I don’t know exactly when I had my “aha” food moment. It could have been while I was tasting fabulous seafood at Atlantic City’s top restaurants in the early 1970s, when I dated a suave man-about-town there.
Maybe it was even earlier, when I discovered the one cookbook in my parent’s home, hidden in a dark closet as if it were forbidden erotica. The banana-chocolate cake I made,
I recall, was a revelation.
Probably, though, it was in my mid- to late-20s, when I began watching The Galloping Gourmet, trying magazine recipes, and buying cookbooks of my own. At some point I realized that with the right recipe I could make the best version of a food I’d ever tasted. The best meatloaf, the best chocolate pudding, the best Thanksgiving turkey.
I remember setting out on a quest to upgrade all of my favorite foods. Some transformations were more astounding than others. Near the top of the list was good old scalloped potatoes. Here’s how my mother made them: peel a bunch of potatoes, slice them and pack them in a casserole dish, sprinkling each layer with flour, salt and pepper and dotting with butter. Pour milk over the top and bake.
I was such a scalloped potato hound that I even liked Mom’s. And when we went to Southern Park Mall in Youngstown and ate at Woolworth’s Harvest House Cafeteria, I’d get the scalloped potatoes with ham. Not AND ham. It was scalloped potatoes with little cubes of ham mixed right in.
But even scalloped potatoes can be improved upon, I figured, so I found a recipe that called for simmering the sliced potatoes in milk, then layering in a casserole with cheese, nutmeg and a milk-egg mixture before baking. The potatoes were fabulous, but I remember thinking they were a lot of work.
Last week I again made Gratin Daphinois – fancy scalloped potatoes – but I simplified the recipe. I peeled the potatoes and nuked them in the microwave for about 1 minute each, until they were about half cooked. I then warmed the milk in the microwave and stirred in half the cheese, a combination of provolone and Parmesan that I bought pre-grated in a tub in the dairy case. I sliced the potatoes and layered them with dabs of butter and the rest of the cheese, poured the milk mixture (scented with nutmeg) over all, and baked it for just 30 minutes. It tasted incredible. I’m calling this Incredible Scalloped Potatoes. Serve it with your Easter ham and you’ll be a hero.
INCREDIBLE SCALLOPED POTATOES
- 9 russet potatoes (about 3 lbs.)
- 2 cups milk
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tbsp. flour
- Fresh-grated nutmeg
- 1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (gruyere if you have it)
- 1 cup shredded (not grated) fresh Parmesan
- Salt, pepper
- 3 tbsp. butter
Peel potatoes, pierce with a fork, and microwave them two at a time for two minutes per batch, until about half cooked. Set aside.
In a 4-cup microwave-safe measuring cup or a bowl, heat milk with garlic until very hot in a microwave. Place flour in a custard cup and add some of the hot milk, stirring rapidly with a fork until smooth. Add more milk, stirring, until about one-half cup milk has been added in all. Whisk the mixture into the milk in the large measuring cup. Microwave 1 to 2 minutes longer, whisking every 30 seconds, until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from oven and stir in a couple of pinches of grated nutmeg and half the cheeses.
Cut the potatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange a layer of potatoes in a buttered gratin pan or casserole dish. Season with salt and pepper and dot with about 1 tablespoon of the butter. Sprinkle with one-third of the remaining cheese. Repeat with another layer of potatoes and toppings. Finish with remaining potatoes and toppings. Pour milk mixture over potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and top is crisp and golden. Makes about 8 servings.
If you don’t have any dinner plans for Saturday, I hope you’ll join me at a really neat chili and dessert cook-off at Copley High School. I won’t be judging, just sampling and enjoying myself. It will be a fun time, and proceeds will benefit teens at Akron Children’s Hospital oncology unit.
The seventh annual Lauren Audrey Braman memorial Chili Cook-Off and Dessert Bake-Off will be from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Copley High School commons. Tickets are $7 at the door (children 5 and under free).
Lauren’s mother, Christine, sent this note of explanation:
“I should probably mention that a big difference with this event from other chili events is that it was started by Lauren’s classmates six months after she died. They were only in their junior year and wanted to start a scholarship in her name. After four years of the event we raised $20,000 and endowed her scholarship at $1,000 per year in perpetuity. The Copley High School students required each entry to have a theme and decorations. It has made it a festive and fun event.”
