Friday, March 2, 2007

Scalloped Potatoes

It was so foggy out on my walk home yesterday that I could barely see past the tip of my nose. It certainly made for interesting travel, although it was a bit dangerous -- I nearly got smashed by a bicyclist, a bus, and two cabs in my short walk from the bus stop to my apartment. I'd say that I have to be a bit more careful, but this was all on them: stop driving so quickly without paying attention to lights and traffic signals and people! Just because you're riding around in a metal box doesn't mean it's safe to speed.
Anyhow. The fog makes me sad -- it's so drippy and dreary and downright depressing that it's hard to do anything with that outside the window. It wasn't pretty fog, either -- just a mass of grey-white wetness. I am so ready for this weather to disappear, by the way. Where's the sun? Where's my promised early spring, Mr. Groundhog?! While I wait, I'll busy myself with some more winter food -- time is running out for those heavy, oven-intensive casserole type dishes. There's a bright side to every foggy day, and yesterday, that bright side was found in a hot dish of scalloped potatoes. We used to make these when I was growing up, and they're major comfort food. Just the smell makes me feel cozy, like I'm sitting in front of a fireplace with my favorite book, curled up like a cat. Is it time to go home and get under the covers, yet?
Although this is a slightly time-intensive recipe for what amounts to a side dish, it's well worth the effort. We ate the entire thing in one sitting -- but we made a half-recipe, so I suppose that's fair. It's really not all that bad for you, especially since I used skim milk and only two tablespoons of butter instead of the required four. It took me about an hour and a half, from start to finish -- that's with about 45 minutes in the oven, mind you, so it really only took 45 minutes of pure kitchen work and an additional 45 of agonized waiting.
This is a slight adaptation of Julia Child's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 (page 523) and the only change I made was adding a middle layer of caramelized onions. Since we only had half of a bag of potatoes -- remember those rainbow beauties I used for the potato soup? -- I was working with a smaller amount of food that I needed to succeed. So I added an onion to the dish to round it out and give it more heft, and by golly, it totally worked; in fact, I think the onion might have been the best part of the whole dish. She calls them Gratin Dauphinois [Scalloped Potatoes with Milk, Cheese, and a Pinch of Garlic]. The garlic, by the way? Totally can't taste it. It's kind of a pointless step, actually, and the only thing it did was make my hands smell like garlic for the rest of the night. But I actually like that.

Scalloped Potatoes with Caramelized Onion
Begin by preheating the oven to 425º.
Slice a medium sized white or yellow onion into long thin strips -- I do this by halving it, taking off the outer layer of tough skin, and slicing it into sections from the tip down towards the root with your knife parallel to the cutting board. Don't slice through the root, however -- it holds the onion together and makes it easier to chop. Besides, it's one of the juiciest parts of the onion and caramelizes wonderfully. After slicing it down the middle, bring your knife to the top, rounded part of the onion and slice into thin strips from the side to the middle and back to the other side. Halfway through the process, your knife will be at a 90º with the board and the onion. It's hard to explain; perhaps I'll take some photos next time.
Heat a heavy frying pan on the stove and add about a tablespoon of butter. When the foam begins to subside, add the onions to the pot. They should make a satisfying sizzle when they hit the pan; if not, the butter wasn't hot enough. This is a trick to master in the kitchen, the butter/foam/heat skill, because the foam is an indication of how hot the butter is. See this wonderful post from cookthink for more details and procedures regarding heating butter over the stove. Throw a pinch or two of salt on the onions -- it helps them sweat, releasing their juices and allowing them to steam -- and cover the pan. Lower the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to cook while you chop the potatoes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. If they do begin to burn, simply turn the heat down and stir more often.
Child suggests that you peel the 2-1/2 pounds of potatoes, and if I were using russets or something with a tougher skin, I would go with that advice; however, I had those little rainbow babies that just look better skin-on -- and the blue potatoes made the top of my dish look extra-crispy, to the point of being burned, but they weren't burned at all: just blue! Slice them thinly: 1/8 of an inch, maximum, but thinner, if you can. After they are sliced, place them in a bowl filled with cold water and allow them to soak. When you are ready to use them, strain and dry with paper towels.
You need a heavy, shallow baking dish for this recipe, three inches deep, maximum, and about eight inches in diameter. Grab a clove of garlic and cut in half. Rub the garlic on the inside of the pan. Next, coat the inside of the pan with about 1 teaspoon of butter. Remove the potatoes from the water and dry with a towel. Layer half the potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish and top with a shake of salt, a nice dose of fresh ground pepper, and 1/4 cup of grated swiss cheese. I actually used fontina, a cows-milk cheese from Italy, which has a smoky, rich, and creamy flavor. Dot with about a tablespoon of butter, divided. Top this with the caramelized onions, which should be done enough at this point -- they'll be light brown in color (perhaps with a few dark spots where they burned, which is fine) and soft.
Layer the rest of the potatoes over the onions and season as you did with the first layer, with salt and pepper. Top with the remainder of the grated cheese and another tablespoon of butter, dotted across the top. Set the entire dish aside. Measure out about 1/2 to 3/4 a cup of milk -- I used skim, which turned out excellently, but obviously whole would be tastier -- and pour into a saucepan. Heat the milk, whisking all the while, until it boils, then pour it over the potatoes.
Pop the potatoes into the oven for about 35 to 45 minutes, testing after you reach the 35 minute marker. The potatoes will be perfectly soft all the way through with no resistance or firmness when they hit your fork. When they're soft throughout, the dish is ready to serve. D added a dash of red pepper flakes for flavor as he ate them, but they're just as delicious with no extras -- I know, because that's how I ate mine.
I can see why Child's cookbook is slightly daunting after completing this recipe. Although it's fairly simple fare when all is said and done the task of slicing those potatoes as thinly as possible -- with a substandard knife -- was difficult, but well worth the effort. I suppose that's why she begins her book thusly:
This is a book for the serventless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time-schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat. (Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961, 523.)
I may be serventless, but I certainly am concerned with both my budget and my waistline, as well as my time-schedule. Whatever that may be. Still, though, this was a fairly inexpensive dish, and it tasted so fabulous that I feel no guilt over my plans to make it as soon as I get more potatoes in my house -- which may be tomorrow.

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