In the mountainous border country between Piacenza province and the region of Liguria, creamy mashed potatoes become fragrant with a saute of onion, parsley, fresh basil, and garlic. Fresh basil is vital here. The potatoes are especially good when they can sop up the sauces of a country-style braise like Maria Bertuzzi's Lemon Chicken. This recipe halves and doubles easily.
Working Ahead:The potatoes can be prepared the day before serving, up to the point of baking the casserole. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before the final baking.
Cooking the Potatoes: Scrub the potatoes and place them in a 6-quart pot with cold water to cover. Put the lid in place, and set the pot over high heat. Bring the water to a lively bubble. Adjust the heat so the water does not boil over, and keep the pot partially covered. Cook the potatoes 15 to 20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork. Meanwhile pour 1 cup of the milk, the butter, and 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large bowl.
Sauteing the Flavorings: While the potatoes are cooking, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch skillet over high heat. Add the onions and all but 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Turn the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook 15 minutes, or until the onions are soft and clear. Stir occasionally. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, 8 minutes, or until the onions are golden brown. Then stir in the garlic and basil, and cook another minute. Add the water and scrape up any brown bits in the skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Turn into the large bowl.
Mashing the Potatoes: When the potatoes are tender, drain and peel them. Pass the hot potatoes through the coarse blade of a food mill set over the large bowl, or mash them in the bowl with a potato masher. Blend the mashed potatoes with the ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. Season to taste. If the potatoes seem dry, add more milk. The mixture should be like very thick whipped cream, but not so loose that it will not hold a high mound on a spoon. Lightly oil a shallow 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Spread half the potato mixture over the bottom of the dish. Top with half of the cheese, and then spread the remaining potatoes over the cheese. Sprinkle with the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Baking and Serving: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly cover the potatoes with aluminum foil, and bake 30 minutes, or until hot to the center. Just before serving, sprinkle with the reserved 2 tablespoons parsley. Serve hot.
From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Morrow, 1992).
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is studying whether the experience of being a virtual cow will make people feel more empathy. "[Our previous work] showed that if you had occupied the avatar of another person, you showed empathy toward them," Bailenson says. "But no one had ever tried this with another species."