Mashed Potatoes in the Summer? When It's Greek Skordalia, Absolutely

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Think mashed potatoes and you're probably thinking something warm, hearty, and filling, perfect for cold weather. At least, that's where my mind goes. But it doesn't have to be that way—mashed potatoes can make a fine hot-weather dish. What I'm talking about specifically is skordalia, Greece's cold purée of potatoes with garlic.

Well, technically, skordalia isn't always a purée of potatoes. It's defined not by them but by the garlic, which is always suspended in some type of starchy base. Sometimes that base is made from potatoes, sometimes from bread; either way, nuts are often added as well. But because my experience with skordalia has almost always been with the potato kind, that's what I gravitate toward, and it's what I'm sharing here today. It's delicious as a snack or appetizer with toasts or pita, or served alongside roasted vegetables or meats. It's also incredibly versatile: Eat it as a dip, as a spread, or as a condiment. Its assertive garlic flavor means you won't eat nearly as much as you would classic mashed potatoes, so a small amount goes a long way. In the heat of summer, when appetites wane, that's a good thing.

It's overall a relatively simple affair, but I still had a few questions to settle for myself when testing my recipe. The first was the ratio of ingredients. That's easy enough—after surveying a number of recipes and testing out a representative range of ratios, I settled on about a pound of potatoes, a half cup of blanched almonds, about three-quarters of a cup of olive oil, a quarter cup of acid (in the form of vinegar or lemon juice), and anywhere from four to six cloves of garlic, depending on how strong you want the flavor to be. (Four gives you "quite" garlicky, while six gives you more of a "wow, that's a lot of garlic" level.)

Next, I played with the potatoes, trying both silky Yukon Golds and starchy russets. I had high hopes for the Yukons, imagining that their smoother texture could lend itself well to this dip, but my mind was changed as soon as I tried them side by side. The russets made a lighter, creamier dip that I definitely preferred.

To cook the potatoes, I followed our basic mashed potato method, peeling and dicing the potatoes, rinsing off their surface starches, then simmering them in well-salted water until tender. After draining, the potatoes get one more rinse under running water to wash off any last traces of surface starch. All this rinsing helps prevent them from becoming gluey later when you mash and mix them.

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I like to transfer the cooked and rinsed potatoes to a hot oven for several minutes to help drive off some of their surface moisture, since we'll be adding plenty of moisture back later in the form of oil and an acid.

The versions of skordalia that I've eaten have generally had a marked tartness from acids like lemon juice and wine vinegar. I tried both, and if I had to choose, I'd go with the sharper flavor of wine vinegar here, whether red or white. (Although, if you have both lemons and wine vinegar on hand, a combination is especially good.)

The final variable I played with was the nut-and-garlic mixture that gets worked into the potatoes. I tried a mortar and pestle, which we often recommend for these types of pulverizing jobs (see pesto, curry paste, and guacamole), but I soon gave up once I realized what an impossible chore it was to crush whole almonds to a paste that way.*

* In an attempt to make the mortar and pestle work, I even tried almond flour, which is just finely ground almonds, but its flavor was nowhere near as good as that of freshly pulverized ones.

That left me with the food processor, which I quickly embraced as the best tool for this particular job. Not only does it make short work of the almonds, it lets us use another cool technique from the bag of tricks we're always adding to: blending the garlic in an acidic environment to reduce its harshness. It's a method Kenji picked up from the chef Michael Solomonov; you can read more about it in Kenji's piece on hummus. But in short, blending garlic in the presence of acid reduces the formation of its harshest flavor compounds. What that means is that you get tons of garlic flavor with a lot less of the burn.

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To do it, I just toss the garlic and almonds into a food processor with the vinegar (and/or lemon juice) and some cold water, and process them until a paste forms. Taste skordalia made with that acid-blended garlic next to a batch made with regular, minced garlic, and the differences are notable. You get just as much raw garlic flavor, but in a far more pleasant way.

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To finish the skordalia, I simply pass the cooked potatoes through a ricer or food mill (or whatever your preferred mashing method is), mix in the almond-garlic paste, and stir in the olive oil. The skordalia may begin to break once all the oil is in, but don't panic: Just beat in a couple more tablespoons of cold water to bring the emulsion back together.

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You can eat it right away, when it's more or less at room temperature (or still slightly warm from whatever heat the potatoes have retained), but it's even more satisfying lightly chilled, when those garlicky, tangy flavors come to the fore. Mashed potatoes for the fall and winter can wait.