I went for a bicycle ride, last Wednesday. I hadn't meant to, hadn't really the time to, had other things to do, in fact. But I went anyway.
I went because the weather was mild and balmy and, if not warm, because fall mornings are never warm, at least not finger-numbing. Temperatures were to climb toward eighty, that day. They very nearly did, short only a degree. Hot enough, anyway, that I had to go unearth shorts from the basement for small people after school.
That's just crazy.
Anyway, I went. It seemed wasteful not to. Borderline insulting. Like throwing out perfectly good food just because you're feeling bored, just because you've eaten the same soup, three days running. I kicked myself out the door. "Here is abundance. Don't you dare squander."
Clouds were a myth. Breezes were filmy. The sky was, well, you can see for yourself. Cerulean. Indigo. Beyond blue. The leaves were doing what deciduous leaves do, parading shamelessly, all pomp and circumstance. I'm no fan of pomp, as applied to daily life, but I think it suits Ginkos and Sweet Gum swimmingly.
(Read into this carpe diem, if you will, but I've never really been the seize the day sort. It's always seemed too simplistic, too stilted, too lacking in the full disclosure department. Because time spent here costs hours elsewhere, usually accounted for under the column called "sleep". I'm down with that, good, even, but I think these things need to be said.
Maybe, Dead Poets don't mind GAAP, transcend somehow debits and credits. Maybe, the Romans didn't know from ROI. Probably, I'm just a stick in the mud. Anyway, I went because I knew these days were numbered. Because all logic dictated I should. Because I thought I ought to. Romantic, no?)
I had no idea.
Tuesday morning—six days past last Wednesday, while our pumpkins were still pumpkins and not yet jack-o-lanterns, less than one week after my shorts-fetching mission—we awoke to snow.
Puts shorts to shame, in the crazy department.
We got off scot-free, in the scheme of things. Wind, rain, a white flurry, gone by mid-morning. The sudden blustering away of every last leaf. The prioritizing of "hats and mittens" to the top of my To Do.
Meanwhile, much of the East coast went under.
I've gone back and forth, all week, trying to reconcile these two realities. The glory, the wreckage. The glow, the devastation. The desperate beauty, the desperate people, the millions, without. Being human, and rational, by which I mean fallible, I want to call it a contradiction. As in, make up your mind already, Mother Nature, what'll it be, good or evil?
I'm not really so deluded, of course. Nature doesn't do black and white; if nothing else, last week's ride taught me that. Weather is splendid, and fickle, and wretched, and almost entirely beyond our control. And since we seem bent on squandering what control we have, and then denying all culpability, ...
Oy. Sorry. Tangent. Potatoes.
I've had potatoes on the brain all week, maybe because they are weather's inverse. Potatoes are constant and steady and true, there when you need them, dependable. When fair-weather veg vanish, there are potatoes. When the store keeps not happening, there are potatoes. When in doubt, or distress, or dismay, there are potatoes. Particularly, at the moment, in my pantry.
There is a Potato Situation in my pantry. This may be the other reason I've had potatoes on the brain. Our fall CSA ended this week, a fact that mostly makes me want to cry. I've adored and inhaled the stream of fresh veg, and stayed on top of nearly all of it, the greens and lettuces, the squash and the yams, the turnips and radishes and whatnot. I say "mostly" because I'm slightly relieved to turn off the potato faucet. I say "nearly" because I am sitting on a not-so-small mountain of spuds.
I am not a white potato person. I don't dislike white potatoes, per se. I like them alright, at least well enough. I even make them, now and again, mostly in soup, or summer's Niçoise, or braised into fragrant, warmly spiced curries.
But I rarely think about potatoes, consider them food, the thrust of a meal. I don't crave them, don't hunger for them, and so rarely prepare them. It finally dawned on me, two years back, to bake a potato for my kids (!) Around the same time, it occurred to me that I'd never really made them mashed potatoes (!!) (Does anyone else have black food holes like this? And what do you do with white potatoes?) It took another two years, until now, to realize I'd stopped roasting spuds. Fortunately, my mountain arrived, inciting panic stirring memories.
