6 May 2011

Can't help it

Minutes before sitting down and writing this story, it dawned on me that there is one thing I talk about time and again on this blog (and pretty much everywhere else, which makes me feel for those doomed to converse with me). The recurrent theme is: potatoes, a stamp in my Russian culinary ID. Did I tell you that potatoes are no secondary thing for a Russian? Did I tell you that yet? I’m sorry, can’t help it. So here goes again.

It is my grandparents’ custom to buy large quantities of potatoes in mid-fall (before their price would jump up later on) for the family to feed off in winter months. It all begins with multiple visits to local farmers’ markets to first select samples to test taste. A good spud has to meet the following criteria: it should not darken while cooking, and once boiled, it shouldn’t turn rubbery, but it can’t crumble too much under the pressure of a fork either, and most importantly, it has to taste creamy without any assistance of butter or dairy. Once a specimen capable of accomplishing the mission is found, my grandparents would load their white nearly thirty-years-old Soviet four-wheeler with sack after sack of un-scrubbed jacketed tubers.

Every other week for the next four or five months my grandfather would go to his garage basement to pick over the potato lot, or rather what gets left after the family starts to pack it away, for sprouts. Now there being fewer heads to feed – my uncle’s whole family of three moved to Moscow; I’m living abroad – and a new, less sturdier, almost flimsy car to load, the annual potato purchase grew smaller in size, but its importance is, and always will be, high. The household in winter is not complete if there are not enough potatoes in that dark garage basement.

We had the spuds simply boiled, pan-fried with onions, roasted with chicken; stewed with tomatoes and river fish; as a main or a side; for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner; left over from a yesterday’s meal and freshly cooked. If I got sick and developed a bad cough, I didn’t have a chance to get away from having to stand over a pot with just cooked tubers and inhale the coming-out steam, my head covered with a towel to prevent the heat from escaping. The potato is believed to have particles with anti-inflammatory qualities and the steam to bear them in transit, was what my mother told me.

So I’ve had it a lot with potatoes, except that I didn’t have them cooked with sherry. Entirely by the way, I didn't have anything cooked with sherry. For one: there was no sherry around me in my formative years. The first libation "from the West" made its way to new Russia in early nineties and, if my memory serves me right, it was called brandy liquor. It came in dark-glass stubby bottles with a sail ship on the blue-sea label. I was uninterested to taste it then (and I'm not sure I would be now). My parents say it would never fail to give them a terrible headache, the best of possible bodily reactions to the drink.

Second of all, I think sherry falls into that category of fine drinks that one grows to appreciate with age. Also, I had to be old enough to stop believing that a sweet alcoholic substance such as the one in question should be reserved for an after-meal glass and not a pan of potatoes. But then again, it’s not your plain Jane pan of potatoes. In it, artichokes make an appearance as well. And the potatoes are those small springtime tubers that turn eminently fragrant in salted boiling water and whose thin skin crackles just so under your teeth giving way to the young creamy flesh underneath it.

The idea comes from the MORO East cookbook, a beautiful compilation of Eastern Mediterranean recipes by the owners of the acclaimed MORO restaurant in London, Sam and Sam Clark. Originally, the sampling in question goes by the name “artichokes and potatoes with oloroso sherry”. But I think the artichokes, though no lesser important to the accumulative taste of the ensemble, should, instead, come second in the title, for in my view the potatoes are the name of the game here. Hence what follows is "potatoes and artichokes with oloroso", the change is minor but imperative.

The actual substitute in the original is my use of marinated artichoke hearts in place of fresh ones, for which there are two reasons. One, artichokes in the Netherlands is not a local thistle. Which means I have to be prepared to live with a new dent in my wallet for months at hand if I wish to enjoy them fresh, imported, as is usually the case, from Italy. I don’t want to go down that road again. Two, I discovered that the sourness of the marinated artichokes is a perfect foil to the sweetness that comes with sherry. An additional bonus: a shorter cooking time.

You start by browning some onions. Once those are halfway to their color destination, you add the marinated artichokes, and let the duo cook together until the onions are golden and the artichokes develop a mild blush. Next goes a tiny bit of garlic, followed after a minute by sherry and water and fresh basil (MORO East uses mint, but I find basil mingles more successfully with the rest of the given ingredients). Finally, you nudge the cooked potatoes in the skillet, cover with a lid and let it all bubble for a while allowing the heat to leverage the unity between the subtle vegetables and the intense oloroso sherry. A few squirts of olive oil and more fresh basil at the end and you are ready for a delicious cheer on a plate. The caramelized onions and soft artichokes intermingle and soak up all that deep caramel flavor of the sherry, winding up to be sweet and sour all at once, making perfect companions for the mellowed plump spuds that got infused with the basil’s peppery herbal notes and nutty sherry, that same sherry. Oh, potatoes can get so lucky!

