Pommes anna

pommesanna

Remember my recent post, about our Wine Benefactor? Well, we had dinner with his family again this week, along with another guest (I’m beginning to think it’s a nonstop party at that house). We volunteered to bring something, and I had all these locally-grown, organic yukon gold potatoes, purchased for one dollar a pound at the farmer’s market (I bought more this morning, and each week I pay very quickly and run, because I’m afraid that they’ll eventually figure out they’re giving the potatoes away).

So, I looked at the potatoes. It was either the potatoes, or a green salad, since that’s all we had in our house, and I’m on a spending freeze until payday. Remember, too, last time at the dinner, that I made a fingerling potato salad? With that option out for redundancy, I pondered my options.

Sometime between lunch-cleanup and diaper-folding, the kitchen muse presented me with a photographic memory from Cook’s Illustrated. It was a photo of pommes anna (potatoes anna for those of us who don’t speak French). Lovely in presentation, I remembered reading about it once, and thinking it wouldn’t be too hard to pull off. I first went online to cooksillustrated.com, but for good measure looked for direction from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My copy of Julia’s tome left me with nothing (perhaps it’s in the other volume?), for which I was secretly thankful, lest I end up with a more difficult challenge in the kitchen than I needed on a Thursday afternoon. Alone. With three adorable children who would eventually be done with “rest time.”

It’s basically potatoes and butter. I believe the original recipe was nothing but that, and salt. The Cook’s version utilizes a little vegetable oil too (perhaps to prevent too much browning?). It’s really easy as pie, if you have the following:

  • a food processor (or mandolin)
  • a non-stick skillet (I wouldn’t recommend using a cast-iron)

You peel the potatoes (3 pounds), and slice them very thin (1/16 or 1/8″). Toss them with some melted butter (about half a stick), and start to arrange them in a pan as it heats. Once you start arranging (I used the most uniform potatoes on the bottom layer, since that’s what you end up seeing), you set the timer for 30 minutes. You salt between layers (I under-seasoned out of fear), and let it cook over med-low heat for a total of 30 minutes. At this point, you press the potatoes into the pan with the bottom of a 9″ cake pan, then pop it in a 450º oven, covered, for about 15 minutes, then uncovered for another 10, or until the potatoes are tender.

Using the same inverted cake pan, you can press the potatoes again and tilt the pan, letting some of the excess fat drip off. Then, VERY CAREFULLY, turn it out onto a oiled, foil-lined rimless cookie sheet (sandwich the pans together before you flip). Then slide the potato cake onto a platter (I didn’t have a platter that was large enough, so I used a cake-stand. How’s that for pretentious presentation?). It really was beautiful, more so than the effort would suggest. A lovely French hash-brown. Cut it into wedges, and serve.

………………………………..

Addendum:
Several people have made this, and said that it burned. I’m guessing that, from these accounts, two things are helpful if not pretty important:  a very heavy-bottomed skillet (one that distributes heat evenly) and a gas stove.

If you don’t have a gas stove, you’ll want to use lower heat, and perhaps pull it off the heat frequently if you think the potatoes are browning too quickly. If you don’t have a heavy skillet, skip this recipe, and try again after you procure one ; )

Long beans

longbeans

Picked these up Saturday, at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market. Was about to buy green beans, but upon closer inspection realized they were large pole beans, and looked like they needed to be shucked. Since I’m not currently of a mindframe to sit around and shuck beans, I started to back away. The Chinese vendor noticed my hesitation, and immediately presented me with this bunch of long beans. I’ve never seen them or eaten them (that I was aware of), but the bunch was $2.50, a price I thought fair for experimentation.

The man said to eat them quickly, and to chop and sautée them like any green bean. We did as told, and I have to say I wasn’t all that impressed. They weren’t as sweet as regular ol’ green beans, though the texture was similar. We might not have given them a fair try though, since we just added them to other vegetables for a stir fry. Tonight I’ll give them a true test: sautéed solo with olive oil, garlic and herbs. If they don’t pass this test, then back to green beans I’ll go. But I’m still not shuckin’.

Translation

We were invited to a “pitch-in” this weekend. I get the electronic invitation, and am rushing through emails, so don’t fully open it up. I see a big ice cream illustration, though, so I’m subconsciously thinking, sure: a party where we will all help work on something, and then get some ice cream. We could do that. We can pitch-in our labors.

But later, when it came time to rsvp, I discovered the truth: “pitch-in” is Midwestern-ese for “pot-luck.”

