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Sour Cream Mashed Sweet Potatoes

28 Feb

Wow. It’s been 56 days since my last blog post. 

 

While my mother is probably already muttering under her breath that I’m  not finishing what I have started (is there ever such a thing as finishing a blog, though?!), I think that for once it’s safe to say she has a point. 56 days is entirely too long and I have no excuse for blowing the ‘Blogger of the Year’ award straight out of the water like that, but whatever. I’m not writing this blog to stroke my ego with awards and admiration. Wait! What? Who am I kidding?! I’m totally writing this blog for unconditional admiration from total strangers. Don’t judge.

 

The thing is, I feel like I’m not cooking anything blog-worthy nowadays. All we can really afford is chicken, and all those plump rosy thighs & breasts spiraled me straight down into writer’s block. I betcha that never happens to the writers of Hustler Magazine. It’s an unfair world, y’all?! In typical Teutonic fashion, I think I just set my own blogging bar entirely too high. I’ve always aspired to be an over-achiever, which has once driven me to attempt 78 sit-ups in 60 secs and resulted in a pulled muscle, but we digress…

 

Yesterday, my newfound love for sweet potatoes broke me loose from my self-imposed writing chain. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first since I’ve had a long-standing passive-aggressive relationship with sweet potatoes. I generally hate them. Then I get into a health kick and buy them anyway, only to not cook them out of fear of disappointment and – upon realization that decay is setting in and I’m wasting $5-$10 worth of food – I get angry at their underachievement in freshness and it cultivates my ice-cold disdain for them even more. No wiiiirrre hangers!!!! Shudder.

But yesterday was different. It all started a few months ago when my friend Laura invited me over to her house for a dinner party with an old colleague of ours. We did some wine drinking, and then sum mor wein trink’n, and then we kissed Francis Coppola and then Laura cooked the most amazing ‘Five Spice Tilapia’ and served it alongside a baked sweet potato, loaded with nuts & yogurt and stuff. The tanginess of the yogurt was perfect with the sweetness of that potato, and in combination with the saltiness of that delicious Tilapia… I swear, I nearly peed myself from culinary excitement. If only Liberace would have understood subtle balance like that!

 

Laura’s yam made me re-think the whole idea of sweet potatoes. No more cloyingly sweet casseroles or sugary mashes. And puh-lease, hold the damn marshmallows! The mash below is mildly sweet, but it’s the tanginess of that sour cream that steps it up and shows that yam who’s boss. I’m totally team sour cream.

 




SOUR CREAM MASHED SWEET POTATOES

(Recipe courtesy: “The Madison Inn”, Ascheville NC)

– 1 dozen large red sweet potatoes or yams (or both), peeled and sliced in chunks

– 8 cups of chicken stock

– 1 cup sour cream

– 1/4  cup light brown sugar 

– 1/4 cup of maple syrup 

– 1/4 cup whipping cream

– 4 Tbsp of butter

 

In a large pot, combine sweet potato chunks and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Simmer until potatoes are tender and easily mashable. I mashed my potatoes by hand, but you can also use a mixer. I like my mashed potatoes a bit chunky still. 

 

In the meantime, melt 4 Tbsp of butter and stir into the cold whipping cream. Pour over cooked mashed sweet potatoes and blend well. Fold in sour cream & brown sugar, and season with salt & pepper to taste. If you like your mashed potatoes sweeter, add some more maple syrup or sugar. (I omitted the maple syrup altogether, and the mash was just the right amount of sweetness to me)

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Pommes Duchesse with White Cheddar & Rosemary

31 Dec

Yesterday, whilst playing refrigerator ‘Tetris’ with a few leftovers, I noticed that magnum-size bottle of Prosecco I won during our annual office Christmas raffle. I shoved it in there in anticipation of our New Year’s toast. At the time, I hadn’t even given our New Year’s Eve dinner the slightest thought, but I figured that at least we’d be all set with a chilled glass of bubbly come toasting time. Priorities, people!

This morning, however, I came to the realization that I better start thinking about what to cook for tonight’s dinner if we don’t want to end up with canned tuna on toast. I almost bought a frozen turkey during an impromptu grocery run late yesterday afternoon, thinking I had plenty of time left and all, but then – for some bizarre unknown reason – decided against it… and thank god! Personally, I’d like to interpret this divine intervention as a celestial sign that we were meant to have a beef roast instead, but maybe it’s just my cultural heritage talking.

