Pandemic Potato Salad

This is a recipe born out of need and change and a series of odd connections. I bought a bag of red potatoes intending to make a gratin, but a sudden upswing in temperature made the idea of roasted anything feel oppressive. Meanwhile, my beautiful heads of romaine lettuce in my garden started to bolt, and my parsley was already flowering. I thought of salad, of course, and then of potato salad, and then of likely ways I could combine them. A potato salad with green beans and parmesan I had in Eugene crept back into my mind, and parmesan reminded me of pesto. Pesto is such a convenient way of using excess greens, even when they are getting bitter, so I wondered if lettuce pesto would be tasty. The garlic and parmesan of pesto along with the lettuce reminded me of Caesar salad, and suddenly I was adding anchovies and mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs for good measure, and this franken-potato-salad was born.*

This is not one of those “not your average gloopy potato salad” iterations. I must admit, as an ardent mayonnaise lover, I resent those complaints about gloopiness. This one is gloopy. It is unapologetically gloopy. It is a potato salad for mayonnaise aficionados. But I have an important secret when it comes to those “gloopy” mayonnaise based summer salads, whether their bases are potato or pasta: you have to add the dressing while the starch base is still warm. If the potato chunks or noodles are cold, the dressing just weakly sits beneath and around them. If it’s stirred in while they are warm – or even hot – the dressing soaks in. The texture is better, the flavor is better, and you can get the hot part of the process out of the way hours before you intend to serve anything. At least 2 hours in the fridge after everything is combined ensures nicely melded flavors – the anchovy mellows, the garlic relaxes, the lettuce emerges not as a strong presence but as a juicy green background taste we found quite pleasant.

Because I’m me, I couldn’t quite leave well enough alone: since the lettuce and anchovy and parmesan allude to Caesar salad, and since lately we’ve been all about crunch and texture, I wanted to give a nod to the crouton component. A shower of panko crumbs well toasted in olive oil right over the top added crunch, though if you wanted to be a little less excessive, you could probably used well-toasted almonds instead. I’d suggest a rough chop for rubbly texture.

* As I wrote this, I was weirdly reminded of my most recent and ongoing scholarly project, which suffers from organizational stress. A few weeks ago a fellow academic tweeted “How has anybody ever structured a piece of writing? It’s an impossible con, all the things to be said must be said at exactly the same time or none of them will make sense” (Jones). I felt that as I tried to explain the intersecting idea strands for this salad: in my brain, the connections happened nearly instantaneously. Here, which do you mention first? The potato salad with parmesan that reminded me of pesto? The lettuce that evoked Caesar? Words prohibit the all-at-once-ness that feels so natural when we think…

Pandemic Potato Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side, not that you’re having anyone over right now…
2 ½-3 hours, including chilling time
6-8 ounces green beans or haricot verts
10-12 medium red potatoes
4-6 cloves garlic
5-9 anchovy filets (wide range, but adjust according to how much you love anchovies)
zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 head romaine lettuce, core removed, leaves roughly torn
1 cup packed parsley leaves and stems
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped almonds

 

  • Blanch the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water. This will take 2-3 minutes for large size beans, or about 90 seconds for skinny little haricot verts. Remove from the pot and douse in cold water to stop them from cooking further. Reserve the salted cooking water. Quarter the potatoes (or if they are gigantic, cut down into large bite-sized pieces) and place them in the same pot. Fill the pot with more water if needed to cover the potatoes, then bring back to a boil over high heat. Turn down to medium and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain and set aside while you make the dressing.
  • If you need to grate the cheese, load the belly of your food processor with small chunks of parmesan, then run on high speed until the cheese is adequately broken down. Empty the processor, measure out the required cup of cheese, and set aside to add later.
  • Process the garlic cloves, anchovy filets, and lemon zest and juice together first into a clumpy paste. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the processor, then add about half of the torn lettuce leaves and the parsley and pulse a few times to break them down. When there is enough room in the processor, add the remaining lettuce and parsley and process on high until the mixture is finely chopped.
  • Scrape down the sides of the processor again and add the mayonnaise and reserved parmesan cheese. Process on high speed until well combined. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as needed. It’s important to wait until now to add the salt, since the anchovy, mayonnaise, and cheese are all salty already.
  • Add the still-warm potatoes and the drained green beans to a large bowl. Stir in about ¾ of the dressing until the vegetables are evenly coated. Gently fold in the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Add more dressing, if needed.
  • At first this will probably taste too salty. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to mellow and combine. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
  • This is ready to serve as is. But if you like a little excess (or if crunch is important to you), heat the optional 2 TB olive oil in a small skillet, then stir in either ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped raw almonds and toast until deeply golden. Sprinkle over the top of the potato salad just before serving.