Now that is labor I can handle.

Please excuse the mess as I go through a minor identity crisis.

As a mother of three, I have more than once participated in a conversation with another mom where the subject lands on the worries the mother feels about one of her children, and the fact that they might be what is usually described as “a follower.” “She is just so impressionable,” the mom might say. “She does whatever her friends do… what will happen when she gets older?” the mom frets (keeping in mind that we’re often talking about a 4-year old).

When it comes to matters of unusual diets, particularly ones that promise long-term health benefits, I am that little girl. I know no limits, and can be convinced of bizarre results from even more bizarre menus. Now — I’m not exactly a total sucker; the only people who can convince me of the benefits of an odd diet are usually very normal, down-to-earth, healthy and beautiful people whom I know personally (i.e., no spandex-wearing infomercial host will do the trick). Somehow the unorthodox eating habit makes them even more attractive to me. It’s like they’ve got a secret to all that seeming level-headedness, and they are willing to share it with me. They are the the most popular kid in school, and I am, well, not. But they’ve taken me under their wing.

Now that I’m documenting this little personality trait of mine, I realize that ALL the times in my life when I’ve done some weird dietary things have been when I’ve moved. When I first went to college, I decided to become a vegetarian (this, I know, is not really that weird; lots of kids become vegetarians when they go to college, and some even stick with it). Then, when I first left Mississippi to go to graduate school, I began following a crazy blood-type diet from this book. I stopped eating wheat and dairy, started spending all my meager quarter-time-teaching-stipend on Ezekiel bread, and began to tsk-tsk any O-positive who still consumed large amounts of cow’s milk (didn’t they understand their ancestors didn’t do that???).

So here we are, in the midwest. A girl who’s never lived outside of the South (the Appalachian cultures of east Tennessee and western North Carolina are a little different, but still The South in many ways). I’m out of my element — everything is so very unbearably new (it was “novel” for a week or so, but now I’ve grown weary of it). This has been a very easy move in so many logistical ways, but it’s still a move. And those are hard. So, yes; here we are. Me, forever trying to figure out how to buy all our groceries at something less than four grocery stores. Wondering if we’ll ever actually get to try any restaurants at all in Indianapolis since we might not ever find a babysitter. And in the middle of all this, I make a new friend.

Michelle (not her real name) is a charming mother of two boys. She is intelligent, talented, and was instantly likable — it was like I had known her for years. She is from California (this ups the credibility factor) and has really cool hair. I like her clothes, I like her house, and I like the air of effortlessness with which she seems to do everything. She was an angel, the first week we were here, and offered to take my kids for a morning so I could get some unpacking done. In the process of making the arrangements, I tell her about my son’s food allergies, and assure her that she won’t have to remove anything from her house, and that I’ll send the proper food with him. We end up talking more about food, and it comes out that she is currently on a raw-food diet.

You’ve probably heard of this. She only eats raw food. Meaning, nothing is cooked, ever. Not only this, but she also is in the process of removing all wheat and dairy from her household (this part rang a bell). I dropped off my kids and left her house thinking, what in the world does she eat?

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. All I could think about, for a few days, was what is Michelle eating? I would get hungry for a snack, walk into the kitchen, look in my refrigerator, and think, “what would Michelle eat?” One morning I woke up to eat breakfast, and as I had my normal breakfast of raisin bran, granola, and milk, I became completely fixated on what she eats for breakfast. No dairy, and nothing cooked. She told me she doesn’t really do soy or rice milk, and she wouldn’t eat the cereals because they are cooked. I couldn’t quit thinking about it. Finally, mid-morning, I give in, and write her an email. I had some other things to ask her, but really, the question that was burning, the one I tacked onto the end of the message, was “oh, and, what do you eat for breakfast?”

The answer? Well, according to this book, a great starter would be cucumbers and tomatoes with a little lemon juice. But most often she makes a green smoothie: kale, water, a banana, and maybe some ginger.

For three days now, I am at a loss for what to eat. All of a sudden, I know nothing about what I like, what is healthy, what satisfies my hunger, what sounds good. I am circling my kitchen, like a lost child. Multiple gazes into the pantry and refrigerator do nothing but lend further to my confusion. Everything I’m used to eating seems so… milky. And somehow Ph-imbalanced (I don’t even know what that MEANS!). This morning, I made myself a smoothie: kale, a banana, and water. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll just add a touch of apple juice. And just make sure I brush my teeth well, to get all the minuscule flecks of kale out from embarrassing places.

