Every kitchen has its quirks. In mine growing up, mom refused to buy Fruit Rollups and made baby food from scratch and packed lunches each weekday. But amidst the dry goods in our homemade pantry, she kept a curious side-dish staple: Betty Crocker Instant Scalloped Potatoes.
Was it hypocrisy that my only-from-scratch mom made boxed potatoes – with a Wonderbread crouton topping, no less? It might have been. I wasn’t complaining. It was one of my favourite things to eat, though the dehydrated science-project potatoes were off-putting in theory.
Scalloped potatoes have their own kind of deliciousness that only comes in thin layers of starch, sauce and melted cheese with a crunchy lid. Some recipes call for dubious additions: canned cream of cheddar soup, American cheese slices or a tub of Philly. Others elevate these layered potatoes to an elegant side, adding leeks, blue cheese, fennel or even coconut milk. The French combine cream and garlic and forgo the cheese to create Gratin Dauphinois.
But where potatoes are concerned, my heart belongs to the simplest of recipes – just milk, flour, butter, old cheddar and starchy potatoes slouching together in a baking dish. My heretic spin is the addition of mom’s bread-cube topping to finish the dish, as opposed to a traditional crumb crust.
It’s not quite what I ate as a kid – lacking bright orange cheese powder and reconstituted potatoes, after all. But come fall, when the sky darkens before dinner and my creaky old house gets a chill, it’s delicious.
Simple scalloped potatoes
(makes one 11×7-inch baking dish, with about 5 layers of potato)
I was always reluctant to make scalloped potatoes without a mandolin. But as long as the slices are relatively even, and you cook this thoroughly, slicing with a knife works well. And the age-old debate of nutmeg-or-no-nutmeg rages on. The Greek inside of me says a little never hurts in milk-based sauces. But if you prefer, leave it out. Also – this dish is fantastic with sweet potatoes in lieu of white. It gives the dish a sweet-savoury contrast, with pretty orange layers. Sweet potatoes take less time to cook – check after 60 minutes for doneness.
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
5 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup white unbleached flour
2 cups 2% or whole milk
7 oz old white cheddar, grated
2 cups soft white bread, cubed
nutmeg, salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook for about 4-5 minutes, continually whisking. Once golden and giving a toasty scent, slowly add milk. Bring to a boil and whisk over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until thickened (the sauce should coat your finger).
Remove saucepan from heat, and add three-fourths of the cheese, whisking into sauce. If using nutmeg, add a few good grates at this point. Taste sauce for salt and adjust. Because the potatoes are bland, the sauce should be slightly saltier than your ideal seasoning.
In a metal or glass 11×7-inch baking dish, alternate slightly-overlapping layers of potato and sauce, starting with potatoes. You will likely get about 5 layers. Spread remaining cheese over the final layer and cover with foil.
Bake covered for approximately 90 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a bread knife into the centre of the casserole. It should slide through with ease. If resistant, continue to bake covered for 10 minute intervals until cooked through. A little overdone is okay, but nothing is worse than raw potatoes!
Top evenly with bread cubes and place uncovered under broiler until crust is toasted and golden, about 3-4 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, slice, and serve. This refrigerates and freezes very well. If freezing the whole pan, leave the bread topping off until you intend to reheat and serve.
Rare and lovely are moments in which we learn something new about ourselves. I never expected to learn anything new about me, today. And then I did.
The Stop and Type Books co-hosted Mark Bittman tonight on his tour for The Food Matters Cookbook. I went mostly because he’s Bittman and I’ve been reading his work as long as I’ve been reading about eating. He would tell me about the catastrophic state of our diet and food system, he would encourage us to eat fewer cows and chickens, he would laud The Stop’s fine work (with good reason). I’d return home, self-satisfied - consciously or not – with my mostly plant-based diet as I cooked dinner.
This didn’t happen.
Instead, Mark Bittman taught me that I’m a cook.
Cooking is buried so deep within my hungry stomach that I forget it’s there. In all the ephemeral bits that make up Maria, cooking is the constant. Do you remember when David Foster Wallace’s old fish said to the two young fish swimming along — “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
The cooks at our family restaurant didn’t push away a curious little girl. My mom gave me her wooden spoon and her trust to stir the tomato sauce. Now, I imagine dinner as I comb market stalls on Saturday mornings.
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: ”What the hell is water?”
I’ve never felt gratitude that I just cook. It takes a lot for me to remember that cooking every day to feed myself is not the norm. It isn’t that most North Americans just don’t cook. Many can’t cook – never having been taught basic skills to follow a recipe – let alone to see dinner in raw ingredients. Most non-cooks are not lazy or too busy or lacking discipline.
I made sense of this last night, finally, as I listened. “Cooking is easy!” I say. But I’m wrong. To someone who has never turned on a burner, or bought fresh produce, or learned the basics of storing food, or honed proper knife skills – cooking is hard.
I want to remember this. When I cook from heart or create a recipe, each time I suggest an “easy substitution” for an ingredient, as I help a friend cook dinner, and always as I feed others. I want to consciously not assume. I want to remember that it’s easy for me, but for me this is water.
