A Cooking Lesson In One Recipe
The other day, in one of my many feigned efforts to clean up my desk, I started to re-read a small stack of old Gourmet magazines. For all the years I was a Gourmet subscriber, and since I hadn't much storage space, I would tear out favorite articles and recipes and throw out the rest. The exceptions were the single subject issues, like those entirely focused on food in Montreal, or Italian-American cooking. These I would keep intact and put among my cookbooks.
Because a new issue would arrive every month, my triage always lagged so when Gourmet abruptly went dark, I had about a dozen issues that I could neither tear apart nor throw away, since then moving the small stack from shelf to desk and back again. Most are from 2008 and 2009, the year that Condé Nast made the pin-headed decision to stop its publication. We can re-litigate that decision forever and they'll still be wrong, but I digress.
On this day the issue I picked up wasn't particularly notable except in retrospect: on its cover is a gorgeous salt and pepper-crusted standing beef rib roast, a piece of meat that probably cost about $200. This was the October 2008 issue, the month, you may remember, when our economy cratered and everyone was afraid of what was to come, which for a while at least, would not include a standing beef rib roast.
But something else in this issue caught my eye -- a recipe for braised fingerling potato "coins." This recipe, adapted from one by Alice Waters, creates a luxurious, visually appealing, and unexpectedly special dish from only six quotidian ingredients, three if you don't count the water and salt and pepper: potatoes, unsalted butter, and some chopped parsley.
This recipe is a revelation for the home cook. One, it exposes the importance of technique -- meaning how you cook something as plain as a potato can make the difference between ordinary and special. Technique needn't mean that your cooking becomes more difficult or takes longer, but it does mean a preciseness of method. In this recipe the potatoes are sliced thin -- one-eighth of an inch using some kind of slicer to ensure that the slices are uniform. So the first display of technique is the thin slicing and the second is that each piece is the same as the next. Both matter.
The next technique is in how the potatoes are cooked. This recipe uses a method I learned in culinary school in which the potato slices are placed in a skillet with water and butter and covered with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit just inside the pan. Taking the place of a cover, the parchment paper won't burn but it protects the potatoes and lets the moisture cook off slowly, at the same time allowing the slices to become tender and the butter and water to create a silky pan sauce. At first the paper stays crisp and will curl at its edges, but soon it wrinkles and settles into the pan, but never getting soaked and remaining an intact surface above the simmering potatoes underneath.
This parchment paper technique is also used to make vegetables à la Grecque, a very classic French way to cook single vegetables such as mushrooms or cauliflower in a broth of olive oil, seasonings, and either lemon juice or vinegar, but we can talk about this another time.
Besides showcasing technique, this recipe requires that you choose ingredients knowingly and precisely. It's best made with fingerlings. This matters because these skinny potatoes are waxy, thin-skinned, and have a real potato flavor. Plus when you slice them they look like coins, fit well in a skillet because the pieces are small, and once cooked, look good on a plate. You could cook Yukon gold or waxy red potatoes this way but the result won't be the same. It will taste good -- of course it will because it's potatoes and butter. But it won't be as special in terms of texture or visual appeal. So by being particular in the kind of potato you choose you get a better outcome.
The final lesson from this recipe is that you need the right tools for the job. In this case you need some kind of slicer -- a food processor with a slicing disc, or a Japanese ceramic slicer, or a mandolin. And you need parchment paper. Parchment paper has a high density and won't burn or melt in a hot pan unless it comes in direct contact with a flame as it's not fireproof. But it is burn-proof to about 420 degrees. Do not substitute waxed paper which is different and which will melt.
See our link to the recipe for Braised Fingerling Potato Coins.
My Christmas Dinner
This Christmas I've decided I am overdue to make a special holiday meal. I had missed out on cooking for Thanksgiving due to work deadlines and I've been craving doing something traditional and fancy. Some have asked me what I'm cooking so here is my menu, along with the sources for the recipes I'll be using:
- To start we will have caviar, which is being generously provided by my sister-in-law (and friend) Sophie. It's a rare luxury and we'll pair it with icy cold Champagne. I'll also have a dish of toasted almonds.
- Potage Velouté Aux Champignons -- Julia Child's luxurious Cream of Mushroom Soup from Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Because it is so rich, we will have just a cup.
- Roast Goose -- I'll use the roasting method from Jennifer McLagan's splendid book, Fat, which stuffs the bird only with herbs and aromatics (carrot, celery, parsley, sage, thyme and garlic). I've ordered a fresh 12-pound bird, which I'll cook 30 minutes at 475° F and then another hour and a half at 350° F. I am confident this will work because I used this method the last time I roasted a goose and I wrote precise notes in the margin of McLagan's recipe, including the weight of the bird and the timings. Cooking a goose also has bonuses because there's a goose liver that can become rillettes, a carcass for stock, and goose fat that can be frozen and used for sautéing potatoes all winter long. See our article about rillettes.
- Red Cabbage With Apples and Chestnuts -- from Canal House Cooking, Volume 5 - The Good Life. Red cabbage is a perfect and traditional partner with goose and I think this recipe's sweet and savory flavor will be a good balance with the rich bird. Plus its color is beautiful.
- Épinards Gratinés au Fromage -- Spinach Gratinéed with Cheese from Julia Child, also from Volume I of MAFC. This is one of the truly great vegetable recipes of all time. I lighten it a bit by using chicken stock instead of cream, use Parmesan instead of Swiss cheese (and less of it, too), and reduce the amounts of butter and salt that Julia calls for -- all to no perceptible loss of flavor or lusciousness, at least to my palate.
- Wild Rice Pilaf -- from America's Test Kitchen's Menu Cookbook, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. I will tinker a bit with the recipe by adding toasted pinenuts and I'll season it to compliment the goose using sage and thyme.
- Cranberry Sauce With Orange and Rosemary -- as with roast turkey and duck, roast goose pairs well with something sweet and tangy. So in addition to the subtle sweetness of the red cabbage with apples, I'll make cranberry sauce. But I wanted something a little different and not too cloying, so I've chosen one I've made before that has a bit of a twist, from How To Cook A Turkey From the Editors and Contributors of Fine Cooking (published in 2007), an outstanding resource for anyone who regularly makes big holiday meals. See our link to the recipe.
- I want to serve a salad and cheese course before dessert, if only because I need to find a way to include Stilton in the meal. I think of this truly great cheese as a Christmas essential so I'll add a piece of Neal's Yard Colston Bassett Stilton to small plates of a simple green salad of Boston lettuce dressed very lightly with Champagne vinegar, minced shallots and my best olive oil. I will probably buy the cheese at Zabar's, which is reliable not only to have it in stock but to have also kept it perfectly which matters since this English blue farm cheese can be a splurge.
- Dessert is still to be finalized but the two candidates are either a lemon curd tart or a classic pumpkin pie (I like the spicy version in The Silver Palate Cookbook). In either case I prefer serving it with whipped cream instead of ice cream, just a small spoonful to be a creamy white garnish. My husband is deliberating wines and an after dinner sip to go with some chocolates and coffee.
Whether you're roasting a goose or baking cookies, or maybe trying your hand at the Braised Fingerling Potato Coins, or simply making a favorite supper, I hope you enjoy any cooking you do during this month of holidays. And even more, that you enjoy the company you keep as you cook and gather together at the table.