Watermelon Gin Slushies

As I’m sure is true for many of you, over these past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering hidden treasures (and also “treasures”) in corners of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. One of the latter was a jar of apple butter I don’t want to talk about that I uncovered while cleaning up a spill on the top shelf of my refrigerator. One of the former was a small jar of instant coffee granules that allowed me to experiment with the recent “Dalgona coffee” trend various parts of the internet are extolling. Short story: you need equal parts of each component, it really does whip up like that, and it really is delicious (I’ve heard some people complain that “it still tastes like instant coffee, though.” So it’s only fair, I guess that I confess I’m not a coffee connoisseur). Next time I’m adding in some cocoa powder for a mocha version.

As I’m also sure is true for many of you, I’ve been very careful lately – much more careful than normal – about not letting food go to waste. If it’s in the fridge, it needs to be eaten. Even if I’m tired of it or it wasn’t my favorite. This has led to some creative triumphs – potatoes and lentils cooked with warm Indian-inspired spices, chard from the backyard stirred in to wilt, and topped with a scoop of yogurt and some of the char stems, thinly sliced and pickled – and some creative… well… one-time-only (features) – a pot pie with overly herbed filling and under-salted crust.

Most recently, I combined these two truths in a cocktail: it emptied the remaining few swallows in the bottle of gin I discovered unceremoniously jammed under several bags of almonds at the back of the freezer, and it allowed me to use up some chunks of watermelon from a pre-cut fruit medley N. really wanted but that wasn’t particularly ripe or flavorful.

This is not the most original, or seasonal, or precise of recipes. How’s that for a convincing argument? But honestly, I’m sure the internet has gushed widely about combining watermelon, some sort of alcohol, and ice in a blender and piling it into a tall, frosty glass for a perfect summer afternoon. I did the same (except it’s April, and my watermelon was on the edge). And I’d encourage you to do the same as well! These were bright, they were tasty (at first I wasn’t convinced, but then I realized that even though I knew they were gin and watermelon, I really wanted them to taste like strawberry margarita), and best of all, they are easily adaptable, and offer one small, boozy way to ensure you aren’t letting a single precious (or not-so-precious) item in your well-stocked fridge go unused.

Watermelon Gin Slushies
For 2 small cocktails
About 1 cup frozen watermelon chunks (or other fruit of your choice)
About 1 cup ice cubes
2 shots gin (or other alcohol of your choice)
2 TB simple syrup, or to taste *
juice of half a lime, or to taste
lime wedges, to serve

 

  • Once the watermelon has frozen quite solid, add it, along with everything else except the lime wedges, to a blender. Blend to combine using about 3-second pulses. My blender has a smoothie setting, which does effectively the same thing: short, high-speed pulses until the mixture has become an even-textured, pale pink slush.
  • Taste and adjust quantities of lime juice and sugar syrup to your liking. Blend again briefly to combine if needed, then pour into glasses, garnish with a thin lime wedge, and serve. We had ours with lemon and pepper spiced popcorn and wouldn’t change a thing.

* If you don’t have simple syrup, you can easily make up a batch while the watermelon freezes: just combine equal parts sugar and water in a small pot, bring to a simmer, stir briefly, and when all of the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear and just barely thickened, you’re done, and need only cool it down and find a suitable storage container.

Making art.

This is a strange time. As I write this, I feel I am in a liminal space – hovering at a doorjamb I have not yet passed through. At this moment, I have not yet been truly impacted by the insidiously creeping virus that is COVID-19, snaking its way through increasing percentages of the population. I mean, okay, I braved grocery stores on Friday, standing with dozens of others in lines that stretched to the back wall, waiting to buy what ranged from a regular hand basket to a cart mounded with what would be, for us, more than a month’s worth of products. I may have overbought a bit, thinking forward to how nice it would be to avoid those crowds next weekend, should they continue. But apart from that, it’s not real yet.

