like a schoolboy on sunday
I hate to say this, because I like to remain unbiased and believe each month has it’s merits, but March kind of sucks, and I am not sad to be done with the whole soggy, teasing mess.
After all, we’ve been cloaked under five months of frigid, raw days, so by the time March rolls around we perk up, thinking “Oh yes, finally, we made it. Spring has arrived! We’re saved! Let’s frolic and roast asparagus and picnic! HURRAH!” Except rarely does one get more than a two or three days in March to actually act the Spring-crazed Fool. Case in point: two weekends ago the weather was glorious. Stupendous, even. Bulbous cottony clouds, a bloom-perfumed breeze, luxuriously warm sun. A fine day for a bike ride, which is exactly what we did, all the way over to the National Harbor. But, see, since it was March, and the first truly pleasant day, weather-wise, since November, every other person in the Washington, DC metropolitan area had the same brilliant plan. Whoops. We stumbled off our bikes at 4:00 in the afternoon, dazed and feeling peckish from the ride, and thought that it might be a pleasant thing to sit outside for a while and munch on some chips and salsa. So, we ambled about, poked our heads curiously in the Peep store (yes, a store devoted entirely to PEEPS. What?), and made our way over the requisite large-ish, entirely too froufy Mexican restaurant, and were sternly informed in no uncertain terms that we could come back in an hour and a half to pick up our pager, at which point, the wait would be another hour. People, it was 4:30. Apparently, on our bike ride, we’d crossed over into the nexus of an incredibly bizarre universe. The afternoon ended unceremoniously in a limp, spongy, vaguely sock-like in flavor veggie burger at the only place in the complex that didn’t have a line. I should have known. I’m looking at you, Elevation Burger! The National Harbor is a frightening place, and I don’t plan on going back.
Now, here’s the rub. After that weekend, spring decided it wasn’t quite ready to come out of hibernation yet, and scurried away, leaving us doused in rain and shivering in our t-shirts, blinking in confusion. Bad weather is so much harder to stomach after you’ve experienced the first fine spring day. I liken it to tasting really fine quality chocolate for the first time. It’s a revelation, and you wonder how you ever managed to survive childhood on Hershey bars and those little cracker and processed cheese snack packs. Remember those? The “knife” for spreading your “cheese” was a little rectangle of red plastic. I loved those things. I wish I could ask my mother why she ever allowed me to eat them.
The point of all this is that really, I’m not ready for truly springlike dishes in March. When I come home at night and my nose is still red, my feet are still blocks of ice, and my hair is wet from being caught in yet another rain shower, I’m not in the mood for a light medley of fresh peas, asparagus, and a delicate tangle of arugula. I need something a bit heartier, comforting, a dish that pats me on my back and reassures me that I can get through just a couple more weeks until the real spring arrives. I need braised potatoes with garlic and bay leaves. And I think you do, too.
These little guys are something special in the tuber world, a world fraught with mystery, folklore, old wives tales and whisperings on how to get the perfect mash, or the crispiest roast, or the slimmest, most addictive frites. No, indeed. I can’t be bothered with that type of fuss and worry all the time. You really have to make an effort to screw these up, and you most likely have everything you need already squirreled away in the pantry, which means you can have a stunningly delicious light dinner in about 25 minutes. The recipe comes from a book I have already gushed over, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens. In the recipe introduction, she mentions the friend from whom she learned the cooking technique, who likes to call this dish “seethed potatoes”. It’s really quite an apt description. Basically, you chuck a bunch of baby potatoes into a pot, bathe them in a stream of olive oil and stock, tuck in some garlic and bay leaves, and just let them burble away for a few minutes while you tidy up and open some wine. Such a few simple flavors permeate and, yes, seethe into the potatoes, rendering them fragrant, velvety and creamy. They have an honest, clear potatoey flavor, just spiffed and polished a bit, like a schoolboy on Sunday, endearlingly charming in his slightly lopsided bow tie and blue blazer. A bowl of these makes a fine light dinner with a crisp, zippy salad and a wedge of cheese (my new love: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. So. Wonderful.). And just a tip: they are also fantastic cold, straight from the fridge. A fine, refreshing snack for when the weather finally behaves itself.
adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens
1-1/2 lbs small red or white potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable stock or water (I prefer homemade, but regularly use Imagine Brand No Chicken Broth)
2 bay leaves, fresh if you can find them
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised (I used 3. I love garlic)
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
First, inspect your potatoes. If they are larger than a golf ball, cut them in half. If you are leaving them whole, check to see how thick the skins are by scraping your thumbnail across the skin. If the skin does NOT tear, then remove a small strip of skin around the circumference of each potato with a vegetable peeler. This will allow the braising liquid to permeate the potatoes better. If the skins are thin, leave the potatoes be.
Now, chuck your potatoes into a saucepan or dutch oven large enough to hold them in a single layer without crowding. They should be snug, not sitting on top of each other. Drizzle the oil over top the potatoes and then pour in the stock or water. Tear the bay leaves in half, and tuck them in among the potatoes, along with the garlic cloves. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once the liquid simmers, lower the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers gently. Braise, covered, turning the potatoes once halfway through with a spoon, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer or knife, about 20 minutes.
Remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sputter and sizzle. This should take about 5 minutes. The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan. Serve hot, remembering to fish out and discard the bay leaves.