But that’s really just silly, and I knew it. I’m not starting this diet, I don’t even understand it — by lunchtime I was so hungry and disoriented I ate leftover rice and veggies (fully-cooked) from last night’s dinner, and by dinner I was eating pizza with a Phish food chaser. But I’m so confused, about what to eat, where to shop, this new place that we live, I’m not even really enjoying it. Raw green smoothie to marshmallow-fudge ice cream, I’m just not in the groove. You could say that I’ve lost that food-lovin’ feeling.

To be fair, and to paint a clear picture: my new friend Michelle is in no way pushing her diet on me. She’s gone out of her way to make sure she describes it as something that has worked for her, but isn’t for everyone; and even seems reticent to talk about it at all. This is just me, in my well-worn neurotic way, putting all of my emotion onto the food I eat. What else is new? It just so happens that at this point in my life, it isn’t boding well for a woman who likes to write about food.

Anyway. I hope to wake up one morning soon and know exactly what I want for breakfast. Perhaps it will happen on the day I finally muster the guts to call the Amish Milk Guy (should I be concerned if Harrison Ford answers the phone?) and get a taste of raw Indiana cow’s milk. Maybe all will fall back into place later this week when I pick up my first box from the CSA I joined. It could actually be as simple as getting out the ice cream maker, and getting back into a routine similar to what I had before the move. All I ask is that, if you’d be so kind, you might bear with me as I wait to again be inspired by what I eat. It’s not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last. Who knows. Maybe after a week of kale smoothies, I will feel so energetic and level-headed that I will throw out all my cookware and commit to a life of crunchiness.

But don’t hedge bets on it.

Me, infiltrating the underbelly of the Amish Dairy Underground.

I don’t think I’ve yet described our drive through the southern part of Indiana as we ventured to This City of the Northland, our new home. It went something like this:

We crossed the line from Kentucky, and entered into rolling farmland. After a turn, we found ourselves surrounded by even more farmland. All at once, however, I looked out the window and noticed that we were indeed driving through beautiful farmland. A few hours later, the city of Indianapolis rose in the distance, out of a horizon line of farmland.

So I was more than a little confused by the apparent lack of local dairy products. Or rather, there seems to be a monopoly of the local dairy scene: it’s controlled by a cow cartel called Trader’s Point Creamery. I’m sure they produce lovely, rich, creamy non-homogenized milk — consumed and enjoyed by the rich and famous of Indiana. But with seemingly no competition, they get away with highway robbery: a half-gallon of their whole milk, packaged in a quaint, thoughtfully-designed jar, will put you out anywhere from $6-$8, depending on the grocer. That’s a HALF gallon. After being spoiled by the $5 gallon I was getting from Athens Locally Grown, I couldn’t bring myself to do it — not even for a taste of Indiana cow’s milk.

Feeling desperate, I started asking questions at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market, last Saturday. After a few blank stares, I happened upon a booth where a bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat and suspenders was selling cheese. I knew this was my guy:

Me: (Appropriating an air of nonchalant inquiry, hoping to veil my desperation) So, do you sell milk?

Bearded Man: (Sad smile, and a shake of the head, as he responded calmly and almost shyly) No, I don’t.

Me: (Eyes widening, breath quickening, and a little too hurriedly) Hmph. Know anywhere I can get some?

Bearded Man: Well, there’s Trader’s Point.

Me: (panic welling, but still subdued) Yeah, I saw their stuff. Seems a little pricey to me (translation: I’m not one of them. I don’t spend $20 a week on milk. You and I, we’re the same, we are. Work with me here.)

Bearded Man: (Eyes showing understanding; I think he’s getting the picture) Yes, it’s a little expensive.

Me: (I quite possibly might be holding pools of tears in my eyes) So, that’s all there is? (translation: I will start crying, right here in your booth, if you can’t help me. Please, show a Southern girl some pity.)

At this point, the Bearded Man pauses for the briefest instant. He glances at the man behind me in line, then glances on either side of the booth. He looks me dead in the eye, not wavering, and speaks in a low, but clear and calculated voice:

I think I know someone who can help you out.

I give him the slightest nod, but do not dare take my eyes off his for fear that this whole deal will go sour. At this point, however, I have no idea what he said. Something about unpasteurized milk being illegal in Indiana, and then moving on to phrases like, “cow-sharing” and “pick-ups.” Blah, blah, blah said the Bearded Man. He lost me, my head swimming with potential victory.

