When I was growing up, dinner was nearly always about meat and two vegetables. Even when one went out to a restaurant (we’re talking the early seventies here), there would be an hors d’hoeuvre or starter followed by meat and two vegetables. No one was embarassed by the tried and test formula of meat and two veg but, by and by, as interest in better-quality, more varied and healthier food grew to the proportions that we know today, it happened that the expression “Meat and two veg” came to be associated with the epitome of the humdrum and unimaginative as dining experiences go.
This is something I deeply contest. I think that the meat and two veg approach is a life saver for anyone who has had a very busy midweek working day and is looking forward to something nourishing and tasty and satisfying for dinner without having to ‘think’ too much or bend over backwards fretting about technique.
This post is not about meat … so let’s talk about the veg. Or rather … about one particular ‘veg’ that was unquestionably the mainstay of the stipulated twosome …
The word for a vegetable side dish in Italian is “contorno” which means “countour” … meaning that the vegetable in question should follow an act, so to speak, it should be part of the “contour” of the main meat or fish dish. Contorno may sound much fancier than vegetable-side-dish but it resolutely remains a vegetable for all that. I love vegetables myself and can’t think of a meal without at least two contorni (hence the title of this post!) but some veggies take longer than others to prepare and some veggies are available only when in-season and some veggies are a meal unto themselves. And so this beggars the question: Which veg is comfortable at any meal, be it feisty and frugal, or posh nosh b’gosh? Which veg is beloved by all generations, cheap, versatile, available almost anywhere in the world as well as being available all year round, and too good to resist?
The stud spud of course! And can we please stop calling it the humble potato! We all grew up fearing its calory load — even Ernest Heminway has his heroine fretting over potatoes in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”– but still tucked into its deliciousness anyway. I don’t know anyone who can resist chips, French fries, frittes, patatine fritte …. with or without ketchup, with or without mayonnaise. And when I was pregnant the first time, crisps were what I craved ! For those who have a diabetic condition, the glycaemic index of potatoes is indeed high and thus requires caution. For the fortunate rest of us, however, potatoes are full of many ‘goodies’ that are not often celebrated enough (they contain potassium for instance and if you eat them at night, they apparently aid a good night’s sleep).
If you do not like mash potatoes … you can stop reading right here. If you want to know how mash potatoes are made in Italy (with the addition of parmesan cheese), then read on.
Here are some potatoes, peeled and cut up into four. If you cut them up, it takes less time for them to boil. Since they are going to be mashed up anyway and have milk added to them, there is really no need to keep them ‘dry’ by leaving their skin on (the way one would when making potatoes for gnocchi, for instance). Do not add salt to the water, however.
Milk … butter … grated parmesan cheese. Keep these at the ready, together with salt and a pinch of nutmeg. You will also need a suitable ‘implement’ : either a potato masher or a potato ricer (see below). The potato ricer indubitably gives the best results. If you are lacking in both … then your only solution is a fork but you will probably not achieve the creamy velvety smoothness of the mash potatoes that we are talking about here.
On the left is the potato ricer and on the right is a potato masher.
Here are the potatoes after they have been drained and are still steaming hot (they boiled for just under 20 minutes starting in cold water).
Put the boiled potatoes inside the potato ricer, as many as will fit snugly, and then press firmly ….
It’s actually quite a satisfying task to carry out … and the mechanical mastery of transforming lumps of potato into soft snowy flakes is enough to make anyone proud
When all the potatoes have been passed through the ricer, put them back inside the saucepan, together with the butter (which is melting), a good pinch of salt and another of freshly ground nutmeg.
Pour in the milk …
And add the grated parmesan cheese … as much or as little as you like. A useful rule of thumb is one spoonful per potato used.
Mash potatoes need to be served hot but they can be prepared, to a certain degree, a little in advance. You can boil them, press them and put them back in the saucepan, adding milk and parmesan as shown above, and let them be until it is time to serve them. At this point, you would turn the heat on again. And proceed as follows:
Use a wooden spoon to mix well and then get ready for the final part of Operation Mash Potato. This involves the use of a whisk. If you haven’t got a big enough whisk, then use the wooden spoon instead.
Whisk vigorously to incorporate as much air as possible into the potatoes ….
and transfer this lovely, lovely, lovely ‘veg’ onto the serving dish to be deservingly adored and enjoyed.
It is, in its simplicity, utterly perfect … or ‘perfick’ as Pop Larkin of “The Darling Buds of May” fame would say. Just perfick …
Meat and two veg? Not TOO shabby, eh ….!