A Cooking Lesson In One Recipe

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:

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.

Kate McDonough
Editor, TheCityCook.com





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