Roast beef is a classic New Year’s Eve dinner in Belgium, typically carved tableside and served ‘au jus’ with English peas and ‘kroketjes’, the latter being scrumptious deep-fried cylinders of crispy mashed potato heaven. I vaguely remember my mom even having a special machine that formed kroketjes from homemade creamy mashed potatoes, but most of time she’d buy the packaged frozen kind because she was a lady of convenience. The challenge as a child was to always make sure to boldly claim your kroketjes before anyone else had a chance, because once that plate of crispy golden fried deliciousness hovered 2 inches above the table came within fork’s reach, those suckers went fast and you’d risk ending up with just a measly 1 or 2. It was the 1980’s version of ‘The Hunger Games’, really, and it required strategical insight and precise fork-placement. Later in life, mom would ask us how many we think we’d eat and then halved that number whilst giving us a lecture on gluttony and reminding us that there were children in Africa who didn’t have kroketjes. In an attempt to be smart, I once sassily replied that maybe we should ship some to Africa, a lesson I was forced to contemplate from my bedroom for the remainder of the evening… And since my bedroom didn’t come with a Playstation, a teevee or a computer, my no-nonsense mother made sure I wouldn’t be wasting my time of inner-reflection by staring at my ‘Up With People’ posters and dreaming of dance superstardom, and she handed me a volume of our ‘Encyclopedia Brittanica’ with the instruction to look up recent data on world hunger and write a brief essay with my thoughts as to why I was sent to my bedroom. Would it shock you if I said my mother was a hardcore teacher?

At the Farklepants’ household, we don’t own a deep fryer by design. It would be our death, really. I could accomplish ‘kroketjes’ in a contraption of a Dutch oven, hot oil and a candy thermometer but I’m the daughter of said lady above and therefore, genetically predisposed to anything that even remotely inconveniences me. This leaves me with the dilemma of ‘ease vs. New year’s Eve glamour’, and it’s for precisely this occasion the French came up with ‘Pommes Duchesse’. These pillowy miniature mounds of oven-crisped mashed potato not only look festive, they are a happy median between the crispness of deep-fried kroketjes and the creaminess of mashed potato. They look elegant enough and they’re super easy to make.

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POMMES DUCHESSE WITH CHEDDAR & ROSEMARY
(Adapted from a classic French recipe)
– 2.5 lbs of russet potatoes, for approx. 25 puffs
– 6 egg yolks
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– 1/3 cup of chopped rosemary
– 1 cup of grated white cheddar
– 3 cloves of garlic, grated or finely minced
– salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

Peel, rinse and chop potatoes in mandarin-size chunks. Place them in a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium and cook until potatoes are fork tender, usually +/- 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and place pot back over low heat for a few more minutes, so excess water can evaporate.

With a potato ricer or in a food mill, mash the potatoes very fine. Season with salt & pepper and a dash of nutmeg. Add in half & half and egg yolks one-by-one until you get an even, thick consistency. The potato mixture should be able to hold its form when you squirt it from a pastry bag. Add in the cheddar, minced garlic & chopped rosemary,  and stir to combine well. Allow to cool until room temperature to the touch.

Fill pastry bag with large star tip, and squeeze little heaps onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake for approx. 10-15 min in the hot oven, until ridges are browned and potato appears crispy. Serve immediately.
Consequently, you can also pre-make these potato piles and refrigerate them until you are ready to bake them.

Zingy Potato Salad

5 Sep

Ugh. It’s been hotter than a tandoori oven here in Southern California. We’ve seemingly landed firmly in the mid to upper 90’s at the beach, and we’re not headed anywhere cooler any time soon if Tootsie Farklepants the forecast is correct. Combine this with the complete absence of our usual ocean breeze and the rising humidity, and it’s downright hell in our non-air conditioned apartment. I recognize that this muggy grossness is probably a fine day on the porch in the South, but for us temperate coastal Californians, this kind of heat is downright brutal – and frankly, unacceptable in the ‘Book of Helga’. Despite it being extra-ordinarily hot & muggy lately, California weather is not my cup of tea in general. Over the years, I’ve been asked countless times what I miss most from Belgium, and as I’m writing this, it dawns on me that it’s not chocolate or quaint cafés, or even abbey-brewed beer. It’s not my friends or family (they visit, after all), or the many French-Fries-on-wheels that dot the town squares, nor is it ‘zoute haring’ or mussels. I miss ‘seasons’. Dreadfully.