It’s going to be. By the time you read this, it will be. This past week my campus, like many others, elected to cancel face-to-face classes at least through spring break, asking instructors to modify and move to online instruction. By the end of this week, I’ll need to do that: in class discussions will become discussion boards. Handouts will become shared files. I’ll have to – gulp – record a few lectures. And I waver between thinking that’s going to be fine, totally manageable, and thinking it’s going to be a disaster.*

So instead of going to work, I’ll be sitting in my home office. I like it in there. It’s bright, it’s small, it’s got a carpet and a desk and three shelves of cookbooks, and it’s where I stow my yoga mat and my stability ball. I’ve written there, I’ve edited photos, I’ve revised and graded and read and read and read. But I’ve never taught there. And by the end of the week, I will be. I’ll have to be careful that room doesn’t become the only room in my world – I love my job, and I want my students to do well, and it would be easy for me to fight the potential boredom of self-isolation or, as is increasingly likely, quarantine, by sinking too fully into the job.

But I’m seeing, through the social media and news sources I wander through, looking alternatively for information and for distraction, urges to create. If you are “trapped” at home, they say, whether you’ve chosen isolation or been advised to quarantine yourself, make art. Write poetry. Knit. Draw. Take pictures. Mold or sculpt or paint or make music. Cook. This sounds, to me, like sage advice. From between and within whatever walls you sit, or crouch, or pace, make art. Maybe for you, never to be shared; maybe tentatively posted somewhere someone might see and gain comfort from; maybe belted (can you belt opera?) from a balcony for your neighborhood to glory in.

So okay, balance matters. I’ll work, but I’ll try to do this as well. I’ll make art. I’ll design meals. I’ll practice my knife-work. I’ll write. Letters and posts and recipes and arguments. Maybe a poem. I’ll turn soil and pull weeds. I’ll turn flour and water and salt into dough, into batter, into bread. I’ll turn words into sentences and paragraphs. I turned what will become sourdough loaves today, rhythmically pulling from the bottom of the ragged ball up and over the mass, one after another after another. And it felt good to do: to create something that will become beautiful.

 

 

* And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be fancy or amazing or perfect. It’s a stop-gap measure, at least it is right now, that will allow my students to continue learning, even if it’s not in the ideal format for me or for them – neither of us signed up for this. But more importantly, it’s just a class, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be the most important thing in either of our lives right now.

In praise of beans?

Last month I read Meghan McCaron’s article “Cool Beans,” about this most humble of ingredients and how it has slid comfortingly into our food scene, and was a mixture of transfixed and scornful. On one hand, there was the image of the author sitting on the floor, being nourished by a simple but enticing dish, so appealing-sounding I was willing to forgive its hipster overtones: “Brothy and luscious in a shallow ceramic bowl, served with oven-fresh focaccia and a zingy glass of natural white wine.” Although the scene takes place in a friend’s apartment, I imagined one of those adobe tile floors that seem to exude warmth and hominess, and maybe there were also small potted olive trees set around, and that’s it, for the rest of the winter I wanted to be in Tuscany eating beans. On the other, there was the cynic in my brain sneering and saying “really? Beans? What’s special about beans?”

McCaron goes on to point out that beans have swum slowly into our consciousness in recent years, but they have never been fully absent: as a species, we have been using them in one form or another for centuries, fresh or dried, as vegetable, as starch, as protein. And now, in the era of heirloom seeds, of the Insta-pot, of ever growing awareness about the environmental costs of meat, beans are… well, cool.

For me, as deeply as I sank into the article’s imagery, beans had never struck me as cool or as particularly delicious. I mean, sure, I love a good dal, and a pot of baked beans threaded with molasses is hard to say no to, and there is something appealing about a creamy cannellini or the perfect hummus, so smooth it feels unreal, like the one at Shawarma King in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that I had back in 2010 or so but still think about… oh. So I did have deep attachment to the unassuming bean after all.

And then I thought of two more bean dishes I’ve eaten. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were transporting, but they brought me miles closer to McCaron’s assessment. In our first year in Los Angeles, while N. still worked at an independent school, one of the students who attended happened to be the son of a restaurateur with an establishment in Culver City (and grandson of a certain spaceship captain in a galaxy far, far away). For a teacher appreciation event, the restaurant provided takeaway dinners, and N. brought home two. In my memory, he didn’t eat his, but upon delivery then went back out to some other school-related obligation. I stayed home and ate the proffered dinner: fried chicken, which I was tremendously excited about, and a small scoop of what turned out to be black or beluga lentils sitting on some frisee.

Beluga lentils are small, intensely black, and shiny, like little beads or beetles, and they, like French green lentils or lentils de puy, retain some texture when cooked, so they are often used in salad preparations. These were glistening and still just warm, and when I dug in a tentative fork I couldn’t believe how flavorful they were. Nothing I had ever done with beans had been so delicious and so simple. Of course, the only things I’d really ever done with beans, besides grind them into falafel, involved opening and draining a can.

