to go for the big day, my vision quest day.
With my backpack and my schedule I walked over to the cafe for my morning shake. I was doing the Weight Loss & Well Being Week as well as the Detox Week and I was feeling amazing. I filled up my Camelbak (a hydration backpack that has a water container that you can sip from as you hike) with ice water, got my Detox shake that the kitchen had waiting for me and stepped out into the sunshine. I needed to be ready for what was to come. Today my schedule went from 7am straight through until 10pm. I would continue to do things that challenged/scared me: Today’s two challenges among the busy schedule: hike alone into Snow Canyon and meet with a Shaman for a Life Path Reading and Sound Healing
I looked at the map the outdoor concierge had given me and I set out alone. Alone. There was no safety net here. It was a magnificent bright blue, sunny, hot 90+ degree morning. I had water and my phone which I was told would work to at least halfway through the canyon. Setting out I listened to my Western themed play list I had prepared: John Denver, Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra. Taking a left out of the resort I started hiking along the street until I hit Snow Canyon. As I walked along, I stopped to smell the sage brush. I plucked a few leaves and crushed them between my fingers. It smelled like Thanksgiving dinner. It was potent. It smelled hot. I took off my headphones to listen to the quiet. A hawk flew overhead and I heard his wings move through the air. Whisp, whisp, whisp. I decided to keep my headset off and be present to all my senses. The air was hot but dry. It felt like the sauna at my gym. I imagined the toxins leaving my body with every step I took. The effect of the red rocks against the blue sky was technicolor.

And I wasn’t alone. On this hike I saw bunnies, lizards, a rattlesnake (I was becoming good at spotting them) and several different species of birds. I found coyote tracks and scat (animal poop that identified the animal as coyote).

As I hiked I looked up at the enormous rocks/mountains and I wondered exactly how many hundreds of generations have been awed by the same question. Further on into the canyon, the rocks started to resemble things. This one looked like an alien face to me. What do you think?
My legs began to ache. I remember hearing that this was a sign of dehydration. I drank more water. I began to think about my life. I was so grateful for my husband and our dog. Sometimes when I think about that stroke of luck in that one moment that L. and I met, I am amazed at the serendipity of it. How lucky I was to be in that exact place at that exact time and here we are now. Life is such a series of moments that can be life-altering. There is such humility when I think about this. I started to think about the losses we’ve experienced as well but I wanted this week to be positive, to propel me forward. I pushed these sad, negative thoughts out of my head and hiked. Hard.

At 4 miles I knelt down on the soft sand and I stopped to thank God for my life, for all of it, for all of the amazing things that had happened and even the not so good things that had happened in my life to lead me to this very moment and what was about to come, including what was to happen later that day.
Meeting the Shaman
I am a logical girl. I worked at Microsoft and I love structure. I can’t abide clutter and I love logic puzzles. Which makes sense that I would choose a resort where medical science could help me learn how to best treat my body so it runs optimally. However, one of the reasons I chose Red Mountain was because in addition to logic and science they also offered something for my spiritual side, the otherworldly part of me.

After a morning of hiking and swimming I met Betina Lindsey, a Shaman Spirit Guide in a place called the Butterfly Building, an adobe dome structure on the far edge of the resort. When I entered Betina’s space it smelled like a cross between a campfire and incense burning in church. We said hello and she immediately turned me towards east, facing the window. I fixed my gaze on the mountains in the distance as the Shaman stood behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders and called upon the winds of the east. I closed my eyes as we turned north, west then south as she called upon the winds and the spirits. I felt tears roll down my cheeks and I know this sounds crazy but I swear to God I felt so much energy and I was afraid if I opened my eyes there were be a legion of Native American Shamans staring back at me. I kept me eyes closed tight. I realized I didn’t want to know either way.

After the opening prayers Betina led me to a chair where we spoke for a few moments. She took several stacks of cards like tarot cards out and asked me to select cards from the stacks. I complied and when dozens of cards were arrayed before us she started to turn them over. It was all good. There was one card left to be turned later. One of the cards was two people in a bowl much like that children’s nursery rhyme I vaguely remember. She smiled at me and said “You and your husband have a very good relationship.”