Southern California is perpetually stuck in its own ‘non-season’ with year-round pleasantness of 75F and mostly sunny blue skies. Every now & again, temperatures dip well below 60F, at which point we collectively shiver and ‘Brrrr…’ our way through Starbucks’ hot beverages assortment and whip out our sheepskin-lined flip flops, you know, the Winter-kind that keeps the top of your foot warm but still allows you to show off that killer pedicure you paid $45 for. There’s a deep-seated seasonal confusion here in La La Land Los Angeles. Spring & Summer range from sunny warm to hot and are exactly alike, with the exception that in Spring your kids are still in school and your house stays moderately clean throughout the day. Most of the time Fall is simply an extension of Spring or Summer, only slightly cooler and with the gratuitous option of dressing up slutty for Halloween. And in Winter, we get crisp evenings and occasional moderate rainfall, which prompts us all to drive like a troupe of aging circus folk and cover our cars with giant weather-repellent plastic out of fear our paint job may suffer damage. With all meteorological bets off lately, I hold no hope for stew and hot pumpkin lattes any time soon.

On blistering hot days like the past 2 weeks today, my delicate Belgian constitution demands cold fare. One of my favorite Summer dishes is a nice cold potato salad, but I’m not keen on the mayo-laden American version of this classic. It’s not that I’m frantic about my waistline, but I simply like the zing of a vinegar-based potato salad better… I also think it’s more flavorful, but as the French would say: “Les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas”… which freely translated means that you are wrong in your opinion about flavors and colors, and they are always right. Et voila…

I am letting you know right now that you are not obligated to like this potato salad, but once you take a sumptuous spoonful of it, I know you’ll fall in love because… BACON! Bacon vincit omnia, ya’ll.

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ZINGY POTATO SALAD
(A Hungry Belgian original adaption of ‘Luikse Sla’ and German Potato Salad)
– 2 lbs of Fingerling or Yukon Gold potatoes
– 1 package of thick-cut bacon, sliced in strips (approx. 12 oz. Don’t skimp, this is where the flavor is at!)
– 2 large shallots, diced finely
– 1/3 cup apple cider or red wine vinegar
– 1/4 cup of honey
– 1 Tbsp of Dijon mustard
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 4-5 green onions, sliced thinly or slivered
– a handful of crisp arugula

In large pot of salted water, boil potatoes in the peel until fork tender but still with a bit of bite. Drain and allow to cool.

In the meantime, fry bacon in a heavy pan until slightly crisped. Take bacon out of pan and set aside on a paper towel lined sheet, and drain all but 1/4 cup of fat from the pan.

Add diced shallots to pan, and cook in reserved bacon fat until translucent. Add vinegar, honey, mustard, salt & pepper in pan, and heat until hot & bubbly.

Slice lukewarm or cooled potatoes in 1-inch pieces, and pour warm bacon dressing over them. Gently fold in the reserved bacon pieces and sliced green onions. Top with arugula and gently toss one last time.

For extra protein, serve with 2-4 hard boiled egg halves on top.

Zucchini & Fennel Dauphinoise

23 Aug

The other day, a Belgian friend of mine hit me up over Facebook chat and asked if I had any tasty zucchini recipes I could share because her urban garden had produced a monster load of them and she exasperatedly told me she was at her wits end of what to do with all that squash… I was just about to send her the link to my recipe for curried zucchini fritters, which were recently featured in Boston Magazine, when she quickly chimed in with “…but NOT zucchini fritters!!!”. Well, okay then.

I’ve always loved savory one-pot meals and oven dishes. There’s something really cozy and homey about them, not to mention that they’re usually prepared in beautifully colored Dutch ovens or cast iron skillets. I’m a sucker for rustic, visual appeal. It’s because of people like me that the cooking stuff industry is thriving. Unless an item is ridiculously over-priced or I see it as blatant a fail, I naturally gravitate towards the prettiness of products and labels. I’m fairly level-headed with a good head on my shoulders, but put me in a store like ‘Sur La Table’ and all of that sharp wit goes straight out the door amidst… so much happy!!!. It’s a blessed thing I have a small apartment kitchen, as otherwise my house would be filled with brightly colored Dutch ovens, stacks of vintage tableware and gorgeous linens.

