Sunday, September 19, 2010
I think my posts are becoming too long, so I've put the recipe at the top for a change.
The potato can be lots of things: comforting (baked), succulent (roasted), sociable (chips). But there's only one way with potatoes that's actually sexy, and it's potato dauphinoise: slices of potato cooked in a garlicky cream and then baked in the oven with a light cheese topping. Meltingly soft, it should have a cheesy-garlic twang and the sauce should flow into the embrace of whatever gravy or jus you've managed to coax out of whatever else that you've cooked (in last night's case, a very small shoulder of lamb that I'd marinaded in thyme, garlic and olive oil and which had unfortunately been completely eaten by the time I took the photo.)
This is my recipe, anyway. You'll need:
1 medium-sized baking potato per person;
n + ((n/2)-1) crushed (but not mashed) garlic cloves per person, to a maximum of n=8, where n is the number of people you're making it for - so if it's just yourself, use 1 garlic clove, but if there are two of you use two, and if there are three of you use 3.5, and if there are four of you use five, and so on, but I wouldn't ever use more than eight cloves;
c. 300ml of double cream - you will need more if cooking for more than two people;
a sprig of thyme;
a bay leaf;
a handful of grated mature cheese - Gruyere is traditional but I used a mixture of Red Leicester and Parmesan last night, thereby making this Potato Dolphin.
1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly. The traditional thing is to slice them about a 1/4-inch thick, but last night I used my beloved mandoline slicer and got wafer-thin slices to see what would happen.
2. Place the potatoes, cream, garlic and herbs in a saucepan, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and heat the cream until boiling. Turn down the heat and simmer for ten minutes.
3. While the potatoes are cooking, rub the interior of a baking dish with half a cut garlic clove and then smear it with butter.
4. When the potato has been simmering for ten minutes, fish out the garlic and herbs and throw them away. You don't want to be eating big chunks of garlic and sprigs of thyme. Next, pour the potatoes and cream from the saucepan into the baking dish, grate the cheese over the top (or scatter it over the top if you already grated it) and bake for forty minutes.
5. When it's tender and the cheese has formed a nice brown crust on the top, take it out and let it sit for ten minutes. This is essential! Why? Because otherwise it will be a.) volcanically hot and b.) too runny. You want it to congeal slightly and settle down before serving it. Or rather trying to serve it, because it will ooze.
6. Cut in portions like a creamy potato-based lasagna and serve with grilled or roast lamb - or steak, if you're really not worried about your arteries. This dish is crying out for browned, rare meat and winey juices.
This was my most successful dauphinoise ever. Not because of my years of experience and innate genius, but because the potatoes were sliced so thin. Sometimes my dauphinoises are heavy and starchy, but in this one the potato was almost but not quite melting into the sauce. Big thanks to my friend Niall Markey, chef-turned-farmer, who gave me the mandoline in the first place in an act of unprompted generosity. (Niall also makes the best pizzas I have ever eaten.)
I am not a huge fan of potato. I was brought up on boiled potatoes as a kid and if there's one process a potato shouldn't have to undergo, it's being peeled and boiled in water, and then served up just as it is, as if it were fit to eat. I don't like mash. I can more or less do without chips, unless I'm having either steak & frites or moules & frites. Apart from dauphinoise, which is a rare and guilty pleasure, I only love potatoes two ways: roasted and fried. The point of a potato, for me, is not the boring fluffy white stuff but the crisp golden crust surrounding the fluffy white stuff. There's a fair amount of work entailed in getting a potato to that state (peeling, pre-boiling, draining, cooking in hot fat) and so I can seldom be bothered to, thankfully for my cholesterol levels.
The single worst thing I have ever been served in a restaurant was a 'baked potato' in a place in Ballinasloe, undoubtedly one of the worst towns in Ireland (although it did have a surprisingly brilliant secondhand bookshop in which I scored an ultra-rare copy of Richard Farina's uncollected writings for 35p); when the baked potato finally appeared, it turned out that they'd peeled it, wrapped it in foil and heated it in the oven. That was the sum total of what they did to it. Because of course, there's a whole bunch of classic French recipes for potatoes that seldom if ever get tried, such as pommes fondant (olive-shaped bits of potatoes fried lightly then cooked in stock until the stock boils away and glazes the spud), potato croquettes (potato puree enriched with egg, formed into clumps, rolled in egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried - hell yeah, I'm doing that one of these days), potatoes boulangéres, which my dad used to make: slice potatoes and onions thinly, alternate layers of them in a well-buttered baking dish, cover with stock and bake until they can be cut with a spoon. (The best way to do them is to place your meat on top, so that the meat juices run into the potato-onion mixture. My dad used to use chicken portions but lamb is also good.)
I hardly ever eat potato dauphinoise. I think the first time I ever ate it was in Pierre Levicky's much missed bargain bistro Chez Jules, in Dublin in the mid-90s. It used to be possible to go to Chez Jules and order a steak, potato dauphinoise and a bottle of wine on a student's budget. I think he did it by having very few things on the menu and using cheaper and more interesting cuts of steak than the usual sirloin and fillet, because Chez Jules was almost certainly the first place I ever tasted ribeye. The kitchen was semi-open and there was a constant sense of things exploding into huge bursts of flame as the chefs tossed glugs of wine into hot sauté pans. I had many memorable meals there, or maybe it was just a very few extremely memorable ones. The Chez Jules project died in Dublin because the Irish went straight from not having much of a taste for food to having a need to be seen to be spending a lot of money on it, and so a great but inexpensive idea like Levicky's became a place that Dubliners thought was beneath them, and we ended up with shitty rip-off joints like Cafe Soho (formerly the utterly contemptible Cornerhouse, if I remember its accursed name correctly). Levicky is back now, at least in my new town, and he has the same menu as before. Good man.