I like the unexpected. Especially when it is something new to me, or it tastes and sounds exotic but in reality it has a longstanding history—a marriage of flavors that is natural. Flavors tried and tested over time, in this case, in towns all across Portugal.
Octopus is a food that falls into a category that not to many foods do—it is either flash cooked very quickly or it is stewed for a very long time. Both methods intended to render the octopus meltingly tender. I have tried flash cooking octopus several times and either I am an idiot and just can’t get it right or my definition of tender is radically different from everyone else who uses the flash cooked method. Continue reading →
Have you ever had a friend who knows no strangers? The kind of genuine person to whom everyone in the room gravitates — someone who doesn’t have to work at meeting new people, because somehow it is coded into their DNA for others to like them?
For me a potato gratin is just such a friend. A friend who hangs out with all the cool entrees too: a mustard crusted beef tenderloin taking a bath in a flavorful sauce or a perfectly roasted chicken with crackly brown skin are its best friends.
But, to its credit, a potato gratin knows enough to complement all the other dishes and, with the exception of a few rules, remains unfussy enough not to need a recipe and somehow is always perfectly put together for any holiday gathering.
How to Make Potato Gratin Without a Recipe
1. Peel your potatoes. For a 10-inch oval gratin pan, I like to use six to eight medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes — about 2 1/2 pounds. (Don’t worry: If you overdo it, you can snack on leftovers after step 6.)
2. Slice the potatoes an 1/8-inch thick, ideally on a mandoline right into a heavy bottomed pot. Add a few minced cloves of garlic, about a teaspoon of salt, and roughly equal parts of water and milk to cover the potatoes.
3. Bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat and cook the potatoes till just tender but not falling apart, then drain. By cooking the potatoes most of the way through in flavorful liquid, you don’t have to worry about exact quantities of liquid and seasoning later on.
4. While the potatoes are cooling, grate approximately 2 1/2 cups of Gruyère or Comté cheese — they are traditional but expensive. Other cheese in the family would be gouda, fontina, or American Gruyère.
5. Get out an oval gratin, or any casserole, pie pan or dish you choose. Just take note: with a smaller circumference dish you have more creamy interior and less crunchy top and, obviously, the reverse is true for a larger gratin. Place around half the potatoes into the gratin (they don’t need to look pretty, yet). Season with salt and white pepper. Top with half the cheese and drizzle about 1/2 cup of cream over the top.
6. Starting with one slice of potato placed in the middle of the gratin, spiral the potatoes around until you reach the gratin edges. Make it look pretty — it makes a difference.
7. Top with the remaining cheese, then drizzle another 1/2 cup or so of cream over the top and around the edges so it gets to the bottom, too.
8. Bake at 425˚ F until brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Don’t overcook the gratin so it dries out. You want a little cream to remain on the bottom. Serve.
One of the things I like best about the French dish Hachis Pamentier is the looseness of the recipe. Unlike Shepard’s Pie which connotates lamb as the central ingredient Hachis Parmentier quite often simply lists chopped meat and then leaves it to your discretion. So anything on hand, usually cooked, usually leftovers which is generally combined with Sauce Lyonnaise.. Then add potatoes, again, mashed, leftover bakers or boiled, pretty much anything you can crush with a fork.
In my book anything Lyonnaise is good and more likely great. The reality, though, of most classic French sauces is, who has demi-glace on hand and who is going to make it for this dish? Not many home cooks do, nor should they. So if you take the base ingredients of the sauce minus the demi-glace you have a vinegar based dressing. In other words something to cut into the richness of the meat and potatoes and a simple balsamic dressing does this just fine.
The reason I chose salmon for this version is it doesn’t need to be cooked before hand. You can put it right into the ring molds raw to be cooked in the oven. Salmon has enough natural collagen that it will bind on its own, no mayonnaise, no egg, no nothing.
What I have tried to do here, and I think with great success, is make a family style dish into something worthy of a fancy sit down dinner and even the main course to a dinner party. You can make the individual servings ahead of time (hint: my ring molds are water chestnut cans with both ends removed, cheap and simple) by putting the molds onto a parchment lined sheet tray, then layering them with the ingredients, covering them and storing them in the fridge.
On the other hand, you needn’t invite anyone for dinner to make this dish it is just as delicious for two as ten and if you want family style just chuck the whole ring mold idea and use a large gratin.
1 pound salmon, skin removed and cubed into 1/4 inch chunks
1/2 cup celery, finely minced
1 teaspoon capers, minced
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, finely zested
1 teaspoon dill, minced
1 teaspoon chives, minced
1/2 cup comte or Gruyère cheese, grated
3 potatoes, sliced into 1/8 inch or thinner rounds
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
a handful of arugula leaves, rinsed and dried
1/2 teaspoon Dijon
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Place the potatoes, garlic and milk into a medium size pot. Add enough water to cover the potatoes by an inch. Add a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Place the pot over medium heat and slowly bring it to a boil. Cook the potatoes until just tender, being especially careful not to cook them to mush but if you do don’t get you undies in a bundle they will still cook and taste the same. Drain the potatoes.
2. If you plan to cook the dish now heat the oven to 375˚ F.
3. Place the salmon, celery, capers, lemon zest, dill and chives into a mixing bowl. Add 3/4 teaspoon of salt and some fresh ground white pepper and mix the salmon being sure to incorporate all the ingredients and evenly distribute them throughout.