Have you ever noticed that come a particular time toward the end of each summer, we become awfully vocal about zucchini? I’ll be sick if I eat another, we say, and I can’t possibly freeze one more loaf of zucchini bread. We offload it on unsuspecting neighbours in great heaps. This terrible, terrible glut of zucchini.
I really like the romantic story of zucchini over-abundance. But here’s the thing: I don’t know what on earth people are talking about! I’ve never been at the receiving end of a zucchini dump, and I happily scoop them three-for-a-dollar all summer into my basket. Perhaps next year, when I plant a garden, I will be revisiting this post in horror at my naiveté. I will be leaving bowtied zucchinis in mailboxes along the street. For now: bring on the summer squashes!
I never intended to post this recipe. It looked pretty unassuming in the pan, on my plate. It was a late Monday spent at work. I arrived home and yanked a zucchini from the fridge, contemplating what to do with it – a great, spindly green specimen – the kind that are long but not too thick and watery. I shredded it to toss in a pan with garlic and olive oil. Halfway through, I flung in a great heap of flame raisins. I dumped the lot over some fettuccine and over that grated some cheese. It looked bleak, all the green and brown and beige.
But this sauce! It was the best of every contrast. Soft and textural. Sweet and salty. Gentle and assertive. And made even better by this strange floral taste that the zucchini and raisins share. Since then, it’s all I think about. I shouted its greatness to Sameer: I made pasta with a zucchini/raisin sauce! SO good. I don’t know how people get sick of zucchini. It is so delicious. And last night over dinner, I near-demanded that Mere make it. (Speaking of: Rawlicious, have you been, Toronto? Name aside, the food is great! Try the pad thai and the brownies with coconut butter-vanilla icing.) Tonight, I made the sauce again, but this time with a yellow squash, and it was no less tasty.
While there’s still a glut of zucchini at your disposal, I hope you will make this sauce, too. I think you’ll agree that more zucchini is always better. But if not, please send your surplus vegetables my way.
I made this using green and yellow zucchini with equal success. I ate it one night over pasta, and another straight from the bowl dusted with cheese. Next time, I want to serve it cold, atop croutons, as an appetizer. It would also be a terrific side to fish or pork.
4 cups grated zucchini
1/3 cup flame raisins (sultanas or golden are fine, but flame raisins are extra absorbent because of their size)
3-4 medium cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp olive oil
ample salt and pepper, to taste
Parmigiano-Regianno, for grating, to taste
Grate zucchini and crush garlic. Heat olive oil in a good-size saucepan over medium heat. Add zucchini and garlic and cook about five minutes, until the zucchini starts to break down. Add the raisins and salt. Continue cooking about 10 minutes total, until the zucchini is soft and the raisins plump. Add more salt and pepper, to taste. Serve over pasta, alone, on toasts or as a side. Top generously with grated Parmigiano-Regianno, or another hard cheese. This is equally good warm or cold.
Seasons of the year: spring, summer, fall, winter. And seasons of life: sister, daughter, aunt, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.
Both arrive and leave before you have chance to notice. You never imagine that all this is going to change soon. Day by day it’s the same, and then you wake and it’s all gone and different and some pieces look familiar, but mostly not.
Last night I became an aunt. My sister a mother. My mom a grandmom. My grandmothers great-grandmothers.
My family is four sisters spread over an eight-year span. I’m the eldest. Sisters are a beautiful, difficult, impossibly rewarding thing, let me say. As we age the changes in our relationships are subtle but apparent. I’ve grown to appreciate more these women who are me slightly rearranged. I try harder to do good by them, knowing they will be with me all my life, friends unconditionally. Like no other, they have known me all my days, they have seen me through every season.
At moments it is so hard, being physically separated from my three sisters, who are together in Windsor. So much of the time I am jealous of them there, me here. I imagine them growing close, sharing days, living perfectly well without me. They live perfectly well without me. But proximity does not make family. Soon, Niki will head to university, Melina too. Less soon, we will each have families – whatever forms these families may take, wherever they may end up – we will gather for births and birthdays and markers of future seasons.
Our labels change and our seasons change.
Fruit trees are harbingers of the fleetingness. Last year, as peaches came and went, and I made peach-ricotta pizza to honour their visit. This year, I walked downstairs to a kitchen perfumed by another summer’s fruit. Knowing I’d soon be in Windsor – to hold a new nephew and to hug a new mother – I preserved them for later, to remember August 7, 2010 as something sweet and new.
(Makes about 4 cups)
I am a lazy preserver. I’d rather bag and freeze seasonal excess than get out bell jars and a pot of water big enough to bathe a newborn. So: I used some of this compote from the pan for a sweet-savoury French toast with herbes de Provence. I let the rest cool and ladled it into freezer bags by the cup, to enjoy later.
1 quart peaches (~20 medium)
3 Tbsp water
aromatics to taste – I used 1/2 a vanilla bean, scraped and a piece of cinnamon bark, but lemon zest, dried fruit, almond extract or nutmeg would be nice, too…
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, cook ingredients over medium heat until they reach a consistency you like. Keep in mind the fruit will thicken slightly as it cools. I cook at a low bubble for about 25 minutes until I have something more than a sauce, but less than a jam. Jar and refrigerate for up to a week, or let cool and freeze in one-cup portions to defrost mid-winter, when peaches are far away.