Sunday, February 8, 2009

So Many Potatoes!

To amend something I alluded to below: It's not that I don't like potatoes, exactly. It's just that I don't really know what to do with them. Mashing, boiling, roasting--all are possibilities, but none really present much challenge or excitement. Consequently, my response to potatoes is a little 'meh.' So when I recently found myself with a literal breadbox full of fingerlings--a combination of French red fingerlings Alex picked up at the PCC and four pounds courtesy of my Full Circle Farm CSA--I was a bit bewildered.

Far be it from me, however, to let this questionable bounty go to waste. Here's what I did with them.

First, I made a roasted chicken. I halved the red fingerlings, which were shaped more like new potatoes, and --after boiling them briefly to make sure they'd cook through by the time the chicken was finished roasting--used them as the "rack" for a brined four-pound chicken, which I'd stuffed with rosemary, a lemon, and half a head of garlic. (My method for making roast chicken--the only method you'll ever need--is described in excruciating detail here.) Although this was kind of a standard preparation for me (and thus a bit of a cop-out on the challenge and excitement fronts), it was, as usual, awesome: The potatoes cooked up creamy inside and lightly browned on the outside, and the chicken was superb. I know it sounds like I'm bragging, but my recipe--more a method than a hard-and-fast list of instructions--is the result of years of experimentation, and I've found it to be nearly infallible in producing the crisp skin and juicy interior (including the white meat) that are the marks of a good roasted chicken.

That was all well and good, but I still had a good three pounds of potatoes staring me in the face. This time, as I often do in such situations, I turned to Bittman. Eschewing all the braised-potato recipes as insuffiently exotic, I decided to make the chicken variation of his stuck-pot rice--a dieter's nightmare that includes two kinds of simple carbs (white rice and the potatoes) and dark-meat chicken whose fat gets absorbed into the rice. The preparation is incredibly simple--you brown the meat and remove it, pouring the fat into the jar where you're reserving chicken fat for later uses. While that's going, thinly slice enough potates to cover the bottom of your pot and boil a cup or two of rice in a large pot of water for about five minutes. Drain the rice, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, add a pinch of saffron, and put the potatoes in a thin layer on top of that. Add half the rice, the chicken, and the other half of the rice; place a clean kitchen towel on the top of the pot, add the lid, and walk away. Don't come back, Bittman admonishes, until "the potatoes smell toasty"--adding, encouragingly, "you'll know." After about 45 minutes, when the potatoes are toasty, dump the whole thing out onto a big plate; if you've done everything right and haven't fallen prey to the temptation to mess with it, the potatoes will have formed a beautiful crust on top of the rice. I listened to Bittman and it was a total success. But unless you actually burn the potatoes (unlikely, especially if you're making it with chicken), I can't imagine this tasting anything less than delicious--rich and comforting, with just a hint of mysterious saffron warmth.

By this time, it was the work week again, and I had little time or patience for kitchen experiments. So the rest of the potatoes--a good-sized bagful--came with me to work, destined to be microwaved and doused in butter and sour cream. Sometimes, when you're hungry and broke and have no time to cook, a bowlful of microwave-"baked" potatoes is the most comforting food in the world.

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