The thing is, I once prepared these potatoes all the time: roasted hotly in olive oil, stubbled with garlic, spiked with rosemary, until the insides turned to cream, and the outsides crisped and caramelized. Years ago, when my oldest was a babe, my time limited, my skills and money moreso, I made these potatoes frequently. They were fast, and easy, and required few ingredients, and never failed, and always delighted. I made them for company, because they were worthy. I made them for us, because they were tasty. I made them for Mondays, because. I can't explain when or why they were dropped. Only that I'm grateful The Situation brought them back.
These particular potatoes hail from Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbfarm Cookbook, a gem of a book from a gem of a cook. I've mentioned Traunfeld once before, and have half-a-dozen causes to mention him again, but for now, all we need to discuss is his genius for marshalling flavor. This "cook" business may sound like slander, given his award-winning career as a chef, previously here, now here. But in print, Traunfeld thinks and writes like a cook, like a You or a Me in a standard home kitchen, with ambivalent tools and ordinary ingredients and an actual life beyond the four burners. This, from a chef, takes extraordinary skill. As does the ability to take four ingredients and transform bland roots into tastebud bombs.
Roasted potatoes are nothing revolutionary, nor nothing new, unless you're me. That said, there are a handful of details that seem to take them from good to glorious. I've found par-boiling is essential, as is ample salt in the pot. Raw potatoes put in a hot oven always wind up dry, and squeaky, and wizened, and sad. Potatoes allowed a ten minute head start in a properly salted, boiling hot bath become irresistably tender-hearted.
A hot oven helps lock in your gains, as does a loose wrist with the olive oil. Together, high heat and a good gloss create this perfect sort of storm, locking in moisture, searing flat sides, burnishing the odd corner to something like crunch.
Again, standard roast potato operating procedure. (As best I understand it. Further education welcome.) But then—and this is pure Traunfeld—there are the two add-ins. Before the olive oil meets the potatoes, before the potatoes meet the heat, the oil is amended by four cloves of minced garlic, plus four tablespoons' fresh rosemary. Ordinary ingredients. Extraordinary quantities. These aren't so much seasoned as inundated, which is a fine fate for a potato.
The spuds wind up tweedy with rosemary, which sizzles until almost crisp in the oil, and whispers its piney, resinous way deep into the mild white of the root. The garlic alternately mellows and roasts, going amber in spots and ochre in others, lending a heady sticky sweet. And the potato is the foil for it all, the silent hero, the very good sport. Its insides go enviably creamy, soft and yielding, welcoming. Its starchy outsides catch on the hot sheet, making excellent edges to nibble and ponder. It upholds all that flavor, fragrant and bold, with a quiet, forthright confidence. Which is, after all, what it does best, the steadfast potato, constant and true.
Rosemary Garlic Roasted Potatoes
adapted from The Herbfarm Cookbook, by Jerry Traunfeld
Traunfeld calls these Herb-Roasted Potatoes, and opens them up to thyme, savory, sage, and/or oregano. I can never get past rosemary. Your choice. Also, if you have fleur de sel, that fancypants French salt, this is the place to use it, a final crumble adding irresistable crunch and bling to the hot spuds. That said, I usually use a flurry of kosher crystals, also lovely. Finally, the original recipe recommends 15-20 minutes total roasting time, though I find they take 20-30 minutes in my oven to reach the optimal creamy/crispy apex. You'll just have to test a few along the way.
2 pounds small, waxy potatoes, such as fingerling, Yukon Gold, or red boilers
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons rosemary needles, stripped, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
fleur de sel or additional salt for finishing
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Parboil Potatoes: Wash potatoes, leave skins on, and halve or quarter, depending on size, for pieces no larger than 1". Place potatoes in a large saucepan with 2 quarts of cold water and 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to the boil over high heat, and continue to boil until potatoes can be pierced with a knife tip, but only just, about 10 minutes. Remember, they will finish cooking in the oven. Drain potatoes in a colander, and set aside.
Roasting: Preheat the oven to 425°, and place a rack in the lower third. Place drained potatoes in a large mixing bowl, and toss with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread seasoned potatoes in a single layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet. (Potatoes will hold, at this point, 2 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator.) Roast potatoes until edges are burnished and surfaces golden, 20-30 minutes, testing a few along the way to ensure insides are still creamy. Serve piping hot.