Monthly Archives: January 2012

Personal Autonomy and Potatoes Anna

As always (and it really doesn’t matter what I’m doing, this is what I’m constantly meditating on), I was thinking about how growing personal autonomy is the only possible response to a world out of whack; if we don’t know who we are, how can we know how to work with our world? And there I was getting ready to cook Christmas dinner, which was to be (if you’re as interested as I am in what other people eat) green salad with celery and aioli/lemon dressing, roast duck, scalloped oysters, Potatoes Anna, and See’s chocolates.

I scoured my cookbooks for a scalloped oyster recipe I remembered as being heavenly: all bread crumbs (no crackers), minced green onions, garlic, parsley, with cream on top. But I couldn’t find it. Not in Julia Child. Not in James Beard. Not in James Vilas. Not anywhere. There were recipes with just bread crumbs. There were recipes that used green onions. But none fit the bill precisely, and I knew for sure somewhere in that bookcase was a recipe that fit the bill precisely.

You probably know the end of that story. Yep. Finally I thought to look in my own cookbook, in JAM TODAY, and there it was, the best scalloped oyster recipe ever.

That made me laugh.

It also set me off on another train of thought, while I was throwing together my own version of Potatoes Anna. I thought about why I’d written JAM TODAY in the first place–not to write a cookbook, but to kind of join together sides of life that get artificially separated: as if what you eat every day doesn’t have to do with who you are and where you fit in your world. I really wrote it to support the idea that everyone should be looking at what they’re doing (not at what everyone else is doing), and use that as a tool to understand more fully who they are and who they want to be. Because I really think that’s the only way the individual can be effective in the world, in helping move the world out of its present dead end.

So I know you’re saying, what the hell does this have to do with Potatoes Anna? And of course you have a point. So I’ll try get to that, I swear.

The way I made those oysters tells me a lot about myself. It tells me I don’t particularly like to fuss, but I like to eat. It tells me I don’t have crackers in the house, normally, and I don’t like to buy ingredients just for one special dish. It tells me…oh, it tells me more stuff than that.

And my Potatoes Anna recipe, at least the one I slapped together for Christmas dinner, tells me pretty much the same thing.

Potatoes Anna, in case you missed hearing about her before, is this wonderful dish of a kind of potato cake, crusty on the outside, melting on the inside, cooked in the oven with so much butter you could have cardiac arrest just preparing it (although you pour most of the butter off later and use it again, which is the kind of thing I’m always attracted to).

Now, if you want the most perfect potato dish ever, I recommend you follow Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Like every one of her recipes I’ve tried, if you follow ever step precisely, you’ll have a most wonderful tasting dish.

But me, I can usually only do that following the fiddly recipe precisely thing once. After that, it’s a free for all. And my basic plan is: make something that fits with the rest of my life (not yanking it in another direction through its complexity), and that is going to taste really good. It doesn’t have to taste haute. It just has to taste good. And like it was made with love.

So here is my Potatoes Anna recipe for two, which really did fit that bill.

Take two russet potatoes (which is the kind of potato I usually already have in the house). Clarify a stick of butter (which means heat at low heat, skim off the solids on top, pour the clear butter away from the curds left at the bottom…voila!)–although you can skip this step and just use a melted stick of butter if you want; the result won’t be as perfect, but so what?

Take a small cast iron pan (mine is about six inches across and just the right size for a two potato Potatoes Anna)…or a small heavy ovenproof/stovetop proof skillet or dish…

Peel the first potato. Slice it thinly (I just sliced these on the side of a box grater). Heat a little clarified butter, in low heat, in the pan on top of the stove. Arrange the slices in a layer on the butter. (You’re going to turn the cake over when it’s done, so this is what will show.) Sprinkle more butter, salt and pepper, arrange another layer. Repeat until the potato is used up. Then peel the other potato and slice, and add to the skillet in the same way. Finish by pouring what’s left of the butter on top, and press the whole thing down with a spatula to get it level. Shake the pan and run the spatula underneath to unstick any sticking taters. (It doesn’t matter if it does stick, it’ll still taste good. And I don’t fuss too much over how things look, as long as they work. I mean, you should see my car.)

Stick the pan in a 400 degree oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, till the bottom is all crusty and brown, and the interior potatoes all tender.

Take out of the oven, Pour the excess butter into another dish to use for something else (maybe another round of Potatoes Anna). Unmold the cake on a plate. Cut into wedges, or halves, and serve.


For more people, just use twice the amount of potatoes and butter, and use an 8 inch cast iron pan.

This combines two qualities I find I admire when they’re in close conjunction, in no matter what the arena: practicality and festivity. And if you can manage to be both practical and festive in your own arena, I’d have to say you’re doing about the best of anyone around.

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