My other mind-expanding bean dish was just last year, during a birthday dinner at local chef David LeFevre’s second Manhattan Beach spot: a little (and I mean little) oyster bar slash seafood restaurant just down the block from his better-known Manhattan Beach Post. Everything we ate I wanted more of, but the surprise star that evening was not the fish; it was the unassuming accompaniment on N’s plate: an almost risotto-textured scoop of corn and white beans advertised on the menu as flageolets, providing a warm base for a nice chunk of roasted halibut. Yeah, the fish was good. But those beans! With that sweet summer corn! There was a meatiness and a creaminess about them, and again, an intensity of flavor I didn’t expect.

I had to have more. As September stretched into October, my own bean harvest – from a prolific set of pole bean vines in my backyard – got out of control. Once standard green bean pods start to bulge from the expanding seeds inside, they just aren’t pleasant blanched or steamed anymore: the seeds are starchy and the pods are fibrous and hard to get through. On the contrary, flageolets are immature shell beans, meaning they haven’t yet matured fully into the bean that will be canned or dried and wind up on shelves as kidney beans, navy beans, and a host of others. It turns out overripe green beans make a suitable substitute for flageolets. I stripped them down, simmered them in broth with thyme and garlic and pepper, which they drank and drank and drank, added corn and a gulp of cream, gleefully measuring nothing. We slurped them down, and though I don’t think they quite qualify as “brothy and luscious,” we had them again only a few weeks later.

So I guess I’m on board for the bean love after all. I haven’t put myself in line for a Rancho Gordo subscription yet, but I will admit to saving some of my pole beans that were just too mature and dried out for my bean and corn recreation in hopes of replanting. And beans are finding their way onto my “want to make” list more and more frequently. In particular, I’m still savoring the leftovers of a lentil and goat cheese dish I made from an old (2005) issue of Bon Appetit. It’s been reproduced here; we had ours with black lentils instead of green, and I wilted the spinach into the whole mess and then served it scooped in big spoonfuls on toasted olive ciabatta. And though I haven’t made it yet, I’m all about adding Alison Roman’s shelf-emptying spicy white bean soup with broccoli rabe to my meal plan.

What is your stance on this staple? Are you aboard the bean boat? Are you a legume lover, no holds barred, or are they more of a labor of love for you, or just plain old labor? Let’s discuss, let’s share knowledge and complaints and, if you like, recipes too. Let’s talk beans.

Patatas Bravas with Chorizo Sofrito

This is a dish that plays with tradition, inspired by a place that plays with tradition. And really, as we approach a time of the year deeply steeped in traditions, I think that’s nice: to be able to play while invoking the original makes both the respected origins and the process of recreating (read like the kind of “recreation” you do during a summer vacation, not like the semi-faithful attempt at “creating again”) more fun.

Traditionally, patatas bravas are fried cubes or chunks of potato, served warm with a spicy sauce as part of a tapas spread. These are whole baby or fingerling potatoes, cooked through, smashed lightly, then pan fried until pieces of the skin go quite crunchy and small pieces that fall off get crackly in the almost-smoking oil at the bottom of the pan.

Sofrito, on the other hand… well, the thing about tradition here is that sofrito differs depending on where it’s being made. As well as Spain and Latin America, Italy, Greece, and even the Philippines have versions of this cooking base of aromatics and vegetables, long simmered into something like a ragout. This one, with red bell pepper as well as onion and garlic and some crumbles of chorizo, probably most closely resembles the Cuban iteration.

The dish I’m recreating here was served to me years ago as an appetizer at Father’s Office, a Westside gastropub staple and home not only of the divisive Office Burger, but of the delightfully draconian “no substitutions, no ketchup” policy (which I for one appreciate, though understand others’ objections to). Instead of the controversial burger, N. and I ordered a few small plates to share and couldn’t get over these potatoes, which arrived in a golden heap, their skins wrinkled in a way that can only be achieved by deep frying, smothered in a rich, spicy sofrito that, forgive me, was not exactly like a thick chili, but is the best way I can describe the sauce if you’ve never had it. On top of that, a generous crumble of goat cheese and some cilantro sprigs, and the same night I was looking up the history and variations of the component parts so I could recreate it.

It’s funny, then, that I forgot about it, and it only resurfaced when N. suggested it for dinner last week. Even funnier, given that we exclaimed our enjoyment through the whole meal, that I could have gone half a year or more at a time without thinking about it. I hope, after you dig in, that doesn’t happen to you.

