Before Aaron sold out and got a job with health insurance and a 401k and PTO with a big company, he was a bartender. He started when we were in college, and bartended more or less full time for 5 years. He had a knack for finding the best possible place for him at the time. When we were living in England he worked as a bar back at a high volume cocktail bar that we frequented with friends for the Alice in Wonderland themed drinks. In our sleepy college town he worked behind the bar at the hotel where presidential candidates stay during their tours of Iowa. When we moved to Minneapolis he finagled his way into a bar back role at a fine dining restaurant that held one of Minnesota’s three James Beard awards. That role eventually morphed into bartending. I used to stop in on my nights off with a book. I would sip on a cocktail Aaron would slide over to me, watching the people around the room revel.
Back then I was a preschool teacher. When I decided to make the change to cooking, I was able to find a good job for someone so green right away because of the connections Aaron had made bartending. We were young and just out of college, and spent most of our “extra” money on eating out. It was hard not to- there were so many options out there. We had so much to learn. It felt like we were playing catch up. And there was always a new place to try. Some we heard about from Aaron’s coworkers. Some were recommended to us by the servers and bartenders we had become friendly with from our many late nights. Other times Aaron might mention a place offhand he wanted to try. “They’re in NSBG,” he’d say.
NSBG was the North Star Bartender’s Guild, Minnesota’s version of a bartender’s union. They provided the option to buy health insurance and continuing education and put on Iron Bartender every year. Most restaurants that had strong bar programs had bartenders in the guild. After meetings Aaron would complain about the drama of it all. There was always bad blood between some restaurants, and that would manifest in sniping. But he would also get to try new spirits that were just started to be imported to the US, and once he got a free hat, so it seemed to be a fairly even trade.
One hot August night we were in Rochester, Minnesota, looking for a place to get dinner. Aaron mentioned a place nearby. “They’re in NSBG.” In fact, he elaborated, they were the only restaurant outside the Twin Cities to make the drive for meetings. It sounded good, and much better than the Olive Gardens that Yelp was turning up, so we hit up Zzest Restaurant.
It was already full dark when we arrived, but we were still shown to a wrought iron table in the patio. Patio is the wrong word for it, though- it was like a full garden. People were sitting in clusters, some sipping wine, some snacking on truffle oil popcorn. Laughter drifted in the air. When the server arrived we ordered generously, and included a starter called skordalia. “It’s like a mashed potato hummus,” he told us, and with a description like that, how could we resist?
It came, a smooth white mound. It was creamy and light and fluffy, filled with a brave amount of garlic. The menu proclaimed that it contained both potatoes and white beans, a combination I’ve not seen anywhere else. It was so good I ended up running my fingers over the finished plate to lick the last bites off. Everything we had that night was delicious, but only the memory of the skordalia has stayed with me.
I’ve only had skordalia at Zzest, but the memory has stuck with me. It lives in the small notebook I carry with me at all times, the list of ideas for here that just keeps growing and growing. After Easter I was scanning that notebook. I needed a way to use up potatoes. 15 pounds of potatoes is far too many for 5 people, it turns out. Among the other suspects (roast potatoes with mustard, loaded potato wedges, shepherd’s pie) skoralia stuck out. It was time to make mashed potato hummus.
It’s quite easy to make. You roast potatoes, mash, bash garlic, and mix. It’s deeply flavorful, garlic-y and savory and slightly sweet. It would be a great dip for a party, as it’s the rare combination of unique and comforting. I imagine it would also excel in any role that mashed potatoes are commonly stuck in.
Happy April! I’m wishing you all beautiful weather and delicious potatoes.
The recipe originally calls for “ground almonds”. I made the substitution for almond flour, as it’s the same thing just already conveniently made. If you don’t keep almond flour on hand and have a food processor, go ahead and grind those almonds yourself. Additionally, the original recipe called for 1 cup of olive oil (and no water). If you are braver than I, please try it and tell me what you think.
Adapted from this recipe from the Culinary Institute of America via Epicurious
Yield: About three cups
1 pound small, starchy potatoes (I used half white, half purple potatoes)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup almond flour
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water
Cut raw vegetables of choice, such as carrot batons and radish rounds
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork or small sharp knife. Roast the potatoes until tender. The time will depend on how large your potatoes are. Mine were quite small, and took about half an hour, but they may take an hour or more. Remove the potatoes when they’re tender, and set aside until they’re cool enough to touch. Once they’re cool enough to touch, place in a medium sized bowl and mash using a potato masher until tender.
In a mortar and pestle, or using a knife and cutting board, pound the garlic cloves with the salt until you have a smooth paste.
Add the garlic paste, yolk, pepper, almond flour, lemon, olive oil, and water to the smooth potato mash. Mix well and taste. Adjust the lemon, salt, and pepper according to taste, and if you’d like a looser consistency add more oil or water.
To serve, drizzle with olive oil and top with slivered almonds, and arrange vegetables and crackers as desired.