Ever mindful of the restrictions of social distancing during these days of COVID, we try to be a little fancier when we cook at home on Saturday nights. We light candles, make sure the napkins match the tablecloth, have a slightly pricier bottle of wine and sometimes plan a dessert. And sometimes we have indulgent side dishes.
We are always trying to find a new way to cook potatoes. Once a week I like to be reckless and have French fries – which are devilishly difficult to prepare at home. I have bought gallons of many kinds of oil, looking for the cleanest, lightest, most-able-to-withstand-the-most-heat. I have ordered duck fat twice. I have bought potato cutting machines, a mandoline, and have sharpened the knives trying to hand slice the perfect fry. I have several thermometers used for monitoring the smoke point of the oil. I have wiped down the stove top each and every time the oil errupts in geyser-like splatters from the cooking pot. It is frustrating, difficult, messy and expensive, and completely unsuccessful.
Some recipes call for soaking potatoes in cold water to encourage the starch to flow out of the raw potatoes. Some insist you do not soak. Some say dust with corn starch. Some call for frying the potato twice, to get the desirable Belgian-crisp frite effect. I seem to make the best fries when I use the store-bought, frozen, shoestring potato. And not even Ore-Ida. The cheapest store brand works best. What I really need is a professional Fry-o-later.
Compounding the frustration is my complete inability to coordinate the French fry trial and error cooking time with Mr. Friday’s delivery of hot food. When he grills, he uses a timer, so he always knows within a minute or two when the Saturday night meal will be ready to go on the table. With my scattershot fry experiments I can hold things up as I wait for the final ethereal moment of crispy fry perfection to emerge triumphant from the bath of hot, golden oil. Or I manage to bring a bowl of limp, sodden potatoes into the candlelight. Happy Saturday night!
Last week I gave up. I will leave the French fry cooking to the professionals – because I will never get that professional Fry-o-later through the front door. And maybe restrictions will lift sometime in the new year and we can all go out for dinner again. In the meantime, I tested a recipe from the New York Times that seemed daunting at first, and then I realized how easily it delivered some good, snappy and flavorful potatoes, without all the frustration, thermometers or grease splatters. It is easy, and practically hands-free.
I was stymied originally by one of the ingredients, which I could not find for love or money. Maybe you live near a Whole Foods or a fancier grocery store than is available to the rest of us mere mortals. I could not track down the pink peppercorns in “Salt-Baked New Potatoes With Pink-Peppercorn Butter”. And that was OK. Now I have an elusive item to track down, if I ever get out of town again.
The local Aldi had the cutest jewel-like new potatoes in a little string bag. Food Lion provided the two pounds of sea salt. I had the rosemary plants in the back yard. I substituted in coarsely-ground black pepper. (I also halved the recipe, because there are just 2 of us.)
Thank you, Gabrielle Hamilton for teaching me how to reclaim Saturday night dinner.
“For the potatoes
2 pounds small, yellow-fleshed waxy potatoes (it’s fine if skins are red or purple or yellow)
2 pounds kosher salt
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary needles, stripped from their branch
2 tablespoons pink peppercorns
For the compound butter
1 tablespoon pink peppercorns
1 or 2 soft, velvety branches of rosemary (versus the very stiff, broom-bristle kind)
4 ounces salted Irish butter, tempered at room temperature until cool and waxy
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the potatoes.
In a large bowl, mix the salt, rosemary needles, peppercorns and 1 cup water together with your hands, crushing the peppercorns a little between your fingers and bruising the rosemary needles to release their sticky oil, making a moist, fragrant and pink-and-green speckled sand. (You might have to add a few splashes of water if the mixture needs more moisture to feel like wet sand.)
Transfer a little less than half this salt mixture into the bottom of a wide, shallow, heavy ovenproof skillet or casserole to make a salt bed about 1/2-inch thick.
Nestle the potatoes into the sand, close to one another but not quite touching, if possible.
Pack the rest of the salt mixture over the nestled potatoes, and rub and brush and smooth it with your hands until you have tightly encased the potatoes in a little salt sarcophagus. The rounded tops of the potatoes will just show as bumps under the salt cast.
Bake the potatoes for 30 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester easily pierces the potatoes and tests warm on your chin or the back of your hand. The salt casing will dry and harden like clay — and smell delicious while baking.
While the potatoes roast, prepare the compound butter: Grind the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle with the whole branches of rosemary to create an oily, coarse powder. Remove the bruised rosemary sprigs, shaking off any clinging pink peppercorns, and discard. (You just want to extract the oily flavor from the rosemary, not the needles themselves.) In a small bowl, mash the oily peppercorn powder with the salted butter using a fork until well blended.
To serve, rap the salt-packed potatoes forcefully on a sturdy surface that can handle it, to crack the salt crust from the force. A few solid raps will loosen the potatoes inside. If the cast needs a little more help, use a regular dinner knife like a spade to just pop open the salt crust along its fault lines. The potatoes are easily plucked from the dry salt. Set out with the compound butter in a small bowl on the side.”
While these potatoes will never be the French fries of my dreams, they are wholly delish. They were a delight to excavate from the salty crust. It was like a tiny little clambake, but with out the smelly clams or corn – just some steaming hot tiny potatoes. They went well with my filet, and with Mr.Friday’s salmon. Add these beauties to your repertoire when you want to dress up a Saturday night.
“It is the kind of Saturday night that torches your life for a few hours, makes it seem like something is happening.”
― Annie Proulx