Contrast and Comfort

This week I asked N. to contribute to our menu by choosing which Bittman dish he would like to most immediately consume.  I figured this was a safe proposition because, really, everything on the list sounds tasty, and there was almost nothing I was unwilling to make.  Driven perhaps by the distinctly discomforting knowledge that Spring Break is only one week long and we were already in it, he picked the ultimate comfort: spuds.

“63. Slice potatoes thin and layer them in a nonstick skillet. Dot with butter and add enough half-and-half or milk to come three-quarters of the way to the top of the potatoes. Bring to a boil and simmer until liquid reduces a bit, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes until just brown, reduce to 300 degrees and cook until tender, 10 to 20 minutes more.”

Potatoes and butter and milk?  How much more comforting does it get?

I made a few additions, and collected the following:

3 russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

2-4 cups milk? (depends on the size of your skillet and how you layer your potatoes)

2 TB butter, cut into small chunks

6 cloves garlic, skins intact

½ tsp each salt and pepper

Once the potatoes were sliced, I arranged them in my skillet in a circular, overlapping pattern, hoping to create even layers and therefore even cooking. I added salt and pepper to the top layer and then, struck by the idea of roasted garlic flavor permeating the milk, nestled the whole, unpeeled garlic cloves around the skillet.  I dotted the top with butter, poured on the milk slowly until it emerged around the edges of my top layer, and set my humble skillet on the stove.

Though it took a while to heat up, as the milk was refrigerator-cold, once the boiling began it was frantic and violent.  I turned things down and let it simmer for a while before sliding the bubbling cargo carefully into the oven.  I’m not sure how much reducing went on, but some splashing into the stove’s drip trays definitely did.  Boiling milk is a fearsome hazard to a clean stove.  I know this now.

With the gently softening potatoes safe and warm, I turned my attention to our vegetable dish.  Slightly amended from a recipe in Cooking Light magazine, I made Panko-crusted broccoli to pair with the potatoes. While steaming some broccoli in the microwave, I browned about a cup of Panko bread crumbs in a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat.  They are needy little things, apt to burn if they feel slighted for attention.  Once they were a pleasant golden, however, I removed them from the pan and heated another few tablespoons of olive oil.  I tossed in three cloves of garlic, all the broccoli, which was just barely tender, and a teaspoon or so of my favorite Black and Red pepper blend from Penzey’s.  Then all that remained were a few quick tosses to combine, and some gentle ignoring to allow the broccoli to sear and brown a little in the pan.

During this sautéing process, I managed to remember to turn the oven temperature down, and soon my potatoes were not only blanketed by a skim of brownness, but were achingly tender all the way down to the bottom layer. Liberation from the oven was the only logical next step.

Piled up next to my sizzling, seared broccoli, the potatoes were a snowy pile of perfect contrast.  The broccoli was crisp and fresh and a little spicy, while the potatoes were so delicate they almost mashed themselves as I spooned them out of the skillet.  The garlic had not permeated the milk (though that didn’t stop us from pressing it out of its skin and mixing it in), so the flavor of the dish was very gentle.  It was almost bland, which made me glad I’d added salt, but I think next time I would remove the garlic from its skins and nestle it amidst the potato layers rather than just on the top, and I might add sprinklings of Parmesan cheese between layers too, for a salty kick and additional flavor.  The star of the whole meal, however, was the Panko.  Crisp and complementary on the broccoli, it was also good as a topper for the potatoes.  It soaked up the silky remnants of the milk without getting soggy, and provided the kind of textural element the foodie-folks are always talking about.

With leftovers stowed in the fridge and the first day back to school reluctantly attended but assuredly conquered, I see the near future of these Tupperware-swaddled babies: smashed down with a fork, some butter and cheese folded in, and maybe a few leaves of baby spinach to add some attempt at health.  If I’m lucky, they might approximate the potato and kale soup I tasted at Humble Beagle the other night, which was less a soup than a bowl of thick, flavorful, wonderfully creamy blended potatoes.

It’s comforting to know such deliciousness is only a microwave away.

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