With the exception of her morbid description of death by bad oyster with the accompanying symptoms/agonies in Consider The Oyster, her argument for restrained use of potato sides in “Let The Sky Rain Potatoes” in Serve It Forth is my favorite M.F.K. Fisher essay I’ve read so far. She argues that potatoes are served far too often when they are unnecessary. We can become potato weary. We have to be reminded how much a potato can add to a dish: creamy Dauphinoise with a rack of lamb, buttery mashers with sausage, french fries with beer battered fish. With the right pairing, she writes, “Then they are dignified. Then they are worthy of a high place, not debased to the deadly rank of daily acceptance. Then they are gastronomic pleasure, not merely ‘tubers used for food.'”
Before you start pureeing or grating potatoes so you can roll them into balls, stop. That’s dauphine potatoes, you cretin. Not the same thing. Slice potatoes into rounds, enough to layer three or four deep in a 9′ x 13′ pan or pyrex dish. Slice a clove of garlic in two and rub the inside of the pan/pyrex with it. Put down a layer of potato slices, season with salt and pepper, add a dash of nutmeg, and sprinkle with grated emmentaler cheese. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Starting on the edges, pour in cream until it nears the top layer. Bake at 350 for an hour to an hour and half. It’s done when the top layer of cheese is browned and the cream is bubbling. Variations use milk and eggs in place of cream.
I’m not up on the history of this dish, but I assume that Dauphinoise is named after the mammals (not fish!) that this dish is traditionally served with. This dish takes it’s name from the Dauphine region of southern France. I prefer it with the above mentioned rack of lamb.
Twice Baked Potatoes:
Poke some potatoes with a fork to vent and bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until they are “squishy,” by which I mean, the innards are easy to mash with a fork. Meanwhile, cut the top off a bulb of elephant garlic and put it in with the potatoes for the last fifteen minutes. As with the potatoes, we are looking for “squishy.” Allow everything to cool and then cut a section lengthwise from the top of the potatoes and scoop the potato guts into a bowl. Squeeze the garlic from it’s husk into the same bowl. You can add any number of things at this point. We like feta, sundried tomato, and basil along with a little olive oil to moisten, and mash. Put the mixture back in the potato skins and top with Parmesan. Back into the oven for twenty minutes and serve. Great with flank steak sliced ribbon thin. We’ve also tried this with bacon, chives, and truffle oil instead of feta, sundrieds, and basil.
Potato and Turnip Hash:
Cut two potatoes, one sweet potato, and one turnip into cubes. Put a hand full of lardons into a large, hot skillet and make grease. Add one quarter of a yellow onion, diced, and cook until translucent. Add the root vegetables, the leaves of three sprigs of thyme, a pinch of salt, and a grating of pepper. Cook over medium to high heat until the cubes start to brown and are soft in the middle. This is unmistakably
wintery and should be served with hearty winter dishes like braised meats. So many people claim not to like turnips. Don’t tell your guests what’s in it until they ask for seconds. I got four professed turnip haters that way on Sunday night.
I have a moral issue to resolve. I feel that fast food, though infinitely inferior to home cooked food, has a time and place. A Big Mac is good if you think of it as a unique food unto itself rather than a hamburger, a food to which it has no relation. Nuggets and chicken: ditto. Fast food french fries to home cooked fries? Well, now you have a fight. Fast food fries are the only menu item in the entire fast food arsenal that stands up to it’s non pre-fab counterpart. Everyone likes McDonald’s fries. You know you do, you liar. To try and take their pinnacle achievement from them by outperforming them at home wiffs of bullying. I’m not entirely comfortable with it.
That said, I make amazing french fries. The secret is frying them twice. First cut your fries to the desired thickness. I like them without the skin, but they will cook just as well with the skin on. Soak in water for five minutes and pat dry. Very dry, unless you want hot oil popping out of the pan. Heat enough oil to submerge your potatoes to 325. I think you get the best flavor from peanut oil, but use whatever you like. Briefly fry the potatoes and then remove to drain. The idea is to cook the outside while leaving the inside raw. Next put them in a bowl, cover, and put in the freezer for 30 minutes or the fridge for two hours. Basically, get them cold without freezing them. Heat the oil again to 325 and fry the potatoes until golden brown. The two cookings should combine to give you a firm, crisp exterior with a soft, fluffy interior. These are a must with hamburgers or beer battered fish. Speaking of beer battered fish, too few restaurants carry HP Brown Sauce or any such facsimile. Ask for A-1 steak sauce. It sounds nuts but the base flavor is the same tamarindy goodness. Asking for steak sauce with your fish also has the advantage of confounding your waiter.
If you must get fancy with your fries, and I occasionally must, cut them thickly and cook as above. Toss with parsley, sea salt, Parmesan, and truffle oil. Serve with a bloody, fatty, rib-eye.