Few cooking aromas create a deeper longing in me as much as those as of roasting potatoes.
I am hurled back in time to living in a two-bedroom home that was guided and nurtured by my grandmother … Nana. Four of us lived with Nana. My two sisters … Jane and Bet … and my mother Ruth. Nana was Scotch-Irish, raised on the lower West Side of Manhattan … and her cooking repertoire was … narrow. But … what she made she made with love and absolute conviction. I remember her standing near the kitchen sink in one of her plain house-dresses … a cotton, striped apron tied around her pale but sturdy frame. The winter light weakly illuminated her calm smile through the snow-streaked window as she stood with a dinner fork poised over half a dozen Russett potatoes.
Then … peering over her ever-present eyeglasses …she pierced them equidistantly … before laying them on a baking pan and placing them in the small gas oven near the gust-buffeted, cracked wooden door of that cottage, which overlooked a small and often frozen lake … in Northern Illinois. The baked potatoes she made were served with sour cream, butter, salt and pepper. What else was served for dinner would be secondary to me most of the time. The soft merging between the whiteness and the tang of the sour cream and the gentle, yellow of rich farm stand butter melted helplessly against the mixed, steaming topography of the split and yielding tuber … It soothed my teenage hunger pangs better than the canned peas and slices of white bread could ever could pray too.
The potato is almost without compare in terms of what we eat as to how miserable it was felt to be in the beginning of it’s usage to how beloved it has become. The days of its inception in Europe were met with wide contempt. The principal writer of an encyclopedia on food during the reign of Louis the 15th in France proclaimed, “This root, no matter how you prepare it … is tasteless and floury. It cannot pass for an agreeable food”. Yet … by 1597 a gent from Virginia named John Gerard wrote, “The virtues of the potato are equal to meat, being either roasted in the embers and eaten with oil … or dressed in some other way by the hand of a skillful cook”.
The best passage I’ve ever found about potatoes in literature fell my way while I was living as a breakfast cook in Greeley, Colorado. I had picked up a copy of “The Tin Drum” by the German Nobel prize-winning writer … Günter Grass at a yard sale. I read it after work in a setting Colorado sun on the porch of the home of a friend who was letting me crash there.
“But now it was Monday afternoon and my grandmother was sitting by the potato fire. Today her Sunday skirt was one layer closer to her person, while the one that had basked in the warmth of her skin on Sunday swathed her hips in Monday gloom. Whistling … with no particular tune in mind, she coaxed the first cooked potato … out of the ashes with her hazel branch and pushed it away from the smoldering mound to cool in the breeze.”
I wanted to taste it so badly. I could barely wait for it to cool…
RECIPE FOR POTATO TACOS
Yields: 8 Tacos
- 1 ½ pounds red bliss potatoes
- 1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled, seeded and minced
- 2 Tablespoon olive oil
- 4 Tablespoons butter
- 1 Spanish onion, sliced
- 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 jalapeño chile, seeds and stem discarded, minced
- 1 Tablespoon roasted garlic
- 1 Cup grated Manchego cheese
- 1 Cup cabbage, finely shredded
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the potatoes in a roasting pan in the oven for 1 hour, until tender when pierced with a knife. Cool until they are manageable, and peel them, discarding the skins. Reserve.
Combine 1 Tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a medium skillet and set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for about a minute. Add the sugar and the vinegar and continue to sauté for about 4 minutes, until the onions begin to caramelize and are completely soft. Add the jalapeño and continue to sauté 1 more minute. Remove from the heat and reserve.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to a sauté pan and sauté the cabbage until it wilts, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Mash the potatoes with the roasted garlic and remaining butter. While the potatoes are still hot, stir in the cheese, onion, poblano and the cabbage. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
For the taco shells:
- 8 six-inch corn tortillas
- Canola Oil for frying
Pour enough oil in a 10-inch sauté pan to a little more than cover the bottom of the pan. Get the oil hot over a medium-high heat. When it is hot place a tortilla shell in the pan and let it crisp for about 5 seconds. With a tongs flip the tortilla over to cook the other side (about 5 more seconds). This softens the shells just enough. Now with the tongs flip it over again and bend the tortilla into a taco shape and hold for 7 seconds. When it is crisp turn it over to crisp the other side about 7 seconds.
Place a generous amount of potato filling in each tortilla. Serve with your favorite salsa.
RECIPE FOR BICYCLE SAMMY’S POTATO SALAD
We only had one dessert available and it was Key Lime Pie that was made by a gal named ‘Sunshine’ Smith. She delivered them on her bicycle each day. The large basket up front held two pies. If we ran out, we ran out. She simply wouldn’t make three because that meant she’d have to make two bicycle trips. She went on a few years later to become Jimmy Buffett’s business partner in a little venture called “Margari- taville” so who can argue with her business sense now? We had more ‘sides’. They included cole slaw and baked beans but my personal favorite was Sammy’s way with Potato Salad. I’ve made it for 40 years. Sammy made it for a lifetime before he showed me how. Time tested. Like both of us now I suppose.
Yields: 6 Cups
- 2 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite sized pieces 1 Cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tablespoon of Creole (or other stone ground) mustard 2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 Cup diced fennel
- 1/2 Cup chopped sweet onion
- 1 jalapeño, stemmed and seeded and minced 2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped hot sauce, if desired
Cover potatoes with water in 4-quart sauce pot.
Bring to a high simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes but check often. (Sammy would boil over if I cooked the potatoes too fast and ‘let the water come washin’ in!)
Drain well and allow to cool somewhat but not completely. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Lift gently and stir.
Now combine mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, salt, sugar and pepper, chili powder and cumin in large bowl. Add potatoes, fennel, onion and stir.
Now add the hard cooked eggs and toss gently.
Add hot sauce if using and stir once more. Serve chilled.
Note: Sammy served this with our barbeque’d ribs but he told me that if serving with fish or chicken he liked to stir in some cooked crumbled bacon in the die-hard spirit of a true pork loving man.