It ended up not really mattering much that I didn’t hear him. I still walked away with a name and number scrawled in Amish hand on the back of a business card. Suffice it to say that the name, while I won’t reveal it here to protect my potential supplier, is very, um, old testament. I have the name and number, and as far as I know am a phone call away from never buying milk from Whole Foods again. A phone call away from converting my family to the wonders of raw, whole, non-homogenized milk.

Now, if I could just pick up the phone.

Welcome to Indiana

(Note: I began writing this post about a week ago, the first night we were in our rental house — in case any details seem a little post-dated).

I am typing these words at a borrowed kitchen table in a borrowed kitchen. It’s a beautiful kitchen, in a house that we will be renting for 10 months. I’m looking around at boxes, bubble wrap, crumpled newsprint, and a 5-burner gas cooktop that I cannot wait to break in.

Our trip up to Indiana has been good, but utterly exhausting. The only reason I’m not already in bed is because our sheets are in the dryer. My body hurts, by brain is functioning at about 50% capacity. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and tonight I am so thankful that the bed we will be sleeping in is the same one we will have until May.

We’ve been staying for a few nights with an extremely generous family in town, friends of friends. They welcomed us with open arms on our first visit to the city, back in April, and have done so again; they alone have made this transition one of the easiest and exciting we’ve had. Last night, they had a few friends over for dinner to help welcome us to town. And while I’m sure the lovely people we met last night are kind enough to have perhaps come to dinner with that purpose alone, I’m also guessing it had to do with The Wine.

See, our host likes wine. He likes really, really good wine. He’s into wine the way I’m into homemade ice cream. He doesn’t settle, and while he still believes you can get a good bottle for under $10, I’m quite sure that Charles Shaw has never met the wine tool in his utensil drawer. The first night we were there, he opened for us a bottle of Silver Oak that was reportedly not being released to the public until the next day (he credits a “facebook friend” with a wine shop in California with the pre-release delivery… I guess you could say he knows people?). It was unbelievable. It is wine we’ve never had. It’s wine that you can sit around and talk about, for a good long time, because it actually changes as you talk.

Last night, at the dinner with friends, we enjoyed another Silver Oak and a reisling (can’t remember the name, because it was shadowed by “The Oak” as they call it). We had perfectly-cooked maple-plank salmon and rare steak, along with sweet Indiana corn and a fingerling potato salad (my contribution, which paled in comparison to everything else at the table). We had a sorbet to cleanse the palate (the dinner wasn’t as uppity as it sounds — how could it be, with two 3-year olds and a 5-year old watching Cars in the adjoining room?) but I brazenly convinced everyone that I could guess the sorbet flavor, and they took my bait… I guessed cranberry, then rhubarb… only to be quietly and graciously defeated by another dinner guest who correctly guessed pomegranate. We had dessert: homemade peach-blueberry crumb-top pie, with vanilla ice cream. And then. We had a dessert wine that I might not ever get to taste again; but it was a taste of heaven, so I’m hoping to have it there in eternity. It was a 1994 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes. I had no idea what this was, and had in retrospect shown my ignorance a bit earlier that day when I’d picked up the bottle and asked our host “why is this wine so yellow?”

Think nectar. Crazy, mouth-coating, sweet, golden, fruity nectar. I’ve never considered myself a fan of sweet wines — but, like many things I think I don’t like, I’ve just never had good sweet wine. It’s its own thing, and once you think differently about it, it can be remarkable. I had a similar experience, drinking a lambic ale a few weeks ago at a beer-tasting. The lambic is in a category all its own — not like beer at all, in some ways — but I had to make the mental switch before I got it. The same with this wine; once I stopped thinking white wine, I was good to go. It was apricots and honey, and somehow at the same time musty. This mustiness results from the unique way it is made: you can read more about it here, but basically the wine is made in a small region of Bordeux, France, that is near a river. The mist from the river causes the grapes to rot (yes, rot), and the wine is made from the rotted grapes. Who thought of this? I like to imagine a poor, destitute winemaker who moved to the region only to find out that all his crop rotted on the vine. He’s so desperate to support his family, he makes wine anyway. Lo and behold, it’s this unbelievable ambrosia-like liquid gold. He and his family are saved, and live happily ever after.

Which is exactly what I was thinking I was well on my way to doing, after having a glass. And it wasn’t just the wine; it was the warmth and generosity of a person who opens one of his nicest bottles of wine for a brand-new family moving to town. This was part of his family’s way of welcoming us to Indiana.

I think we could like it here.