So, you’re having friends over, and you want to feed them something more substantial than the basic cheese-and-crackers number. At the same time, you may not have the extra funds to dish out a full-blown, multi-course, sit-down meal. You could always settle for the expected bean chili or stick to the classic nachos á la Rotel, but for those who are as shamelessly indulgent as my friends and I are, it’s hard to beat the appeal of a mashed potato bar.
Although you may have experienced a mashed potato bar on a budget cruise or at the wedding of your “quirky” friends, it is an unfortunately overlooked solution for parties. But if I walked into a party only to be met with a massive pot full of potatoes and separate little dishes full of chopped scallions, bacon and shredded “Mexican” cheese from the grocery store, I would know I had found friends for life.
Luckily, you don’t need to be a fantastic cook to pull this off. If anything, imagination and versatility are more important than pure cooking skills. You’ll want to start with the potatoes, of course. I personally love Yukon golds because they’re creamy and they have a lovely yellow tint to them that’s more appealing than plain beige. However, they can be more expensive than basic russets, which also work exceptionally well here. For those who like super-smooth mashed potatoes, make sure you skin your spuds before you throw them in the pot of boiling water. For lazy people (and those who prefer a chunkier mashed potato situation), leaving the skins on is totally fine—just make sure you scrub them well beforehand.
Potatoes are one of the most cost-effective foods out there, and it’s generally pretty easy to make mashed potatoes. However, if you can’t bear the thought of lugging all those potatoes home, you can use the instant boxed variety as well. (We won’t tell your guests.) Once you add in enough butter and top the potatoes with all the toppings you have laying around, you won’t even be able to tell they came out of a box.
And speaking of butter, if you have as many vegan friends as I do, you should use a non-dairy butter for preparing the potatoes. That way, all your non-animal product-consuming friends only have to worry about the toppings, not the bulk of the dish. Non-dairy milk is also a solid move if you want to make things creamier. I personally prefer cashew milk because of its neutral flavor and relative creaminess compared to other dairy-free milks on the market.
Of course, the potatoes themselves are an important part of the equation, but I will venture to say that the toppings are even more essential, as they are providing the majority of the flavor. The number one rule of thumb you should follow while throwing a mashed potato bar party is offering enough toppings—you want all of your guests to be able to customize the perfect mashed potato plate.
Start with the classics: Bacon, cream cheese, scallions, shredded cheese and ham are a great place to start. But don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new. For example, beans can add some heartiness to your potato bar, as can a variety of meats. Some sliced flank steak is a great option if you want to feed people really well, but even some diced chicken breast can make things more interesting. Other veggies like broccoli, tomatoes and red onion can add some bulk and plenty of flavor, while herbs play an essential role as well. I love offering guests parsley, cilantro and a boatload of dill. Like, seriously, you cannot have enough dill.
If you’re on a budget, take whatever you have in the fridge, chop it up and place it into bowls. You’d be amazed at what tastes good when it’s combined with mashed potatoes. However, there’s one important topping that you absolutely should not forget: the gravy. In my mind, the only real reason to eat mashed potatoes is to enjoy the gravy, and you need some kind of sauce or liquid to keep the dish from being too dry. Make your own homemade gravy, or buy some at the store.
For some reason, mashed potato bars across the world seem to have adopted the martini glass as the chosen plating option for mashed potatoes. I mean, I get it: The martini glass is cheeky, and you can definitely use some if you have them on hand. But I wouldn’t go out and drop money on martini glasses if I knew I wasn’t going to use them on a regular basis. Plain bowls or plates work just as well, and they allow your guests to pile more potatoes onto their plates anyway.
Now, it’s time to go forth, to spread your potatoes far and wide, to become the culinary idol all of your friends look up to. And please, invite me to your next party.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.