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.
Over time, I’ve collected many tiny mantras to live by.
Always hold the door. Keep my feet on the ground. Make time for kale and champagne. Walk, don’t run. Examine everything. Write it down.
Those are a few. They’re not literal – most are merely cues for other actions – like recognizing others and finding balance and humility and looking really hard at the world, always. But they work. Now and again I glance over my little list, and they remind me to be more as I’d like to be.
Here is one more:
When in doubt, remember anchovies.
I know, I know. Anchovies. Funky salty pungent greasy messy anchovies.
My family often ate pizza on Friday nights growing up, after my littler sisters were born and we moved to the “new house.” We ordered from a Windsor restaurant called Koolini, and my dad was on to something, because they make really delicious pies. Always on the side would be an oil-slicked plastic container, stuffed with anchovies.
Dad probably got a kick that his eight-year-old daughter would dominate those little fish – draping them over pizza slices and licking the salty remnants off her fingers. But once I tried them, they just made sense, and still do – savoury and intense and cured to the best possible texture.
Anchovies, like so many things in life, are better – delicious – if you can get past a false impression. Like so many things in life, we often don’t.
My day job has taken over my weeknights for the last while. On those evenings when more work looms past dinner, when time spent cooking is replaced with computer time, it’s been anchovies to the rescue. Draped over buratta on some baguette, bracing acidic tomatoes in a quick sauce, whirred into vinaigrette to douse over romaine or roasted cauliflower. Dinners with rewards so much greater than their efforts.
I eat these little fish and I think of all the wonderful things – people, places, foods, experiences – that we never get to know because they are gross, or not our type, or out of the norm. As I am remembering anchovies, I am remembering joys that are gained through an open heart and willingness to be less dogmatic about who I am and what I like.
What are your tiny mantras? And when did you eat your first anchovy?
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.
Before, my commute looked like this: exit front door, cross park on diagonal, walk two more blocks, cut through building courtyard, enter office, sit at desk. It was a 20-minute stroll, and one of the best parts of my morning.
Now, my commute involves a streetcar and subway train, and while it’s not all that bad – at least a week in – thirty minutes on public transit demands some light reading. (I say light reading, because I always scratch my head at someone poring over Ulysses or Derrida’s collected works on the subway. I hardly understand these things sitting still, let alone with a stranger’s armpit jostling my nose.)
This is how I found myself trolling the magazine section at Shoppers Drug Mart on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., in search of something to match my new ride. Real Simple’s August 2010 issue ended up wedged against my fried-egg-and-arugula sandwich.
I’ll be honest, I’m at once fascinated and repulsed by the kind of effortless charmed world Real Simple presents as truth. Real Simple is like that friend whose perfectly edited life you’d love to hate, but can’t – because she really is just that fabulous. And don’t we all crop the messy bits from our photographs? Still, reading this magazine always leads to a loaded internal dialogue about how we frame our lives for one-another. Perhaps not what I was seeking for light subway reading.
To the task at hand – my praise to the editor who decided “Spectacular Three-Ingredient Recipes” should be this month’s lead cover story. As those who eat with me will attest, that I share recipes here at all is odd, because I never cook from recipes. I love to read cookbooks, and cobble together dishes from flavours I think make sense in my head. I’m fastidious about documenting combinations I’ve enjoyed at restaurants the moment I get home. But in matters of food, if not life, I’m pretty much an ambler – through markets and grocery stores – picking up what makes sense in that moment.
I loved these three ingredient recipes for many reasons. For me, it was a little idea map – how smart to create an icebox cake of pureed ricotta and melted chocolate, or douse balls of honeydew and torn basil with cava for a simple dessert. The feature would work just as well for someone who follows recipes to the letter. And because each is only three ingredients, there’s no fear of stray components left to die in the fridge.
A recipe for plum tart from this story has consumed me with thoughts of puff pastry for days. While puff pastry is relatively easy to make, here’s a secret: buying it pre-made is okay. It’s more than okay – it’s the right thing to do. The thing is, good store-bought pastry contains the same stuff - flour, butter, salt, water – as the homemade kind, but lends elegance in a snap! (And all without flour in your hair, a bonus ’round these parts.) I’ve resolved to keep a sleeve in the freezer at all times – who knows when inspiration (or dinner guests) will strike.
In the spirit of keeping this recipe-free, here’s what to do. Buy a sleeve of puff pastry and two or three ingredients that sing together. Try to avoid anything with a high water content (it’ll make the dough soggy), and you’ll want at least one ingredient to be assertive, as puff pastry is a neutral backbone.
- quince paste + prosciutto
- ricotta + olive oil + radicchio
- blueberry + orange zest
- mascarpone + prune + hazelnut
- sliced pear + dark chocolate
- sweet pea + pancetta
- roasted pepper + goat cheese
- asparagus + fried egg
- grapes + marzipan
- cherry tomato + anchovy + black olive
- caramelized onion + bacon
…the options are many – other suggestions?
Thaw the pastry and unfold onto buttered or parchment-lined baking sheet. Score the edges to make a one-inch border. Arrange toppings inside the border and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, until things look puffy and golden and right. Tarts are good hot or cold, today or the next, with company or alone over the sink, warm or straight from the fridge.