There’s nothing harder to cook well than comfort food. And no more difficult way to do it than home cooking. The emphasis is on the qualifier, “well,” as in everything in life. Nevertheless, it’s inherent in the idea of comfort food that execution is not paramount. Indeed, as most comforts reside in that Proustian reflex that is triggered by the first mouthful of whatever (usually) childhood favorite that even approximates the product of the exertions of one’s favorite cook—usually a parent or older relative—during some critical period in one’s upbringing, the chronological limits of which are no doubt to be determined at some future date by a credentialed culinary or food studies specialist with the usual two or three degrees after his or her name—a discipline that didn’t exist as few as 25 years ago, but is a serious thing, so stop giggling. It is immaterial the essential, dare I call it the absolute?, quality of the dish as “cuisine,” bearing all the weight and pretense and pomp of that term. And there’s the problem for me.
I at least make a big show of brooking no compromise, even in the homeliest and simplest of dishes. In practice, of course, what it boils down to is that the real mother of invention is compromise. I say all this just to set the stage for what’s coming. Trust that I know the horror of eating those “mashed potatoes to die for” that “we always had on the holidays” and that actually taste like papier maché that has been oversalted and made from newsprint from which the ink has not been removed, and leaves a faint aftertaste of margarine and milk less than a day from going bad, and yet I acknowledge the perfect seriousness with which we must always regard comfort food, because such is its status in the enchanted mind of everyone you know. Everyone.
I recognize what comfort food is. I recognize the aura of sanctity it bears in the minds of virtually everyone who is free to decide what they eat, when they eat it, and where and how—in effect, every able-bodied adult capable of mashing hard-cooked eggs, along with the most haphazardly minced scallions or chives (likely wilted) and a large dollop of Cain’s or Hellman’s or, even better, cheap store-brand mayonnaise. Add a secret ingredient or two—ah, but, forget it… there are no secrets to be revealed here, there are no Dinin secrets, not about egg salad [disclosure: I have no heirloom recipe, designated, of course, as “the best in the world” handed down by my bubbe, the last of my two forebears of that sex having died two or three years before I was born]—and do not stand between the result and the person, likely in some straitened state of emotional disequilibrium, suffering the neeed for a fix of comfort of the consumable variety, and of course, the absolutely fundamental condition of being hungry, at least as hungry “as the wolf felt.” Between two slices of very fresh sourdough bread.
But, for all that, I honor and respect the mythic status of such a dish in the mind of he or she who craves it, like a former lover who suddenly pops into your head when you’re having intractable problems with the current model, or the urgent need for your favorite alcohol when suddenly it’s the moment you realize everything has turned to shit on a critical project for work and you’ll have to start all over from scratch.
Comfort food takes all the edge off when the stakes are high—or has all the calming of a sedative when you’re too keyed up to relax and too exhausted to think straight. So, of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s made with the platonic compulsion of Escoffier or the scientific precision of Charlie Trotter. Given. It can be made by just as mediocre a cook as your mother in actuality was, and to you it will taste just delicious, and fill your brain with a flood of endorphins.
Nevertheless, I say, why settle for third best when there’s absolutely nothing about the homeliest of foods that demands any less than to reach for excellence?
A lot rides on the skill of the home cook to bring it home with dishes as important as those that comprise the vast menu of comfort foods. Likely few of these soul-satisfying dishes has universal appeal. One man’s mac ‘n’ cheese may leave another woman feeling queasy. There’s no predicting any one person’s favorites.
However, I’d venture to say that no meal provides the potentialities for comfort as well as breakfast—the matutinal repast long positioned, and long derided, as the most important of the day. I won’t enter that debate, not here. And I won’t predict the degree of proximity to unanimity on which daily meal truly fits that bill, but I do know that I love my breakfast. And I know very few people who skip it, however meager. Perhaps there aren’t enough of those types happy with a cup a’ joe and a pop tart in my life, but for that I merely count myself lucky.
I could get easily sidetracked on the vast subject of just exactly which baked goods as well as the breadth of choices from which I have been fortunate to be able to choose satisfy my longing for a good first meal of the day, before venturing to my encounter with the rest of it, and all that it will bring. But I won’t. Not now. Baked goods deserve a whole series of posts and having built the place to put them, I’ll just say, they will come.
