Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to cook potatoes in a Paris apartment...

Or, ‘This could be the start of something good’

I love the lowly potato, and have no wish to argue semantics about ‘lowly,’ so I’ll stop there and get to the point. You know what I mean anyway, so whom are we kidding? Potatoes just can’t be beat, right? Just thinking about them makes me want to make them so that I can eat them, especially this way, pan-roasted until just ever-golden-so, with a mix of creaminess and crispiness, to put on top of a salad, alongside a leg of duck confit, or a few discreet slices of steak, or even some pickled herring or grilled sardines. You see what I mean? Potatoes! Let’s go people!

The procedure: Like most things done with potatoes, this is a simple procedure, but it requires a little attention, so just read through all the way, then go do it, no peeking back. Then do it again, and again, and again, until you are making the best damn potatoes you could hope to find right in your own kitchen. With practice, you'll know just how many potatoes to use to fit your pan. And invite friends over.

Begin with a few medium-sized potatoes, scrubbed and glowing, and slice them in half, then slice those halves crosswise into slices just thinner than a pencil. Remember pencils? Wooden sticks--with a dark substance stuck down the middle and a number ‘2’ printed on the side-- that we used to use to write clever and frobidden (new word!) notes which we would pass to our friends – or perhaps enemies—in class at school? No? Then put down that knife and go out and find a pencil to refresh your memory, then we can continue… All set now? Ok, keep that pencil close by where you can see it: potato slices no thicker than that pencil. But not too thin, for crying out loud. Keep the slices together, as if the half potato were still in one piece, and pause here to oil your skillet, which you will begin to warm at this point.

I use cast iron, unless I am making these taters in our friend Meg’s apartment in Paris, where she has this unusual skillet with a textured high-tech surface that distributes the heat just so and doesn’t scorch. And as for fat in the pan, I use extra-virgin olive oil, nothing fancy. Unless I have duck fat on hand. (After all, ducks were invented so that potatoes could be cooked in their fat. Confit is just a happy by-product.) If vegetable oil is what you have, or butter, or bacon fat or lard (I don’t want to hear any trashtalk about honest to goodness, non-hydrogenated, lard), then that is what you should use.

Whatever fat it is, use enough to cover the bottom of the pan, and don’t be too skimpy if you can help it. Now season the pan well with a few pinches of salt, and then lay in the assembled, sliced potato halves, and push them over like fallen dominoes, arranging them as needs be if you have to squeeze in the last few slices. (If you have to, just toss the last few slices on top and let them fend for themselves. If the pan isn’t full, either push out the slices to cover more of the pan, or slice another potato. They come out better, usually, if the pan is full.) A couple more pinches of salt over all, and a splash of water down the inside of the pan, then fire it over medium-high heat, lid on, and keep it at a fast simmer for about 12 to 15 minutes. The lid helps drive the heat into the middle of the potatoes faster, but once the middles are cooking, take that lid off or so that the vapor can escape and the slices can begin to get crispy on the bottom. Keep the heat at a steady but quiet simmer and cook perhaps another 10 to 15 minutes until tender all the way through when you test them with a knifepoint. When they are done, you should be able to lift out a whole serving in one piece, so that each person gets a sort of potato accordion on their plate.

(OK, here is where I have to say, in the interest of full disclosure, ‘unless…’) ...unless your skillet and/or stove make it really difficult to slowly pan roast something without scorching the bottom. In that case, put those slices of potato into a small pot of just enough water to boil them, crank up the heat, salt the water well, and boil until the slices are just barely done, or almost so, just don’t overcook them. Drain them and let cool enough so that you can transfer them to your oiled roasting skillet, tediously arranged as described above, well salted. The trouble is worth it, I promise. Finish them to crispy perfection, no lid.

Too many boiled potatoes for your pan? Well done! Store them in the fridge until tomorrow, when you will dress them in vinaigrette to go with your omelet or facsimile thereof. Oh, what pleasure from pennies, my friends, pennies! Potatoes! Let’s go people!

Why ‘in a Paris apartment?’ Because we ate these potatoes at one of my favorite places of all-time, la Tourelle, here in Paris (where I am writing this in the middle of a jet-lagged night), and where I found Meg’s pan and began making them myself, because I just didn’t want the goodness to stop.

--by Caleb

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