Greatness is, is that my innate love for pretty things also causes me to adore fruits & vegetables. All those bright colors of the produce aisle play out like a true Van Gogh before my eyes. It’s almost like taking a stroll through the Louvre in my mind. Okay. Maybe not entirely, but seeing all the vibrant colors and different shapes of all this produce makes me so happy. It’s an affliction my men don’t seem to share, unless I also happen to pick up potatoes, cheese, beer and/or hot dogs. We live in separate worlds, those men & I, but luckily we find common ground in gratins.

In my post about blue cheese potato & rutabaga gratin, I already proclaimed my love for the spud, but the dish below is a tasty twist on a classic French potato gratin. There’s truly nothing that can go wrong when heavy cream is involved, in my opinion. Just like butter, it has the magical power of turning anything it comes in contact with into a sumptuous dish you can’t get enough of. It’s gorgeous made with zucchini, but you could get creative and also cook it with carrots, parsnips or any other root vegetable. 
 

ZUCCHINI DAUPHINOISE
(Created after a French classic)
– approx. 2 medium sized zucchinis
– 2 large fennel bulbs
– 3 lbs of Yukon Gold potatoes (or another ‘firm-cooking’ variety, approx. 5-6 large potatoes)
– olive oil, to grease the oven dish
– approx. 1.5 to 2 cups of heavy cream
– 3 large cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– ground nutmeg, as needed
– 1/2 bunch of fresh thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
– salt & pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a pie dish or a 10-inch cast iron skillet.

With a mandolin (or by hand), slice the zucchini into 1/8 inch slices. Do the same with the potatoes & fennel. In a small sauce pan, heat cream with garlic and half of the thyme leaves, reserve the other half for sprinkling over each layer and a bit for decoration. Don’t boil, just heat until it’s nice & hot and the flavors have had a chance to develop a bit.

On the bottom of the pan or skillet, arrange a layer of potato slices so that they overlap slightly. Dust lightly with a bit of nutmeg, salt, pepper & sprinkle a few thyme leaves over the top. On top of the potatoes, arrange a layer of zucchini slices, also overlapping slightly and sprinkle with nutmeg, salt, pepper & thyme as well. Gently press down to compact the 2 layers. Repeat potato layer, then layer fennel and season with nutmeg, salt, pepper & thyme leaves. Press down and repeat this process, alternating fennel & zucchini in between potato, until you reach you run out of potato & vegetables.

Pour hot cream mixture all over the dish, so much so until it appears that roughly about half of the dish is submerged in cream. Bake the gratin uncovered in the oven for approx. 2 hours., but cover about half way through to prevent the top from browning too much. If you like, you can also sprinkle some freshly grated Parmesan cheese over the top to create a gooey cheesy crust over the top.

Take out of the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle reserved thyme leaves over the top and serve warm.

Warm Lemony Dill Potato Bake

19 Aug

There is no doubt in my mind that I inherited my love for potatoes from my grandpa. He single-handedly ensured the success of many local potato farmers with his consumption of mashed potatoes alone.

Spuds are undeniably woven into Belgium’s patriotic fabric of life. No national or regional dish is truly complete without a side of potato being served alongside it. As such, you can find potato farms all over our western countryside, right alongside cabbage fields, pig farmers and dairy farms.

The first Spring after we moved into our new ranch-style house in the Flemish boonies, our yard and patio were overrun by Leptinotarsa Decemlineata, or striped Colorado potato beetles. It was a brand new housing development, and I bet those beetles were probably just as confused and challenged adapting to this new environment as I was.

20130819-202135.jpg (photo courtesy Brussels Museum of Entomology)

Aren’t they pretty?

As a little girl, I’d catch them and would create little artificial beetle colonies, complete with tiny dirt pathways and dandelion petal patches and all. It was like 5-star luxury resort-style living, at least in my mind. In hindsight, I was probably feared in Leptinotarsa circles, but my young soul had nothing but the best intentions at heart. The upside is, is that every evening at dusk, I was forced to release the inhabitants of ‘Beetleville’, and watched them scurry off in mass exodus. I wasn’t allowed to keep them as pets and mom demanded I set them free after a long day of forced communal living in an old, scraggly cardboard box.

Potatoes have always harbored happy memories for me. I truly love potatoes any which way, but the buttery oven-baked Yukon Golds are by far my favorite.

