Generally speaking, N. and I are boring restaurant attendees. One drink apiece, no appetizers, an entrée for each, and by then we are too full for dessert. The most exciting thing we do (hold your breath, folks) is to share plates, particularly when we are torn between what we want to order. This is likely borne out of graduate school poverty, though in a world of extravagant portion size it seems like a reasonable practice to continue.
But once in a while, an appetizer or a side dish sounds so luscious, or so interesting, or so, I don’t know, good (are we still allowed to use that word?), that we can’t resist it. At one of our more favorite haunts a week or two before the holidays, we were enticed by just such a side – a craggy mass of mashed potatoes threaded with strands of Brussels sprouts and bacon, a suggestion of cheddar, and broiled until the top was smattered with crusty dark bits. It sounded like a dream. It was… fine.
As I ate it, I couldn’t help but feel that the flavors could have been stronger. More cheese. More bacon. More crunch. It needed to be, perhaps not a heap of mash subjected to broiling, but shaped into tender cakes and fried in a pan. Yes, cheesy patties shot through with ribbons of Brussels sprouts and chunks of bacon, fried up in the very bacon grease the meaty bits had expelled as they cooked. Crunchy, creamy, melting, with enough green that a very imaginative person could just barely declare them virtuous.
What I ended up with was a marriage of that classic British leftovers dish bubble and squeak (though certainly in a modern reinterpretation), and a latke so unkosher that we might as well have piled shrimp on top and called it a day.
Yukon gold potatoes have quickly become my standard for mash (I could even call them the “gold” standard, but you might groan at that, eh?), and this dish is no exception. Their flavor is terrific – hearty and rich – and they whip into lovely buttery fluff. And here, where texture is intentional, there is no need to peel them. The tissue-thin skins shred into the mix and echo the ribbons of Brussels sprouts. Chewy crisp hunks of bacon stud the cake with smoky saltiness, and do yourself a favor and use the sharpest cheddar cheese you can find – it needs to be saliva-inducing to stand up to the other flavors here. A single egg, lightly beaten and worked in, holds the cakes together, and then it’s just a question of heating up your cast iron skillet and frying them to order. I can imagine scarfing these for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and I’m admitting nothing, but they are even acceptable stolen cold out of the fridge.
*A note about bacon grease: I found, as I fried these, that bacon grease lends terrific flavor, but because it can be shot through with remnants of browned bits from frying the bacon, it can make the exterior of the cakes quite dark. To prevent this, as in the directions below, I recommend that you pour out the grease, reserving only a tablespoon or two. If you’re feeling particularly fussy, you can strain this reserved portion, but I wouldn’t be too worried about that. Discard the rest (or save for some other application) and wipe out your pan in between frying the bacon and frying the cakes. When it is time to fry again, combine the reserved bacon grease with some olive oil. You’ll still get the smoky, unctuous flavor, but the olive oil raises the smoke point and will produce a golden, rather than an almost-black, crust.
Cheesy Brussels and Bacon Mashed Potato Cakes
Makes 12-14 cakes of 3-inch diameter
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 pound), each cut into large chunks of roughly equal size
2 tablespoons milk
Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste
8 ounces Brussels sprouts (about 12 large), stemmed and stripped of any discolored or damaged outer leaves
8 ounces bacon, diced
4 ounces shredded cheddar cheese, the sharpest you can find
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons bacon grease reserved from frying the bacon
2-4 tablespoons olive oil
- Deposit potato chunks in a pot of salted water, bring to a boil, and cook until they are fork tender but not mush. This should take, depending on the size of your potato chunks, 7-10 minutes after the water comes to a boil. Drain and cool potatoes completely.
- While potatoes are cooling, fry the bacon pieces in a skillet (my preference is cast iron) over medium heat until they are golden, almost crispy, and cooked through. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate lined with paper towels. Reserve 1-2 tablespoons of the grease, discard the rest, and wipe out the pan to clear any bacon bits residue (see note above).
- Using the slicer disc on a food processor (or a very steady hand and a sharp knife), shred up the Brussels sprouts into a mixture of ribbons and wafer-thin slices.
- Shred the cheddar cheese.
- By this time, your potatoes should be just about cool! When they are at room temperature, place them in a large mixing bowl and add the milk, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Whiz them up with an electric mixer until more or less evenly combined. It won’t be a completely smooth mixture, because we’ve left the skins on, but it will come together into a buttery golden mash.
- Add the cheese, Brussels sprouts shreds, and bacon pieces to the potatoes and mix well. I started out using a rubber spatula for this, but quickly switched to my hands, which did a much more thorough job. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, and garlic powder if needed.
- Add the lightly beaten egg and mix to combine.
- Using your hands, shape the potato cakes. Gently form rounds slightly bigger than a golf ball, then flatten them into patties about 3 inches in diameter. As you finish each patty, set it aside on a plate.
- When your patties are formed, heat the olive oil and the reserved bacon grease in your skillet (to save on dishes you can, and should, use the same skillet you cooked the bacon in) over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the cakes. Don’t crowd them, though. Each one should have space around it – they shouldn’t touch one another. In my 9 inch cast iron skillet, 4 at a time was perfect.
- Once you have placed the cakes, don’t mess with them. Leave them alone for 4-5 minutes (4 minutes and 30 seconds was perfect for me) before flipping. You will need to do this with deliberation. Slide a thin spatula under each one quickly and firmly, then flip and leave alone for another 4-5 minutes. Disrupting the cakes too early, or fussing with them too much, will result in sticking, smashing, and general disintegration. They need time to form a stiff crust on each side before they will consent to flip cleanly.
- Continue, frying 4-5 patties at a time for 4-5 minutes on each side, until all cakes have been cooked. You may need another dollop of olive oil after a few batches to re-slick the skillet. If the oil starts to smoke or the cakes are frying up darker than you like, turn the heat down to medium.
- As you finish each batch, serve them immediately, or to hold them until all are cooked, stow on a cookie sheet lined with a wire rack in a 200 degree oven.
- As with all fritter-type beasts, these are best consumed as soon after taking them out of the oil as possible.