Rather I come today to write of the potato, that estimable, yet at the same time lowly if venerated, tuber. And to address particularly the dish that is its quintessential manifestation at the morning meal. I’d even dare to say, to embellish that superlative, that the home fried potato is singularly appropriate upon which to dine only at breakfast. Consider all the cafes, diners and bistros that offer breakfast, not to mention lunch and dinner. It is only on the breakfast menu, including that which is “served all day”—leaving aside the ontological perplexities of such a concept—that one discovers the choice of home fries, assuming they are offered at all. More pointedly, there is the question of what exactly is on offer when the preparation in question is designated with that soubriquet. Before quitting this paragraph I’ll merely note that Barbara Haber, deep in the bowels of her canonical From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, notes casually, almost en passant, having just described one revered African-American woman cook’s time-honored Christmas breakfast, “‘thin-sliced skillet-fried white potatoes,’ more commonly known as home fries, a comforting dish that can turn up at any meal.”Haber, Barbara (2010-05-08). From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals (p. 187). Free Press. Kindle Edition. But who are you going to believe, a world-famous librarian and curator of the world’s most comprehensive collection of cookbooks, or me? I get around this conundrum by merely pointing out that it’s an age-old tradition, that of “breakfast for dinner” or any time. And what makes breakfast but home fries?
I put it to you that the home fry is a particular concoction, not to be confused with other versions of the fried potato, too often erroneously designated as such when, in truth, what is delivered to your place is some perhaps grand, perhaps desultory dish more precisely designated as hashed potatoes, or hash browns, or grilled (or baked or roasted, but not all the oils of Araby will make a potato stuck in the oven a fried potato, never mind a home fried potato). You might even be served, in the right venue, at the right moment, and likely the right locality, potatoes dauphinoise—and who does not love them for what they are?—but they would not be home fries. You will most likely be served what are called “home fries” by the New York Times current poobah of food (whose claim to fame used to be that he had written a cookbook unselfconsciously entitled How To Cook Everything, while at the same time accepting the crafty nom de cooktop, belying the obvious intent of this self-coronation, of “The Minimalist”). I mean Mark Bittman who, since he courageously and largely for reasons of health (the best reasons in the world) shed significant excess personal avoirdupois and almost, seemingly simultaneously, began reading, apparently for the first time, discovering a world beyond the kitchen, the editorial pages of his employer for so many years, has re-branded himself as a foodie/advocate, and he writes eloquent, reasoned, and deceptively impassioned pleas about how the entire planet or the entirety of mankind (take your pick) should eat sensibly, cost be damned, or we are all doomed.
What Mr. Bittman thinks are home fries are, indeed, telling from the exertions and offerings of most home-style restaurants, diners, and “breakfast all day” eateries, small chunks, cubes and wedges, approximately three-quarters of an inch in any dimension, of red-skinned potatoes, washed, but not skinned (and readily supplied as such, no doubt, by the likes of the empire of food supplies to the commercial food industry, Sysco, in mammoth polyethylene bags, ready to be poured in the desired quantity onto a well-oiled or greased griddle) to be cooked in fat, preferably vegetable oil, on all sides until browned, and then cooked a little further to add the requisite all-American crispiness. Well, I say, “bushwah.” I say, the lazy man’s fried potato, and lacking in some essential qualities for a home fry (or any other fry, most notably a proper pomme frite or what we call in the U.S. a french fry—but once again, what constitutes “proper,” although alluded to further along, is, in the case of the pomme frite, a rather complex subject and tricky undertaking in execution, and so will be taken up in some future post. The chief virtue of the Bittman home fry is that it can sit in the pan, or even out of it, until the diners are ready to consume them so the cook can readily re-heat them, and re-heat them, and re-heat them, again and again and again, without much damage to the consistency with any modicum of attentiveness–until they become rather limp, characterless shadows of their already unremarkable selves.
The home fry as I propose it to you can be, indeed is, a course in itself, and yet is served, likely, best as accompaniment to other components of the meal. In our house, we almost invariably have home fries at breakfast, and, given the predilections of the participants, this usually means eggs, usually scrambled, soft, but dry, and a breakfast meat, from sausage to bacon to steak, if one of us (the meat eater) is feeling particularly atavistic, or hungry to the point of ravenous. The eggs are not a big deal, and even a steak (always grass fed, and usually one of only four or five cuts: strip, filet, hanger, flank, or skirt) requires only to be watched closely as it sears on both sides in a cast iron pan. The steak may be finished entirely on the stovetop, or in a very hot oven, after being seared for a minute or two on each side in the pan before inserting the meat and its cooking vessel directly into the pre-heated oven.
Here’s what’s needed for the home fries.
Howard’s Home Fries
The best potato for this is, in fact, the Russet, of which there are small number of usually available permutations. Provenance is of little regard, Maine or Idaho (or even Florida or California). Just make sure it’s fresh, doesn’t show a clear and unambiguous green hue showing through the skin, has no burgeoning shoots or root buds growing from where the otherwise inconspicuous “eyes” used to be, bears no bruises or dark spots, and shows only the slightest, if any, marks of the spade (deep nicks, divots, gouges, and scars).
