Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Perfect Potato Gratin

So today is Easter, which means my friend Tata is holding her Extravahamza!, because whether you're a Christian, pagan, or innocent bystander to the Easter holiday, I think we can all agree that ham is the reason for the season. Tata has asked all her guests to bring something to her Extravahamza! which means I have an hour and a half to whip up a quick dish involving potatoes, which is what she asked me to bring. "Something involving potatoes, Jen" is what her email read. I can work with this, but my time is limited, not because Tata didn't tell me she needed this in a timely manner (she told me last weekend), but because I have been faffing around all day and now it is 3:30 pm and I have to be at her place way out in the Southeast at 5 pm.

No problem! I quickly scan my current foodstuffs. I've got cream, thyme, garlic, salt, parmeggiano reggiano. No potatoes though, a critical ingredient in a recipe for "something involving potatoes." Curses! I put on a coat and hurry down to the City Market, where I buy four fat Russet potatoes and a small Toblerone for the walk home. I now have all the essentials necessary for a truly memorable potato gratin, so I head into the kitchen with my potatoes, get out my mandoline (makes slicing potatoes, apples, pears, fingers, pretty much anything a complete JOY--get one) and start assembling my ingredients, which include:
A cup of cream
A tsp of salt
Some pepper
A rounded tsp of chopped fresh thyme
A big clove of garlic
Four fat russet potatoes

This gratin recipe has three strong points: It is delicious, it is easy to make, and it is inexpensive, depending on your labor costs, which I will explain. First up--you must peel the potatoes. I am halfway into the first one when I remember what a crap job peeling potatoes is. I recommend that you outsource the potato peeling. Find someone who needs a little extra cash, like your live-in grandmother or a passing tweaker or maybe a small child living down the hall--seriously, Easter usually falls during Spring Break aka "every working parent with a pittance of paid vacation's worse spring nightmare," so I bet you that one of your neighbors might even pay you to take their child off their hands for a day or two to peel potatoes or whatnot. You could probably get your laundry folded, your baseboards dusted, and all your spices alphabetized (kids love this job!) out of the whole affair. Just a suggestion. Anyway, once your potatoes are peeled, you'll want to mince the garlic and chop the thyme and measure out your salt. I can't find my teaspoon, we were using it to stir mojitos the other night so who knows where it is, so I just innovate--an important skill for any home cook to hone--and use the small end of my melon baller, which looks about right.

I pour the entire 8 oz carton of Sunnyside cream into a very large mixing bowl--use a big bowl, about the right size to hold a regular-sized cat, although you shouldn't really let your cat hang out in your mixing bowls, it's not sanitary--and add the garlic, thyme, salt, and a dusting of pepper, then stir it all up. Beautiful!

I slice the potatoes quickly, watching my precious knuckles--the mandoline will take them right off, let me tell you, I have a lovely scar I'll show you sometime if you like--then add them to the cream mixture, stir it with a pink spatula (not mandatory) and layer them lightly in a blue oval Le Creuset baking dish my mom bought me because she thinks I'm great. I grate a light layer of parmeggiano reggiano over the top, and the gratin is officially assembled! Bake the gratin at 350 degrees for however long it takes you to watch last week's Tivo'd episode of "Top Chef" and fire off a quick "Happy Easter, I think you have a nice keester!" monk-e-mail ( to co-host Chef Tom Colicchio, so roughly an hour and 15 minutes.

I'm done. What a relief. I will pull this gratin out in an hour and 15 minutes and be on my way to my friend Tata's Extravahamza! The only thing left to do is the dishes, but since Easter falls on the sabbath, there's no way I'm going to do that. And anyway, that's what the neighbor kids are for! I have them scheduled for dish duty at approximately 6:30 am tomorrow morning, immediately before "Riedel champagne flute buffing and shining" duty. I love Easter!

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