Thursday, June 16, 2011

Infamous Ex-Wife Potatoes

Exes are strange.  They have a way of leaving behind unexpected, haunting memories, or of popping up without warning on Facebook.  Many people associate food with seasons or with certain time periods in their life, or with people.  Food is a re-creatable autobiography.  For my dad, these amazing potatoes will always be connected to his ex-wife, who he married when he was only 20 years old and had two sons with.

When I was out on my own for the first time in college, my half-brother, Andy, (who up to that point I had only seen sporadically at family weddings and funerals) and I started to hang out a lot.  I had picked a college that coincidentally was only 15 minutes away from Andy's house.  We waited tables together at Chili's and then most afternoons after the lunch shift, stopped by the local watering hole for happy hour with my dad's ex-wife, Debbie.  She was gracious, and told me early on that "whatever happened between your father and I is water under the bridge." 

I had trouble believing that this woman--who was unlike my mother in every way--had ever been married to my father.  Of course strange, unimaginable, things always happen before you're born.  She and I had a friendly relationship as drinking buddies.  She offered a unique perspective as a psedeo-mother figure at a time when I was testing all the limits of my newly acquired freedom from parental surveillance.  The thing that we never talked about though, not my dad, not my dad's ex-wife, not even my mom, was the past.  It remained locked up tight.

The only small glimmer of my dad's past romantic life came from these potatoes.  When I was little, these potatoes--split in half length-wise and then baked face down in some form of fat until the cut side is golden and crunchy, and the insides fluffy --were always called dad's potatoes.  A couple of years ago, I wanted to know the history of these potatoes because they were quite famous in family lore for being the only thing my dad ever taught my mother to cook. 

Photo credit: AMR

 "Where did you learn how to make the potatoes like that?" I asked him.

"Well," he said, rather bashfully.  "Don't ever tell your mother this, but those are Debbie's potatoes.  She used to make them all the time when we were first married."  I don't know if he was abashed because he had been taking credit for Debbie's potatoes all those years, or if he feared my mother would be jealous, or if he felt guilty that he had clung fiercely to these delicious potatoes even though they reminded him of a disastrous, messy romantic relationship.  Really, I don't want to know.  I like the mystery of it.

And I like the idea that a damn good recipe will stick around even longer than a lover, and once you try these potatoes, you will want to swear undying love and commitment to them "until death do you part."

Ex-Wife Potatoes

I like to make these potatoes when something else is in the oven--say a roast chicken--as a easy side dish.  You want to use a good baking potato here, like a Russet, to get a fluffy texture.  Avoid waxy potatoes like Yukons.  Also, try to find long narrow potatoes, rather than fat round ones.  Thin potatoes create a better crispy surface area to fluffy inside, than fat ones do.  Also, be sure to make a wide grid of score marks on the cut surface of the potato (see photo).  If the scoring hatches are too close together, the crispy bits will stick to the pan.  If you use butter, the potatoes will brown more quickly.  If you use duck fat, the potatoes will take more time, but ultimately get crispier than in butter.

6 Russet potatoes, well-scrubbed
6 Tablespoons butter, or enough duck fat for a very thick layer to coat the pan.

Cut each potato in 1/2 length-wise.  Score the cut surface with a paring knife.  Sprinkle each cut side lightly with salt, and place a 1/2 T. butter on each cut potatoes' cut side, and press cut side down onto a rimmed cookie sheet. (Or coat rimmed baking sheet with 6 T. duck fat).  Bake at 350 degrees until cut side is golden brown and crispy, and potato is tender when pierced with a knife.  Begin checking for doneness after 20 minutes.  Buttered potatoes will take about 30 minutes, duck fatted potatoes will take about 40 to 45 minutes.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Let's Be Frank...

Let's be frank, when I'm traveling I seek restaurants with local color.  I want to dine somewhere I won't find anywhere else.  Luckily, when Kent and I were in Pittsburgh last month for a quick over night trip on our way to D.C., we has found great food, and a surprisingly European vibe to the downtown scene.  Given a tip from our intrepid food writer and friend, Amanda, we were told to go to Franktuary.  Happily, it was within walking distance from our hotel.  But, tucked away on a narrow side street, we could have easily missed it.

Franktuary is a hot dog restaurant in a church.  It's a bizarre, little gourmet hotdog joint, with black and white tile on the floors, a cooler full of Bolyan’s soda, and red plastic trays.  There was a basket of books, including the titles Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog and Horsemen of the Esophagus (which although it was about competitive eaters, had a cover covered in photos of hotdogs.)   

I ordered the locavore, which was made from locally sourced grass-fed beef.  After choosing the type of hotdog (they also had conventional and vegetarian), I then had my choice of toppings.  I chose the Mexican—cheddar cheese, mango salsa, and guacamole.  The combination was delicious, the raw red onion in the salsa set off the mango, and the guac gave the whole combination a creamy richness. I decided that the combo really needed the spicy brown mustard and ketchup at the condiment station.  The real star of the show, though, was the frank itself.  If I can be frank, it was one of the best hotdogs I have ever had.  It had that wonderful toothiness, and when I bit into it, the center was gushing with juicy, smoky hotdoginess. 

 I liked that this hotdog joint was eclectic.  We showed up right before closing time, and there was a hipster on his laptop (they offer free wi-fi), a single elderly woman, and a typical nuclear family with teenage kids.  The staff was brisk, but friendly at the same time, and clad in a MegaDeath T-shirts. This was the perfect travel eatery because it was the sort of place that you would find nowhere else.  We do not have access to a restaurant even remotely resembling this little hole in the wall that we almost missed.  So, it had all the wonder of a serendipitous find.