Why is the Russet best? Because it is of the mealy (so-called) variety, as opposed to the waxy (which most red and gold skinned potatoes are). Mealy potatoes are called that because the significantly higher starch content renders them of a particular texture when cooked, giving them a “mealy” quality in the mouth. What all this means is that the potato, in fact, is capable of a significantly higher uptake of moisture, in the form of added liquids, such as the various fluids and semi-fluids and fats added to baked or boiled Russet potatoes to make mashed potatoes, a dish for which the species is optimal.
What happens scientifically when the Russet is cooked is this, according to Professor Diane McComber (Iowa State University, retired;J. Agric. Food Chem. 1994, 42: 2433- 2439) “Russet Burbank potatoes were observed to absorb more moisture while less of the moisture in the lower-starch waxy potatoes was absorbed by the swollen starch granules leaving more free moisture. This explains why mealy potatoes are perceived as dry while waxy potatoes are characterized as moist.” The scientific underpinnings of my preference for Russets are amplified by the remarks of Mr. Harold McGee, everyone’s favorite kitchen scientist.
Mealy types (russets, blue and purple varieties, Russian and banana fingerlings) concentrate more dry starch in their cells, so they’re denser than waxy types. When cooked, the cells tend to swell and separate from each other, producing a fine, dry, fluffy texture that works well in fried potatoes and in baked and mashed potatoes, which are moistened with butter or cream. In waxy types (true new potatoes and common U.S. red- and white-skinned varieties), neighboring cells cohere even when cooked, which gives them a solid, dense, moist texture, and them together in intact pieces for gratins, potato cakes, and salads. [McGee, H. (2004). On food and cooking : the science and lore of the kitchen. New York, Scribner. pp.302-303]
The result of these responses is that, via a three-step cooking process, the Russet potato is transformed into the optimal manifestation of the home fried potato as sought, I would venture universally, as a quintessential. This recipe produces a result that has integrity, solidity, and an ensemble of mouth feel experiences, accompanied by complementary layers of flavor that is almost musical, if of a particular American genre of interwoven textures and harmonies. And here’s where the “proper” alluded to above comes in, as the same generic combination of textures—crisp on the outside, soft and tender on the inside—applies to the quintessential pommes frites.
(for 2 servings)
- 1 large (approximately 1/2 pound) Russet Potato, skin intact, thoroughly rinsed and brushed lightly with a vegetable brush
- 1 Tablespoon of 100% organic virgin coconut oil; you may substitute butter in the same amount, but if you’re trying to avoid saturated fats, I don’t see the point, unless you have a flavor preference; coconut oil and butter have the same melting and flash points, so the difference is in the flavor, with the coconut oil having the edge of neutrality—but choose your favorite; although highly saturated in fats, coconut oil and butter allegedly each have other components that makes eating them in moderation possibly even salutary
- 1 Tablespoon of 100% organic canola (or other high flash point vegetable) oil
- 1/2 small to medium yellow onion
- coarsely ground black pepper to taste (I like Tellicherry)
- a pinch of Celtic sea salt, fine ground (a pinch is generally understood to be 1/16 to 1/8 of a teaspoon; it is the amount you can hold comfortably between the tips of your index finger and thumb)
- 1 stiff-bladed (with an offset) turner, at least six inches long
- 1 11-12 inch seasoned cast iron skillet
- 1 Adjustable vegetable mandoline-style slicer (I like the French-made Bron™, worth every penny as it will last forever)
- 1 Knife-resistant Kevlar™ cutting glove, to fit (this allows you to hold what you’re cutting in your fingers, instead of using clumsy and hard-to-control food safety carriages, all without cutting your personal flesh)
- 1 small or medium pair of chef’s stainless steel spring-loaded tongs
- 1 large pan lid or cover sufficient to cover the pan and contents without allowing steam to escape
With a very sharp bladed 8″ to 10″ chef’s knife cut the potato evenly in half lengthwise. Set aside.
Set up the mandoline slicer over a large wooden chopping board, to catch the slices. Adjust the straight blade of the mandoline to produce slices approximately 1/8-inch (3+ mm) in thickness; slight deviations in measurement are not critical.
First slice the half onion into slices, holding the onion in your gloved hand as you pass it through the cutting edge. Slice the entire onion.
Now (and this will go much more smoothly and rapidly than the onion, so be extra careful, even using the glove), slice one half of the potato entirely, and then the other half.
You will end up with a pile of potato slices covering a smaller pile of onion slices. Make sure any strays have been placed back on the board.