4. Place a piece of parchment paper onto a sheet tray. Place four ring molds onto the tray. Lightly butter the interior walls of the molds and then divide the salmon mixture into four equal portions and pat firmly/gently it into the molds.
5. Taste a potato testing for salt content. Take the potato slices and fan them into the top of each mold making two to three layers. If the potatoes were salty enough when you tasted them then don’t season them anymore but if the need it season each layer with a pinch of salt and pepper. Top with a little cheese and a spritz of olive oil. Bake in the heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
6. While the salmon is baking combine the mustard and balsamic adding a pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper. Then add the oil and mix to combine.
7. When the salmon is done remove it from the oven. Using a spatula and a dry towel remove each mold to a plate placing it in the center. Using a paring knife run it around the edges to loosen the salmon. Gently hold down on the potatoes with a spoon as you lift the mold.
8. Toss the arugula with the dressing and top each hachis parmentier with a bit of greens. Serve with a crisp fruity white wine.
This makes for a great brunch or a good starter for an elegant dinner. The key to success here is to get the inside done without burning the crust. Patience in other words.
1 1/4 pound russet potatoes, scubbed and roughly peeled
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grape seed oil
4 pieces gravlax style smoked salmon
4 caper berries
1/3 cup cultured sour cream
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper
1 tablespoon fresh chives minced
1. Place a clean towel under a mandoline and grate the potatoes using the julienned blade and let them fall right onto the towel. Bunch up the corner of the towel and rinse the potatoes under cold running water. Twist the towel forming a tight ball and keep twisting until all the moisture is removed.
2. Place the potatoes into a bowl and combine with the melted butter. Season with salt and white pepper.
3. Heat a 10 inch nonstick saute pan over medium heat. Add the grape seed oil and then place the potatoes evenly across the bottom of the pan.
4. It took me 8 minutes on medium flame then bumping it up to medium high for 6 minutes to get the right crust. Use that as a guide it is not an absolute.
5. When the rosti is ready to flip use an over size lid or pizza pan and cover the saute pan. Do this by the sink. Flip, without hesitation, while holding the pizza pan tightly to the pan, and them slide the cake carefully back into the pan. Cook the other side of the rosti until crispy.
6. Combine the sour cream with the horseradish and season it with salt and pepper. Roll the salmon slices attractively. Rinse the caper berries. Chop the chives.
7. Arrange the different elements attractively on the cake, cut, and serve.
The tiny bright green stars of okra and the fresh lima beans, so tender the veins show through their thin skins, are nestled into a bed of bi-color sweet corn just shaved off the cob. Together they simmer in a liquid that is mostly melted butter, seasoned quietly with salt and black pepper.
Succotash is a poor man’s dish, made popular during the Great Depression. Somehow I never feel poor when eating it — but then, I feel that way about all soul food.
While succotash is comfort food, not all comfort food is soul food. I can find comfort in foie gras, but foie gras is not soul food. Succotash is.
At the back of the stove, the chicken thighs simmer away. Their crispy brown skin breaks the bubbling surface of pan gravy made with peppers, onions, and celery. There is a reason they call this mix of vegetables the trinity. It goes beyond the Southern flavor they bring to the dish — something distinct, even ethereal.
I am feeling sad. Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s Soul Food fame, has passed away. Over the years, her collard greens recipe became my recipe, her Northern-style cornbread a family favorite at Thanksgiving. It was with her recipe in hand one sultry Friday afternoon some years ago that I lost my red velvet cake virginity.
I pick up the paring knife used to peel the potatoes. It is dirty with powdery white potato starch. Fishing for one of the larger chunks of potato, I stick it into the boiling water, find one, and poke it with the knife, which slips to the center of the potato like it is room temperature butter.
Carrying the potato pot to the sink, I pour it into the strainer. Hot starchy steam rushes up and around my face before disappearing upward toward the ceiling. I let the potatoes sit in the strainer to steam out excess moisture and turn to the stove to stir the succotash.
The oven timer goes off.
I grab a kitchen towel to use as a hot pad and remove the black skillet cornbread from the oven. I can smell the thin, crispy bacon fat-and-cornmeal crust that forms when the batter hits the hot skillet, hiding now under the tender yellow interior. I set the skillet on top of the stove and cover it with the dish towel.
I like this point in the meal preparation. The point where everything is coming together and there is a final rush to get everything done at the same time so all the food comes to the table hot.
I rice the potatoes.
It isn’t a coincidence the corn, okra, and lima beans are all at their peak out in the garden today. At least that is what I am telling myself.
I always add the butter first to the riced potatoes so the fat gets absorbed by the starch. Then I add the heavy cream, salt and pepper.
I like that soul food is about coming together not just as a family but as a community, even more so then it is about eating. Not that the food isn’t important– it is about the value of sharing, too — but even the food shouldn’t trump the socialization that happens around it.
I taste the potatoes. They are just the right texture and need no further seasoning, cream or butter. I scoop them into a serving bowl, and do the same with the succotash, and put the smothered chicken on a platter with its gravy ladled over the top.
It is always lively at our table. This evening, it might even be more so.