Monday, April 28, 2008

Scalloped Potatoes

My sister-in-law called me one day, asking for my scalloped potato recipe.

"I don't really have one," I replied.

"What? But you make them all the time!" she said.

"Yes, but hardly ever with a recipe, and never the same way twice. I've just never hit upon the recipe that I like best, so I just continue the hunt every time I make them."

"Oh. Well. Never mind, then, I guess."

As I'm sure you've noticed if you've flipped through this blog at all, I have a love affair with potatoes. I will eat them in a house, and I will eat them with a mouse, I will eat them here or there, yes, I will eat them anywhere. And over the years, I've been fortunate enough to find or concoct recipes for potatoes that I've really loved in every category of preparation.

Except scalloped.

I first had scalloped potatoes as a child, when my family was dining with some friends. They were a potato lover's dream: wonderful flavor, simple, tender... I longed for those potatoes in my adult years, and thinking back to that first dish and how it must have been prepared, I reckon it involved potatoes, milk, flour, butter, and salt and pepper, and that's it. I must have tried every possible combination of those ingredients, but I never made scalloped potatoes that comforted me as much as those first scalloped potatoes. In fact, my sauce either turned out too thick and gloppy, or a more simple pour-the-milk-over preparation favored by many old-fashioned cookbooks yielded a curdled, tasteless mess.

But there's this marvelous magazine called Cooks Illustrated. The idea behind this particular publication is that they test and dissect recipes until they are perfect and foolproof, and they're very often successful. So when I had reached an impasse in my scalloped potato recipe search, I remembered them. They have one of those websites that you have to pay a monthly fee to use, and I wasn't quite desperate enough to pay for the recipe--yet. Frequently, bloggers and other miscellaneous recipe-posters will post notable Cooks Illustrated recipes on other sites, so I went a-Googlin' in hopes of finding it for free, and lo and behold, up popped this recipe.

So I tried it, and I loved it. It is now my scalloped potato recipe, so if Beth ever calls again looking for one, I will give this to her. Actually, come to think about it, I think I already gave it to her, knowing that she'd love it as much as we do. It's a little more detailed of an ingredient list than the flour-butter-milk-salt and pepper recipes I'd been using, but it still wasn't difficult, I usually have everything on the list on hand, and it actually comes together much more quickly than standard scalloped potato recipes, and with infinitely better flavor and texture. If you love potatoes like I do, or even just kind of like them, give this one a try!

Cooks Illustrated Scalloped Potatoes with Thyme and Bay

2 Tbsp. butter
1 med. onion, minced
2 med. garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, minced (or 1 tsp. dried thyme--that's what I use)
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 1/2 lbs. (about 5 medium) russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 in. thick (*note: I don't peel, I just scrub. I like the skins and the flavor and nutrients they add. And to slice, I just run the spuds through the food processor with the slicing blade)
1 c. chicken broth
1 c. heavy cream (or, if you're like me, you use 2% milk, because that's what you have)
2 bay leaves
4 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup loosely-packed shredded cheese)

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Melt the butter, and sauté the onion over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, thyme, and salt and pepper and cook for about 30 seconds or so. Add the potatoes, broth, cream (or milk), and bay leaves, and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the potatoes are nearly tender, about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and discard.

Transfer the mixture to a 8x8 baking dish (or whatever casserole dish you'd like). Sprinkle the top with the cheese and bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden brown. Cool for about 10 minutes before serving (or not, if you're impatient like me).

NOW, if you want to turn this into a main dish casserole, prepare as directed, except that, before you dump the potato mixture into the baking dish, add some cubed ham or chicken. I'd say about 1 1/2 cups should do it, but it's ultimately up to you. And if you really want to go crazy and make it a one-dish meal, you could add some thawed (but not cooked) frozen peas, too, about 3/4 to 1 cup.

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