What you see above is not ground mustard or white pepper gone bad. Or gold. It is nutritional yeast. But we will have to come back to that in a moment.
First, let’s talk about Thanksgiving and specifically about an important side dish: mashed potatoes. This one’s for you, Michelle.
My mother is quite famous for her creamy, parmesan mashed potatoes. I remember eating them as a kid, scooping seconds and thirds onto my plate, and the only thing I can compare them to is a puppy with a mean streak – they are sweet and fluffy looking with a mean bite.
When I switched to a low sodium diet, however, parmesan and a lot of other cheeses were suddenly off limits. But I quickly learned that the decadence of velvety mashed potatoes didn’t have to be.
There are three things you need this holiday season to create truly outstanding mashed hash that will stand up to (if not outdo) your favorite childhood recipes: 1) technique, 2) special ingredients, and 3) genius dairy substitutes.
When it comes to making mashed potatoes, you have two choices – make it chunky or make it smooth. And just a tip from the chef, neither option involves a blender or a a food processor. That’s how you make glue, not a side dish.
If you do not have any special tools, like a ricer or a food mill, a smashed potato recipe is the way to go. Boil or steam your spuds until they are soft and then use a masher or a fork to break them down. It’s that simple. And most recipes actually call for the skin to be left on, resulting in less work and dish that has a charming, rustic look. For extra flare, you can also pop your tots in the oven for a quick broil before serving. The top layer will become brown and crisp, adding interesting texture to an otherwise simple meal.
If you do have a ricer or food mill (thank you, wedding registry), you can create those silky looking pillows of potatoes you remember from childhood, or famous cookbooks, or KFC commercials. One of my favorite recipes that I’ve seen is from Serious Eats, from Mark Peel, for lump-free, restaurant quality potatoes. Peel steams his potatoes and then passes them through a ricer. And with just a little extra seasoning – unsalted butter and pepper – the potatoes are done and perfect.
A few years ago, with help from my man friend and brother, I treated my parents to a delicious Thanksgiving lunch (just to warm up for the family dinner) that had all the fixings. While I spiced and rubbed and stewed the meats and veggies, it was really the mashed potatoes that had stolen my heart and my attention. I was determined to make them so delicious and flavorful that there wouldn’t be a drop left for leftovers.
I decided to make them creamy and I also decided to pack them full of unexpected flavors. I browned butter, roasted garlic, and made pesto which were all then blended into or layered on top of the potatoes. I scooped portions of the good stuff into individual ramekins and covered them with grated low sodium cheese. I broiled them to melt the cheese, giving it a nice brown color and crunch, and just because I could, I topped each with a fried basil leaf.
Sure, this first try out of the low sodium gate was a bit overkill – were there even potatoes in there? – but it was a wonderful lesson in all the possibilities available from taking your spuds from simple to simply genius.
Potatoes are a great culinary canvass and they work well with everything from herbs to orange to horseradish and wasabi. So feel free to play around with one or two (or in my case, twenty five) special ingredients to make your potatoes more complex.
And now, we finally get back to where we started. Nutritional yeast. If you haven’t ever tried it before, head to the bins at your local Whole Foods or health store (the crunchier the market, the more likely you will find nutritional yeast).
Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast. It is popular in vegan and vegetarian cooking and get this, it is naturally low in sodium -booyah – and high in B12. Apparently, it is quite popular in Australia and New Zealand, so I’ll be on the lookout for it.
I first discovered nutritional yeast when someone sprinkled it on popcorn. I thought, just by the name, that this was going to be disgusting. Yesast does not sound appealing. But in truth, it was delicious. It was nutty, it was umami, it was cheesy – it was the perfect parmesan substitute. And it is a wonderful secret low sodium weapon to have on hand.
Sprinkle a little into or on top of your mashed potatoes, or green bean casserole, or low sodium garlic bread and give your taste buds a parmesan-like treat without the salt. But do be warned, while the product does not contain any MSG it has been known to cause similar side effects in some people, like bad headaches. So do be conscious of how it makes you feel. Full and satisfied is a good thing. Headachey and crabby is not.
Of course, if you are looking for more classic cheese additions for your potatoes, you have a few great low sodium options.
If the recipe calls for ingredients like sour cream or cream cheese, use creme fraiche or mascarpone instead. If it calls for milk, replace it with heavy cream or go completely wild and really defy tradition by using coconut milk and a dash of curry powder. And finally, if the dish requires a melted layer of cheese on top of the potatoes, use a low sodium cheese (like Heluva Good Cheddar – 25mg per serving) or even some crumbled ricotta (just check the label).
If you thought creamy, exciting, mouth-watering mashed potatoes were off the table, think again. Having to make them low sodium does not exclude them from your Thanksgiving feast; it actually forces you to be more creative instead. And while you can’t make your mother’s parmesan mashed potatoes like she did, you will definitely come up with a recipe that is all your own.
As a side-note: with only three days left until Thanksgiving, feel free to send me your cooking questions. Don’t let a low sodium diet stand in your way from stuffing your face until you have to unbutton your pants.