My plan was to write every single day in April, but yesterday I came up short. It was Birthday Eve, and I just sort of melted into the couch with a bowl of pho and season four of Parks & Rec. It had been a long week; my boss has been away, so I’ve been using this bit of down-time to cross a million little things off my to-do list. I have been sweatily productive, even on painkillers. It wears a person out, you know?
So, anyway, though I had every intention of remaining committed to this arbitrary goal I’ve set for myself, I vegged out instead and am probably better for it.
Fortunately, I have two books to tell you about today! Two books I read in one weekend, back when I had no small person demanding a lot of my time and attention. I read the first book (The Man Who Ate Everything), and liked it so much I went out and bought the sequel (It Must’ve Been Something I Ate) and finished it the next day.
Jeffrey Steingarten, the author of both, is a writer and a curmudgeon. He has been a columnist for Vogue since 1989, and frequently appears as a judge on Iron Chef. He is obsessive, and so funny that even years after I first read the books, when I flip through them again I find myself in tears, laughing until I can barely breathe.
“For weeks I had been preoccupied with horses. Every time I saw a horse dragging tourists across the snow in Central Park, or standing under a policeman on the cobblestones of SoHo, I began to salivate. In truth, it was the fat of the horses, the fat around their kidneys, that excited me.” (Page 401.)
“Someday soon, I was sure, I would cook my own French fries in the fat of a horse. When and how this would be accomplished were questions that made the future seem alive with prospects and possibilities.” (Page 402.)
“As soon as I arrive at the Chinos’, a 20-minute drive north of San Diego plus ten minutes to the east, I nearly always enter their farm stand through a door on the left, say hello to everybody on duty, and start eating. First I eat half a basket of the best strawberries in America, the smallish, irregular, incredibly sweet and perfumed Mara des bois, developed in France with a heady foretaste of the European wild strawberry. Nobody has them but the Chinos. Then I eat half a basket of the other best strawberries in America, the tiny conical Alpine variety, in your choice of red or white, hard to distinguish in aroma from the French fraises des bois. Also only at the Chinos’. As long as I pretend to take notes, nobody gawks at my behaviour.” (Page 206.)
Each chapter is its own essay, and each is darkly humourous and self-deprecating and rich with the kind of in-depth information you can only get from someone truly committed to unraveling the science and mystery of a particular dish. You get the history, you get the chemistry, you get the details of Steingarten’s step-by-step process of achieving whatever culinary goal he’s set out to achieve (and eat). The prose is spectacular, and the recipes work. In my mind, there is no other potato gratin recipe than Steingarten’s Gratin Dauphinois, from It Must’ve Been Something I Ate.
- 1/2 cup of butter
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 large garlic clove, crushed
- 1/2 tsp. white pepper
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 1/2 lbs thinly-sliced potatoes (use a mandolin if you have one; if not, cut 1/8″ slices by hand)
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Using a good dollop of the butter, grease the inside of a 9″x13″ baking dish on all sides. If you have an enamelled cast iron baking dish (I don’t), that’s ideal; if not, glass or ceramic will do. Preheat oven to 425°F.
In a pan on your stove, bring the milk, salt, pepper, garlic clove, and nutmeg to a boil. Remove from heat and turn off the element.
Line your pan with potatoes. You will overlap each slice of potato a third of the way down each slice that comes before it. When you complete the first layer of potatoes, follow a similar process with the second row, this time overlapping entire rows a third of the way over the first row. Repeat with subsequent rows until potatoes are neatly layered. If none of that made sense and you’re sitting here thinking “uh, what?” then just layer the potatoes neatly and do your best. Steingarten’s instructions are detailed, but I am comfortable half-assing these things.
Put your pot of milk and spices back on the stove – bring it to a boil once more. When it’s come to a boil, pull the clove of garlic out, and pour the mixture over the potatoes. Bake, covered with a lid or aluminum foil, for 15 minutes.
Bring the cream to a boil. Remove from heat, and turn off element.
When the potatoes come out of the oven, bring the cream to a boil once again. Pour the boiled cream over the potatoes, and dot the whole thing on the top with the remaining butter.
Bake, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
I did promise a second recipe! I was tempted to phone it in and just re-share the Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne I posted here now several years ago … but I did miss writing yesterday and really ought to do better. So, here’s a pretty excellent recipe for Bagna Caôda, a hot dip you should make right now and eat with a lot of bread and raw white mushrooms. It’s from The Man Who Ate Everything, page 266. It calls for Barolo, which is expensive; use a decent Shiraz. I like the Cono Sur Shiraz which costs $10. (I’m too poor to cook with really good wine.)
Cesare’s Favorite Bagna Caôda
- 1 cup Barolo (or Shiraz)
- 1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled and sliced
- 1 1/2 oz. (8 to 10) anchovy fillets
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tbsp. butter
In a small saucepan, bring the wine to a boil over medium high heat. Add garlic, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for two minutes. Add anchovies and olive oil, and simmer for another two minutes. Add butter, and reduce heat to medium low, simmering gently for about 45 minutes, or until the anchovies dissolve.
If you are making this in advance, don’t refrigerate it. Just reheat when you’re ready. Serve as a dip for raw vegetables. Don’t mind your breath.