“Yes, that’s true. You can tell that from a bowl?”

“Yes,” she said “You’re in a BOWL!”

I nodded. “Right. We’re in a bowl. That’s good. Bowls are cozy. OK.”

After the reading the Shaman led me to an area on the floor where she asked me to choose an item from the nature collection she had assembled. I chose a seashell. She motioned for me to lay down on the sheepskin rug. As I did she placed the seashell on my sternum and I closed my eyes. She placed other items on me, a stone on my throat, one on my forehead. I pressed the logical part of my mind to be quiet, to see where this goes. Being brought up Catholic in parochial schools for 16+ years I was taught not to believe in any of this but after interviewing psychic Sylvia Browne so many times when I hosted MSN Live, there were things I couldn’t explain and I realized I had to open my mind up to religions, other beliefs like right now.

I know, again, it sounds crazy but I felt myself float. The Shaman was kneeling in front of my head with her hands holding my head softly as she prayed. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I didn’t care. I felt myself float. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. It was lovely. She asked me what I wanted out of this session. I started to cry. I told her I wanted to be a mother so much and that my heart breaks for every baby that we have lost. I hurt. I felt guilty for not being able to bring them into this life. She asked how many. I told her 9. "There were 9," I said. The Shaman was quiet for a moment and then she said we are going to love each one of these babies, kiss them and send them off to be with God. It was time for me to let them go, to not keep them bound to me forever. My tears filled my ears. It sounded like she was speaking to me underwater. I heard her say “Baby #1, we embrace you. . .your mother loves you. . .she’s letting you go be with God. . .” I don’t remember the exact words. I do remember I didn’t want to let my daughter go. We did this 8 more times, ever so softly that only the Shaman and I and the baby would hear.

Tears flowed as the Shaman created this incredible music via a drum. It sounded like the noise when you wet your finger and run it along the top of a wine glass but as she did this over my body I felt my entire body reverberate. It felt like the music, the sound was reaching into every cell of my body. (I know how this sounds, I know, but I swear to you this is the truth.)

And then it was time to open my eyes. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in this floaty moment of bliss, of pureness, of finally letting go of the guilt and the sad and the feelings of failure for losing my job and our children. I failed. I was a failure at the most basic thing in life, having a child, having a job.

I opened my eyes and saw Betina smiling at me. “How did that go?” she asked.

I sat up and shook the tears from my ears. I looked up at the Shaman. “That was amazing. I sent the babies off to be with God and they all went but the first one. Grayson stayed. She didn’t want to leave.” Betina smiled at me again. “OK.”

Betina took my hand and led me back to the chairs. There was one card left. She met my eyes then looked down at the card. I turned it over. It said “Forgiveness.” I have chills running through my body as I type this. I can’t explain this session. I can’t explain the feeling I had when I left. I felt renewed.

Later that night after dinner and yoga and several sessions I was outside by the pool. It was a little after midnight and the only light was from the pool. I was on the phone with L. I was missing him and telling him about my day, about the session with Betina and my vision quest. Throughout the call though I was distracted by a bird that kept hovering near me. Down to my head, just millimeters away from me she would swoop then back up. L. asked what it was. I was about to tell him a swallow when the hummingbird stopped maybe a foot from my face and hovered there. In the pale aqua light from the pool we stared at each other. I whispered to L. “It’s a hummingbird. This is incredible.” and then she flew away. I told L. I loved him and we said good night. I needed to go process this. As a logical girl this day was blowing my mind.

Later that night, I had the most vivid dreams of Native American faces coming towards me, not threatening, just sort of like I was at a cocktail party and they were swinging by to say hello and aren’t these canapes fantastic? I would wake up and think OK, enough. I need to sleep. I would fall back asleep and there they would be. Faces, hello, how are you? This went on all night. While at first I was scared, when I gave in and went with it I slept like a baby. I felt like I was watched over and for the first time in a very long time I didn’t feel like I had to worry.

I had been forgiven.