Potatoes and Artichokes with Oloroso Sherry

Adapted from MORO East, by Samantha and Samuel Clark
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side dish

This dish is an "all-year-rounder", considering you use the marinated artichokes. When new harvest tubers go off season, normal potatoes would be a bet just as good.

A word on sherry: while S. and S. Clark suggest medium oloroso sherry (“oloroso” means scented in Spanish) for this dish, I had delicious results with a dry oloroso variety as well. The bottom line is that regardless of what oloroso you get to use – it varies in types from dry to sweet – it should be good enough to be sipped on its own, as goes with any alcohol in cooking, you know.

500 gr (16.5 oz) new potatoes, scrubbed
4 good-quality (canned) marinated artichoke hearts, quartered
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
150 ml (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp) oloroso sherry
100 ml (1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp) water
2 Tbsp roughly chopped fresh basil

1. Boil the potatoes in slightly salted water until tender; drain. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut the large ones in half or in quarter.

2. Over medium fire, heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, stir in the onion and a pinch of salt, cut the heat back to medium-low and fry for 5-7 minutes, or until the onion is soft and starting to color.

3. Add the artichokes, and stirring occasionally, fry for another 3-5 minutes, or until the onion is golden and the artichokes take on golden hue.

4. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Pour in the sherry and water; add half the basil. Place the potatoes on top and sauté, uncovered, for the next 2-3 minutes. Stir, cover with a lid and continue cooking for another 4-5 minutes more.

5. Squirt with the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle on with the rest of the basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.


J said...

Sounds good, might try that.

May I suggest a recipe that I have been enjoying for a couple of days?

Feta Olive bread

Easy, start making bread in a bread machine. Add 1 egg and a couple tablespoons olive oil. Some extra flour to soak up egg and oil.

When the final rising is starting add :

100/150 grams of feta cheese, crumbled by fingers.

1 medium/small red onion, chopped finely

1 handful of olives - chopped or pitted, whatever you like.

Mix all that in.




Have something tomato-ish to go with it/spread on it/dip it in.

Also make sure you have lots of water to hand, eating an entire loaf makes you very thirsty.

My bread collapses, professionals will know how to avoid this.

The bread will have a moist spongey texture, very nourishing. Great to find chunks of onion, cheese and olive in your bite.

Next I may add sun dried tomato and walnut.

What do you think?

anya said...

Hi J,

Thanks for the recipe. I'm interested to try it, although I'd have to maneuver cautiously around feta. I suspect I might be lactose intolerant -- not a good thing for a cheese fan. But do like olives! And sun-dried tomatoes! I'm sold.

As to why your bread collapses, did you try to add egg and oil after the initial mixing stage when the dough has rested for about 45 minutes? It might be that the development of the dough has been interfered or slowed down. Also, do you use egg at room temperature? Let me know. :)

J said...

I have cheese allergy, but I can't resist.

Ah, well, I just throw the egg in fresh from the fridge at the beginning.
The oil goes in at the start too.

Maybe I need salt, more flour... don't know.

It seems to resist making a brown crust, have to give it a good bake.

I used whole pitted black olives this time - pick them out and chew them - good! See them lay there cut by the bread knife, half in your slice, half in your loaf - little treats.

Bread machines are great, very easy to experiment with ingredients.

anya said...

I once tried black olives dressed up with orange zest. Holy smoke, that was delicious. These beggars are treats indeed! Especially wrapped up in fragrant bread crumb.

You are saying the bread doesn't develop crust fast enough? Maybe you are using too much water? There are always so many variables...
Going to ask the head baker at my work tomorrow about what could be wrong.

J said...

Sounds perky, olives and orange!

What I meant is that I baked it on medium crust setting, but it needed dark crust setting.
Every machine is different, so I cannot say how others may turn out, but generally I would think it may need more baking than ordinary bread.
It was perhaps a little undercooked inide even on the highest setting, so I think it needs plenty of time.

Could be too much water.

Variables, yes, indeed.

anya said...

Hi J,

I asked around as to the reasons why bread may collapse. The foremost reason is that the dough is overdeveloped. Either too much yeast or a too warm environment at the rising stage. Or both. :)

J said...

Ah, aha, I see, thank you, most kind.
Both of those are possible, yes. It's warm weather, I used a lot of yeast and not much salt. I may try again soon, I'll let you know if it works.

anya said...

Best of luck with the dough, J! :)

J said...