Over a medium burner setting on the stovetop, heat the cast-iron skillet, and right after turning on the burner, drop the coconut oil into the pan, immediately followed with the tablespoon of vegetable oil. Swirl them both around in the pan once the coconut oil liquefies.
When the surface of the oil begins to shimmer, but not smoke, add all the onion and potato slices at once (I usually just slide them off the cutting board into the pan; but whatever method satisfies your own esthetic for operational detail, go for it). Immediately sprinkle the contents of the pan with the pinch of salt and a turn or two (or three) of the pepper mill set to coarse. Using the tongs, mix up the slices evenly, potatoes and onions, well in the pan, and let them sit in the heat to get an initial sear on some of the potato slices.
When the ingredients have begun to sear, mix them again with the tongs, also turning them, in sections, so all surfaces are coated in oil and some optimal number of slices get exposed to the cooking surface. Sear some more, very lightly.
The onions and potatoes should only be getting very lightly browned. Don’t allow anything to burn, and, using the turner, make sure no ingredients, but especially the potato slices, stick to the bottom of the pan.
After about seven or eight minutes of cooking and turning, begin to gather the slices into a low mound toward the center of the pan. Cover the pan fairly tightly, so no steam escapes. The cover should not be touching any of the ingredients. Lower the heat of the burner to low, or even very low. Using a cast-iron skillet means there will be a signicant amount of retained heat, which will continue to cook the potatoes and onions until the temperature of everything drops.
Covering the pan will ensure, among other things, that the moisture escaping from the onions and potatoes will be trapped and will drip off the lid onto the ingredients for a braising effect. Trapping the moisture will also ensure that the starch granules of the potato will be absorbing it, becoming engorged and softening—essentially the body of the potatoes will cook at the temperature of the water vapor, just about that of steam, and so they will cook gently, making them very tender. The surfaces of the potatoes touching the pan surfaces will also begin to brown nicely, but not too much as a result of lowering the cooktop heat.
From time to time, for a period of at least another ten minutes, lift the lid to allow any trapped water to flow back into the pan, and to ensure, inspecting by eye, that nothing is getting overly browned or even blackened—the temperature should be low enough so as to preclude the possibility, but turning everything every so often, will make the cooking more even throughout and help avoid the possibility of over-browning too many surfaces.
The next stage of cooking, the third one actually, is ready to commence when the slices of potato noticeably adhere to one another, as a result of the engorged starch granules acting as a kind of glue. Using the turner, assemble the ingredients into a round cake in the middle of the pan, about eight inches in diameter. Press this cake flat gently. It should be even more obvious that the slices of potato are adhering to one another. As you begin to gather the slices into this cake, turn up the heat under the pan to slightly more than medium low.
While this potato “cake” is cooking, you may attend to other components of the meal (scrambling eggs, toasting bread, etc.). Watch the cake in the pan, and be especially mindful of signs of burning. After about five or six minutes after having removed the cover from the pan—and all this while you may, and should, be adjusting the cake, to keep it round, and to make sure “stray” slices are adhering to the main body of it—try turning the entire cake at once to cook it on its other side. In a perfect world, which this is not, there will be no strays or bits falling off, but there is no harm if they do. Simply scrape them onto the cake, onto the sides and the top, and press, so the “glue” of the potato starch makes them adhere. The surface that was on the bottom should be a deep golden brown, with some lighter and darker spots.
Allow to cook for another four or five minutes. The idea is to form a crust, which will provide that mouth-satisfying crispiness or crunch, to blend with each mouthful of the soft, “mealy” interior. The home fry should have some of the texture or mouth feel of a dryer version of mashed potatoes (without all the added calories of butter or cream that are usually added—there are enough fat calories in the oils used to fry the potatoes for this dish). Try turning the cake again. It should hold its integrity and remain whole on the turner this time, turning like a big fat pancake. If both sides are fairly well browned, the heat can be turned to very low, or even off, as the retained heat of the pan will keep the home fries at the right temperature for serving. As you get closer to bringing all the dishes to the table, turn off the heat altogether for sure. There is no reason to cover the pan, as doing so raises the risk of making the home fries, especially their outer “crust” a little soggier than most people prefer.
One potato, as in this recipe, will provide two servings to be divided as you like (slicing the home fries, as a potato cake, down the middle is the simplest and most equitable way of creating the portions). Any leftover home fries (a most uncommon occurrence) can be reheated once, successfully, especially in a hot oven or on the stove top, just long enough to heat it through, and resurrect some of the original crispiness of the surface.
When served and eaten, it really shouldn’t need any corrective seasoning, unless the individual diner’s preference calls for it.by