Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Celebration Potatoes

The world watched this week as thirty-three brave men ascended into what must have felt like heaven. A collapse in the mine where they worked trapped them underground for over two months. Watching each miner emerge, one by one, was a wonder. Their emotions seemed contagious. Fresh air and freedom are things my friends and I take for granted. Those miners will never take anything for granted again.

Being a foodie, I immediately thought of a celebration dish for the men in Chile. The food they rationed before supplies could be sent down was canned tuna and peaches. I had plenty of canned tuna and some canned pears in my hurricane kit. Emergency supplies, in my mind, should be saved for emergencies. There would be no tuna or peaches used in celebration. I started looking for authentic Chilean recipes. I had a chicken breast, an onion, and some potatoes. All of the chicken recipes necessitated a trip to the grocery store, a trip I didn’t want to make. Root vegetables, grown deep in the earth seemed incredibly fitting.

The search for a potato dish unearthed Picante de Papas.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 serrano or jalapeno chiles, seeded & minced
1 cup half & half
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 medium potatoes, cooked, pared & sliced
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tomatoes, peeled and sliced
¼ cup grated Gouda cheese
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Oil a medium glass or earthenware casserole with 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil.

Sauté onion in small saucepan in remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, stirring occasionally, until just softened. Add garlic and cook about a minute.

Scatter half the onion and garlic on the bottom of the dish. Cover with half the potatoes then half the tomatoes. Salt lightly. Sprinkle with half the chiles and half the cheese. Repeat the layers, ending with cheeses. Pour the half and half gently over the dish. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until half and half is absorbed and cheese is browned. Serve immediately.

While searching I found another recipe – similar but different, if you know what I mean. It called for green pepper, not chiles, changed the cheese, and included sour cream.

I had three purple potatoes, one sweet potato, and one small white potato. My refrigerator guarded about one cup of half and half and about three tablespoons of sour cream. I had plenty of grated Parmesan. The only other cheese I had was a four-cheese Mexican blend. My Vidalia onions were about to head south but there were three of them. The life expectancy of my four small tomatoes was debatable. Since I had no peppers of any kind, I decided to make a root-vegetable strata. That seemed a fitting tribute for the miners trapped underground for over two months.

I didn’t peel any of the potatoes before I cooked them and only the sweet potato afterward. What can I say? I like potato peels and the purple ones have skin so thin you could read through them if you stripped them off a cooked tuber. I didn’t cook the sweet potato as much as the others fearing they’d turn to mush and be impossible to cut. That was a good call.

The onions went into the bottom the casserole after a good sweat in a small frying pan. Didn’t have any fresh garlic left and was afraid I’d have to settle for garlic powder when I spied a tiny bit of granulated garlic in the cabinet. It was more than enough to sprinkle on the onions. Then I sliced the purple potatoes as the first potato layer. A sprinkling of cheeses and about a tablespoon of sour cream went on top of the purple layer. Next came the sweet potato. It was cooked enough to peel the skin off easily but not enough to mash with the knife when cutting. More cheese and sour cream and then the white potato. Finally, the end of the cheeses. I poured the half and half slowly and carefully over the whole thing and sprinkled on a few pats of butter and another sprinkle of Parmesan.

I wanted to eat half an hour after the casserole went into the oven but I could still see some half and half. Maybe I saw it or maybe I felt a need to follow directions. I waited the longest five minutes of my life. I take exception to “Serve immediately.” Hot potato isn’t an idle description. They are hot and stay hot. Cheese, as any pizza lover knows, is a very good insulator. Aware of this, I served some on a plate and watched the steam rise before I tasted.

It was worth the wait. (And I didn’t burn my mouth.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Purple Potatoes

I met a new friend last Tuesday. Actually, it’s a new store. It’s been around for almost a year but it’s new to me. Why would I need a new store when I’m running out of savings and the prospect of a job is infinitesimal? Because it’s a produce store!

An old friend told me about Top Crop Produce in Venice, Florida. He mentioned they have purple potatoes. I had to go there! I made plans last Tuesday to go to “unemployment” which is about two blocks from the store. Top Crop was the most helpful part of the trip.

I went for purple potatoes and bought purple potatoes. The plantains looked perfect. All the lettuces looked perfect and very crisp. Everything in the store looked perfect. Nothing else could make me insist on taking it home. Such a narrow vision isn’t like me. I usually end up with one impulse purchase but not last Tuesday.

One last stop on the way home found some discounted meat. That’s been the bulk of my meat purchases lately. Found a small tray of ground round for less than the price of ground chuck and a large (for me) tray with five little loin end pork chops. I went home with plans for the week. Like most plans, they were flexible. This plan, however, had to include purple potatoes.

Tuesday night, after a lunch of Sunday’s leftover dinner with the addition of some steamed carrots, was a simple plate of boiled purple potatoes cut and covered with whipped butter. They were the best potatoes I’d eaten since I was a kid when my father dug a hole in the garden, filled it with straw, and planted potato eyes. The potatoes grew up clean but we washed them anyway. That garden was how I learned the taste of fresh vegetables and fruit. (Stuffing freshly-caught fish in the freezer to prepare for the ride home from Wisconsin was how I learned the taste of fresh fish. The fish swam in the sink at home before my father cleaned them. I never wanted frozen fish again.)

Top Crop Produce has become my choice as a farmer’s market. It’s open seven days a week. It’s air conditioned. I don’t have to prepare for an hour or more in the sun. (The parking lot is a short trip to the door. I may be sorry for telling others about it because I’ll need a hat and sunscreen for that trip.) And did I say they take requests? If they can get it and it’s local and good, they will. They also sell coffee in packages and by the cup. I hear it’s good. I don’t drink coffee so I don’t know but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

What else did I do with Tuesday’s treasures? Haven’t found a job yet but did have a great dinner. I pan fried three pork chops in a dry non-stick pan with just a bit of salt and pepper. Then I used the same pan to fry some lardons, slices of bacon I happened to have in the freezer cut into about a quarter inch slivers. Leaving the bacon fat in the pan but taking out the lardons to drain on paper towel, I added some butter, about a tablespoon, half a small Vidalia onion cut into thin rings, and four ounces of sliced mushrooms (I used crimini) and cooked them until everything started to soften. Again, I boiled the potatoes while cooking everything else. The plate was simple. Two of the tiniest pork chops, one potato cut into wedges and slathered with more butter, the onion, mushroom, and bacon mix all put on a plate.

Izzy got a little pork chop, a couple of pieces of potato, some of the bacon, and a mushroom or two carefully cleaned of onion. We both gave dinner rave reviews.Wonder what I’ll get next week at my new BFF store. Think I’ll lift the limit a bit and buy more than one thing. That kale sure looked good.