Patatas Bravas with Chorizo Sofrito
Serves 4 as a main or 6-8 as an appetizer
45-60 minutes
8-10 ounces pork chorizo, casing removed
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 large onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, minced
optional: 1 jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed if you wish, minced
1 TB tomato paste
2 pounds fingerling or other baby potatoes
salted water to boil
4 TB olive oil or vegetable oil
5-6 ounces crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup chopped cilantro

 

  • To make the chorizo sofrito, cook down the chorizo in a large skillet over medium heat until it is almost cooked through, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or flat edged wooden spatula.
  • Add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, and jalapeño if using. Sprinkle over the cumin seeds and paprika and stir to integrate. Cook over medium low or low heat until the vegetables are very soft and almost homogeneous: 30-40 minutes. You are looking for something like a thick ragout. Taste for salt and spice and adjust as needed.
  • While the vegetables are sweating and melting, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the potatoes. Cook until potatoes are tender. Drain and set aside until they are just cool enough to handle, then use a potato masher, the heel of your hand, or another flat tool to crush the potatoes lightly.
  • Dry out the pot you used to boil the potatoes and heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat until shimmering. Add potatoes in a single layer (this will require multiple batches). Salt very lightly and cook over medium high heat until they are toasty brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and repeat. Remove from the pot and repeat the browning process with the remaining potatoes, adding more oil as needed.
  • To serve, pile up some of the potatoes in a shallow bowl. Ladle on a generous helping of the sofrito, then crumble over a few ounces of goat cheese and a good sprinkle of chopped cilantro.

Manhattan Beach Post’s Bacon Cheddar Biscuits (no recipe)

If you live near me, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, I hope you have been to Manhattan Beach Post. Headed by Chef David LeFevre (notable a few years ago on food TV for falling one unfortunate battle short of being crowned the newest Iron Chef), it’s an upscale-but-casual spot near the beach, with inventive small plates designed to be shared. You and your dining partner order maybe 3 or 4 things, and they are served as they are ready, which means you might get your fish “main” before you get your pan fried spicy green beans, but that’s okay. It adds to the ability to play with flavor combinations as each new plate arrives at your table. Plus then you have more time to examine the cocktail list to see what to order next…

One of the highlights at MBP comes in the form of their bacon cheddar biscuits. Studded with chunks of cheese that ooze out into crisp, lacy patterns as they bake, they are served still steaming with a small pot of whipped, lightly salted maple butter. People order them by the dozens.

Since, given my penchant for wanting everything, MBP gets a little pricey for a weekly visit, the stretches in between those biscuits get to feeling long. I’m no amateur with biscuits myself, given that a quick word search on this very site turns up no less than eight successful variations and one small disaster, but MBP’s are achingly tender and flavorful and rich in ways mine fall slightly short of. They also have that inimitable quality of being made by someone else, which so often raises the deliciousness quotient a few notches.

I’d certainly be willing, though, given their place in my taste memories, to make them myself, so you can imagine my delight when a week or so ago I found this recipe for the very thing. Naturally this went immediately to the top of my “to make” list, only to be foiled by a series of “there’s no way we’re turning on the oven, nope, not a chance” days in a row.

But a week after the initial find, we had a cooler afternoon, and I collected myself, halved the recipe, and produced a tray of tender, lightly browned blobs oozing with cheese that we gobbled up alongside a salad to pretend we were being responsible. And then three days later we made them for breakfast, sans chives, cheddar, and bacon, splitting them gently and spreading them thickly with maple butter. And I have to say, both times they were just perfect: light, fluffy, tangy from buttermilk, just barely edging toward sweet and salty, and something I’d always be happy to have a half dozen of in the freezer, just for spur-of-the-moment biscuit cravings (what, you don’t have those?).

 

A few notes: I subbed out bacon for pancetta in my savory version because, for a weeknight, I couldn’t pass up the convenience factor of the pre-cubed packet I had only to shake into a frying pan. The dough itself, if you can call it that, just barely holds together, but try to resist the urge to add more liquid, which turns it into a sticky mess almost immediately. As with scones and other such beasties, the key is to mix and knead as little as possible to preserve tenderness; I didn’t even mess with my rolling pin, but just patted the mess into something like a rectangle with lightly floured hands, then sliced the whole thing into squares with a knife instead of bothering with a biscuit cutter. And don’t pass up the brush of butter and sea salt on the top (LeFevre calls for clarified butter; I just used my regular unsalted, melting a little in the warmth of the preheating oven). It promotes browning nicely and offers a little extra decadence, and the crunchy flakes of sea salt are a delight.