This story is about potatoes. Actually, it’s about onions and carrots as well. I won’t write about how potatoes traveled across continents over the centuries, or even about how many different kinds of potato are cultivated where I live in the Netherlands — this despite the fact that I believe that culinary history is as fascinating as the most thrilling plot to a novel.
My narrative will lead to the recipe for a bowl of superbly simple mashed root vegetables. This humble, crumbly, creamy one-pan dinner is an icon in the country I live in. It goes by the name of hutspot (which literally translated means a hodge podge or a mishmash). The term refers to the technique of mixing things together in a pot, not necessarily or exclusively to the ever-popular trio of onions, carrots and potatoes.
While the name hutspot can be traced back to the sixteenth century, this type of cooking has gone by the name of stamppot (or mashed pot) for a little more than one hundred years. The stamppot defines Dutch home-cooked fast food; it refers to mashes of potatoes with in-season vegetables of all sorts. Although it is considered “not done” to serve a mash-up of any kind at a dinner party, this technique not only creates the ultimate form of comfort food; it is a perfect example of a down-to-earth cooking method that has been effortlessly passed on by generations of cooks and homemakers. Needless to say, this is the kind of thing that makes my heart beat faster because I am convinced that our connection to the world is to be found between the garden and the kitchen
The general guidelines to making either a hutspot or a stamppot are straightforward. The potatoes are washed and peeled. They are then put in a pan with just enough salted cold water to cover. The potatoes are brought to a boil and then a simmer until soft enough to mash. Especially in winter, root vegetables are cooked together in the same pot, which is not only efficient but imparts extra flavor to the main ingredient: namely, the potato. In spring and summer fresh greens and even lettuces are washed, diced and stirred into the warm mashed potatoes which makes for a refreshing alternative to winter’s more substantial kind of nourishment.
The proportion between the potato and the chosen vegetable in a stamppot is generally equal in measure and this is what makes a bowl of Dutch mash so delicious. There are as many vegetables in the bowl as potato, and oddly enough one doesn’t miss a larger amount of potato, or even notice the lightness that the vegetables give. Eating them together is as comforting as eating a bowl of porridge and is a reminder of oh so many childhood-memory foods served with a spoon. This is I believe what makes a mashed pot like the stamppot so irresistible.
The size of the cut vegetables is a personal choice, but generally speaking all ingredients cook best when cut in roughly the same size. In this sense the cooking technique reminds me of the preparation of a vegetable-based risotto. I have yet to come across a hutspot or stamppot recipe calling for a vegetable or meat-based broth, but this is certainly possible. Once cooked the vegetables are drained and either mashed (gestampt in Dutch) or stirred together with a large wooden spoon (also known as husselen).
It is of importance to note that in the Netherlands potatoes are never pureed with a mixer or an immersion blender because these little machines transform the structure of the potatoes into something that resembles wallpaper glue. Being the foreigner I am, I made this mistake often, particularly in the first few years I moved here. I have now learned the tricks to the trade and I use an old-fashioned potato masher, because in fact a good mash is both chunky and smooth, and of course, prepared by hand.
Traditionally, a knob of butter and a splash of milk is added to the pot once the potatoes are drained, to give some extra creaminess to the mash. The only spices in a traditional stamppot are salt, pepper and a sprinkling of nutmeg. Some of my friends add a little spoon of local spicy mustard to their mash, and this is definitely a welcome flavor addition. Almost inevitably, a savory meat is served to complete the dish: think smoked sausage, fried pork belly or homemade meatballs.
Although meat and potatoes are a classic pair, it is definitely not required. In modern versions of the stamppot, toppings of all sorts from roasted nuts to cheese and spice crumbles bring texture, color and flavor to the basic ingredients.
As far as the traditional preparation of a hutspot is concerned, one simply peels and dices the potatoes, onions and carrots in equal quantity until tender. As explained above, butter, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg give the mash all the extra flavor it needs. The result is certainly satisfying, and I recommend trying it the old-fashioned way. What’s more, following this method, dinner is on the table in just under twenty minutes. This is something I like to call real fast food.
Since I like different textures on my plate, I prefer to treat my carrots and onions to some roasting in the oven while the potatoes boil, rather than boiling all ingredients together like a traditional hutspot. This only adds about ten minutes of extra cooking time and I think it makes for a dish that is perfect even for a dinner party. Below is my recipe twist for hutspot, but please feel free to cook according tow what works best in your kitchen !
Ingredients for a generous portion for four
- 800 grams of organically grown potatoes
- 400 grams of fresh carrots
- 400 grams of organic onions, peeled
- a half a bunch of new spring onions . optional
- a generous spoon of sea salt
- a dash of coarsely ground white pepper
- freshly ground nutmeg to taste
- in spring: a big handful of in season fresh greens like purslane or turnip tops
- a good knob of organic unsalted butter
- or two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- one organic lemon
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Wash and peel the potatoes and put them in their pot of water with a generous spoon of sea salt. Bring the potatoes to a boil. Meanwhile peel the onions and slice them into paper-thin wedges. Wash and peel the carrots (save the peels and the top for another purpose by the way !) Cut the carrots in half lengthwise. Wash the spring onions, if using, and cut them in half lengthwise as well. Set all the vegetables aside for a moment. Wash the purslane (or raw greens of your choice) a few times in a fresh bowl of water and let them drip dry in a colander.
Cover an oven tray with parchment paper and spread the carrots and spring onions in an even layer across the tray. Sprinkle the carrots with the juice of a half a lemon and a pinch of sea salt flakes. Cover a second oven platter with parchment paper and spread out the sliced onions over the entire surface. Sprinkle the onions with sea salt flakes and some freshly ground white pepper (although black pepper works just fine too).
Place both trays in the oven. Check to make sure the potatoes are boiling and almost cooked. Bake the carrots about fifteen minutes or until lightly caramelized, yet tender. Remove the carrots from the oven. As soon as they are cool enough to touch, chop half of them and put them in the pot with the boiling potatoes. Set the other half aside for plating. Toss the onions and gather them towards the middle of the oven platter. Bake them ten more minutes until nice charred edges appear here and there. Meanwhile coarsely chop most of the purslane, saving some pretty leaves for decoration if you are in the mood.
Drain the potatoes, saving a bit of the cooking liquid, in case it is needed to add creaminess to the mash. Return the potatoes to the empty but still warm pot. Add half the caramelized onions. Squeeze in the juice of the lemon. Add the olive oil and mash the whole lot with a potato masher (see note above). Taste the hutspot for the right balance between salty, fresh and savory. Add sea salt, olive oil, lemon juice, freshly ground pepper or even a dash of nutmeg until the flavor is just right.
Put a big handful of purslane in each bowl and top it with the warm potato, carrot and onion hutspot. Top the mash with some delicious caramelized onions. Decorate each plate with a few roasted carrots for flavor. Enjoy this bowl of goodness with friends and a big spoon.
The hutspot, with or without greens, is a meal in itself. Then again, I love vegetables ! Those who feel so inclined can serve it with smoked sausage and a dollop of fine Dutch (or Dijon) mustard. It also tastes wonderful with grilled fish. The possibilities are endless really! You could even add a spoon of your favorite baked beans to your bowl.
Long before the potato arrived in northern Europe, the parsnip served a similar purpose. Try making hutspot in the fall or winter, when parsnips are pale ivory in color and as sweet as sweet potatoes to the taste.