The genius of the recipe below is something I accidentally discovered when I knocked over a glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice I had set aside to make lemonade, and it went everywhere in my tiny apartment kitchen. I will not repeat the choice dialogue that escaped my otherwise proper mouth in that very moment, but will instead thank the cosmic forces for introducing me to ‘lemon potatoes‘. Since that divine intervention, I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, but let me tell you, the tartness of fresh lemon juice pairs beautifully with the buttery creaminess of these Yukons. I urge you not to lose another minute. Go make these now.

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WARM LEMONY DILL POTATO BAKE
(Created by divine intervention and/or cosmic force)
– 1.5 lbs of Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into large pieces.
– zest & juice of 2 small fresh lemons
– 1 cup of water
– 3 Tbsp of olive oil
– 3 Tbsp of melted butter + more for buttering an oven dish
– a handful of fresh basil, finely shredded or chopped
– 3 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– a handful of fresh dill, finely chopped
– a few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
– salt & pepper, to taste
– a sparse drizzle of honey

Preheat oven to 425F. Butter a large oven dish.

In a large bowl, add cubed potatoes with olive oil, water, chopped basil and salt & pepper, and mix with your hands to coat well. Pour into oven dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake in the hot oven for approx. 15-20 min, until almost tender.

In the meantime, combine lemon juice, zest, garlic, melted butter, honey and chopped dill/parsley in small bowl.

Take potatoes out of the oven, uncover and pour lemon/butter mixture all over the potatoes. Place back in the hot oven and bake uncovered for an additional 20 min until water has evaporated and potatoes are tender.

These are so good when served lukewarm, but you could eat them cold or hot as well.

Blue Cheese Potato & Rutabaga Gratin

1 Aug

Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.

To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.

Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.

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BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)

Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).

Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.

Blue Cheese Potato & Rutabaga Gratin

1 Aug

Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.

To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.

Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.

20130801-154359.jpg

BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)

Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).

Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.

Twisted Mashed Potatoes (Stoemp)

8 Jul

If there was one thing my brother & loved when we were kids, it was ‘stoemp’. Mom would make it quite often, as we lived on a single-mom budget, and it’s one of those dishes that pack a ton of deliciousness on a few pennies.

Stoemp (pronounced ‘stoomp’) is a delightful mash of creamy potatoes and any vegetable your kids will eat you fancy that can be mashed with the potatoes. It’s often prepared with carrots in Belgium, and served alongside juicy browned sausage, with the buttery pan drippings drizzled over the mash. It’s pure awesomeness, believe me.

Now that I’ve outgrown my ‘Bunny & Friends’ dinner set, I still enjoy a good potato-vegetable mash. Not only is it a bit lighter and healthier, I feel that it gives plain ole mashed potatoes a more interesting flavor. It’s ‘feel good’ comfort food without fearing the immediate expansion of your hips.

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CAULIFLOWER, LEEK & FENNEL MASH
(makes enough to feed a family of 6… or your husband)

– 1.5 lbs of yellow potatoes
– 1 medium size head of cauliflower
– 3 leeks, sliced thinly
– 1 medium fennel bulb, very finely diced
– 3-4 tbsp of butter
– 1/3 cup of fresh thyme leaves
– salt & pepper to taste
– Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated (for topping, optional)

Cut cauliflower and pull florets apart. Discard outer green leaves and rough stems. Soak florets in a bath of salty water for a few minutes, to entice all bug friends to vacate the cauliflower NOW. Cut potatoes into chunks, roughly about the same size as the cauliflower florets so they cook evenly. Put potatoes and cauliflower into a large pot, and bring to a boil. Simmer until done and easily mashed.

In the meantime. Cut the dark green tops off of the leeks, and slice off bottom root. Slit each stalk in half lengthwise and rinse under cold running water, separating the layers a bit, to remove any dirt. Dry stalks with paper towels, and slice them into thin rings or strips.
Cut green stems, top and bottom root off of the fennel. Slice bulb into thick slices and finely dice each slice into small pieces like you would an onion.

Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a pan and sauté fennel over medium-low heat. When fennel is starting to soften (+/- 4-5 min), add leeks and continue to sauté until vegetables are soft, slightly browned and caramelized.
Sprinkle thyme leaves over vegetables, and sauté an additional 2 minutes to release the flavor of the thyme.

Mash cauliflower and potatoes with 2-3 tbsp of butter, add leek & fennel mixture, 1 clove of minced garlic and salt & pepper to your liking. Use a wooden spatula to combine everything together.

Sprinkle some grated Pecorino-Romano cheese & thyme leaves over the top and serve hot.

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