What a beautiful tribute from Lauren’s friends.
BOOKS FOR COOKS
Please share your food-book recommendations.
Speaking of books, I found “Sadness of Lemon Cake” strange, unreadable, and the premise just plain weird. Wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
We love Ruth Reichl at our house. She spoke a year or two ago at the Cleveland Public Library and we loved it so much. We’ve read, among others, “Garlic and Sapphires” and “Tender at the Bone.” Great writer, great tweeter, and an all-around nice person.
We also love any of Anthony Bourdain’s books. He’s a fantastic writer, snarky, sarcastic and funny. All of his food-related non-fiction books are among our favorite all-time reads.
Dear Lauri: I liked that strange Lemon Cake book, but then, I also liked “The Man Who Ate the 747” by Ben Sherwood, about a guy who ate an airplane bite by bite.
I’ve been meaning to email you and I’m finally doing so since you talked about books in your last newsletter. I, too, love reading “foodie” books and memoirs (although I’m not a cookbook reader or peruser). Matter of fact, I often sneak a peek at the book club selection for the culinary book club Stephanie Paganini hosts at her mom’s cooking school. I wish there were one on the west side of Cleveland. I couldn’t put down “Apron Anxiety.” Yes, it was too drama-filled at times; however, I loved her free spirit. So I’ve been meaning to tell you about a documentary I watched a few weeks ago: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was captivating and I thought you and Tony might enjoy it. It’s probably available at your local library.
Dear Mary: Please share your future foodie book finds! “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is indeed excellent. Tony and I bought a copy of the Japanese-language documentary (with English subtitles) as soon as it was available. Many of the exacting techniques shown in the film are familiar to Tony, as was Tokyo’s gigantic fish market, which Tony visited daily for three years with his Itamai (sushi master) while in training. It was fun watching the film with him, because he expanded on things (such as taking a core sample from the tuna’s tail) that flashed across the screen too briefly for me.
Re: Continental Cuisine in Fairlawn — I’m with you. I don’t care if Continental’s chicken shawarma is traditional or not – I LOVE the crunch of the toasted pita and the pickle MAKES the meal. I ALWAYS get that when I go there. Their lentil soup is good but too much can produce undesirable physical reactions for some people. A little spoonful goes a long way. I love Continental’s fresh tabbouleh and often get that with my shawarma, and save half of it for the next day. When my kids lived at home they liked Continental’s chicken tenders and the pizza.
The best baba ganouj I have found anywhere is at Aladdin’s in downtown Cleveland. It is smoky and creamy goodness. SO good. I miss working downtown — I used to go over there at lunch and get their spinach and feta pies (heated up), the fresh pita, baba ganouj, tabbouleh, bean salads, Middle Eastern style mozzarella with black sesame seeds, etc.
Dear Cindy: Now I’m hungry for baba ganouj. By the way, I forgot to give credit last week to Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen (www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com) for much of the information I culled on the shawarma and garlic sauce, including the basic recipes – modified – for both.
I’ll have to check out the pizza/Lebanese restaurant in Fairlawn if I’m ever down that way. If you’re ever at the West Side Market in Cleveland, you would love Nate’s, a deli that is a few doors down from the market on West25th Street. I crave their stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and shish tawook sandwiches. Sounds similar to the chicken shawarma at Continental Cuisine but without the dill pickles. Since it is a deli there are lots of menu options but I’ve only ever gotten the Lebanese food. Fantastic fresh, fresh, fresh tabbouleh salad too; I could go on and on.
Dear Molly: Thanks for the recommendation. I do go to the market occasionally, and will check it out.
From Betty in Florida:
Thank you so much for the recipes from Continental Cuisine. I don’t miss winters, but I do miss that little restaurant. My goal is to find the secret to the salad dressing they use for their fatoush. I’ve tried, with the help of my Lebanese cookbook, but something is missing. Would you give it a try?
Dear Betty: Sometimes I order a half fatoush salad with chicken. I’ll refresh my memory the next time I visit and give it a try.