Creamy Potato Chowder with Watercress

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I had scant awareness of family meal before becoming a cook. When I worked in a pizza joint in high school there was no such thing as family meal. I’m not certain that anyone working knew about the concept. We could make ourselves iceberg lettuce salads, or eat the “mess up” pizzas that the management didn’t pitch. Or we could buy our dinner, something the servers often did and no one else would.

On the other end of the family meal continuum are those you see in movies about fancy restaurants. There, everyone- cooks, servers, dishwashers- sits down before service. It’s served family style and there’s wine involved. It’s sophisticated and elegant and elastic. Whenever I see those films I dream of their family meals.

Family meal where I work is something different. It happens during service. We all eat standing up, clustered around our chest freezer. Front of the house eats in shifts. Back of the house eats between tickets. And the food is wildly variable. There are days we need to use up those luxury products and so we end up eating foie gras pancakes. On the other hand I’ve eaten burgers and gyros more times than I can count. Some times it’s collaborative, with everyone creating a component. Other times one person takes charge and spends most of their free time pulling it together.

Some meals are excellent. Homemade pasta, ramen, and pizza have all graced our chest freezer. Other day we end up devouring scrambled eggs and leftover biscuits because we didn’t plan ahead. And some meals barely get eaten. A bad family meal is unfortunate, but the only unforgivable family meal is an omitted one. Not feeding your people is one of the rudest things possible in restaurant.

I’ve made an absurd amount of salads for family meal- they’re delicious, adaptable, and I am always happy to eat a salad. But family meals offers a challenge to step out of my comfort zone and use up product that I don’t often turn to.

This potato chowder is loosely inspired by a recent family meal. We had a large amount of cauliflower scraps and gallons of very fatty smoked pork broth that both needed use, and I paired them up in a soup. And it was fine. I wasn’t happy with it but we have to feed our people. But even unfortunate meals can grow into good ones, if only the idea of them. Some times good things can come from mistakes.

Here, you gently cook celery and onions until they’ve softened and just started to take on color. Dried sage and smoked paprika add depth and a faint hint of smokiness. Vegetable stock is less heavy and fatty than pork broth, and allows the creamy softness of potato to shine. Some heavy cream gives the soup body, and watercress brings a bright, peppery bite. It’s the kind of soup I like to eat as winter starts to break- warm but not heavy, comforting but fresh.

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Creamy Potato Chowder with Watercress

If you can’t find watercress, roughly chopped spinach would be a fine substitute. I would add a bit more pepper in that case.

serves 4

2 tablespoons butter
3 stalks celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
salt
2 pounds yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups vegetable broth
1 cup heavy cream
a good handful of cleaned and roughly chopped watercress

to serve

oyster crackers
watercress
scallions, finely sliced on the bias

In a large soup pan melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter is frothing, add the celery and onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to take on some color, about 8 minutes. Add the sage, paprika, white pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Cook for a minute, until the spices are fragrant. Add the potatoes, and stir to coat. Add the vegetable broth, scrapping the bottom with a wooden spoon as you pour the vegetable broth in, and bring to a boil. Reduce the soup to a simmer, then simmer for 30 minutes, until the potatoes are almost falling apart.

Use an immersion blender to blend the soup to a chunky-creamy consistency or an upright blender to puree half of the soup. Stir in the cream, and taste for seasonings. Add more salt and pepper as necessary. Stir the watercress into the warm soup.

To serve, top with oyster crackers, watercress, and scallions.  Eat warm.

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Skordalia


Before Aaron sold out and got a job with health insurance and a 401k and PTO with a big company, he was a bartender. He started when we were in college, and bartended more or less full time for 5 years. He had a knack for finding the best possible place for him at the time. When we were living in England he worked as a bar back at a high volume cocktail bar that we frequented with friends for the Alice in Wonderland themed drinks. In our sleepy college town he worked behind the bar at the hotel where presidential candidates stay during their tours of Iowa. When we moved to Minneapolis he finagled his way into a bar back role at a fine dining restaurant that held one of Minnesota’s three James Beard awards. That role eventually morphed into bartending. I used to stop in on my nights off with a book. I would sip on a cocktail Aaron would slide over to me, watching the people around the room revel.

Back then I was a preschool teacher. When I decided to make the change to cooking, I was able to find a good job for someone so green right away because of the connections Aaron had made bartending. We were young and just out of college, and spent most of our “extra” money on eating out. It was hard not to- there were so many options out there. We had so much to learn. It felt like we were playing catch up. And there was always a new place to try. Some we heard about from Aaron’s coworkers. Some were recommended to us by the servers and bartenders we had become friendly with from our many late nights. Other times Aaron might mention a place offhand he wanted to try. “They’re in NSBG,” he’d say.

NSBG was the North Star Bartender’s Guild, Minnesota’s version of a bartender’s union. They provided the option to buy health insurance and continuing education and put on Iron Bartender every year. Most restaurants that had strong bar programs had bartenders in the guild. After meetings Aaron would complain about the drama of it all. There was always bad blood between some restaurants, and that would manifest in sniping. But he would also get to try new spirits that were just started to be imported to the US, and once he got a free hat, so it seemed to be a fairly even trade.

One hot August night we were in Rochester, Minnesota, looking for a place to get dinner. Aaron mentioned a place nearby. “They’re in NSBG.” In fact, he elaborated, they were the only restaurant outside the Twin Cities to make the drive for meetings. It sounded good, and much better than the Olive Gardens that Yelp was turning up, so we hit up Zzest Restaurant.

It was already full dark when we arrived, but we were still shown to a wrought iron table in the patio. Patio is the wrong word for it, though- it was like a full garden. People were sitting in clusters, some sipping wine, some snacking on truffle oil popcorn. Laughter drifted in the air. When the server arrived we ordered generously, and included a starter called skordalia. “It’s like a mashed potato hummus,” he told us, and with a description like that, how could we resist?

It came, a smooth white mound. It was creamy and light and fluffy, filled with a brave amount of garlic. The menu proclaimed that it contained both potatoes and white beans, a combination I’ve not seen anywhere else. It was so good I ended up running my fingers over the finished plate to lick the last bites off. Everything we had that night was delicious, but only the memory of the skordalia has stayed with me.

I’ve only had skordalia at Zzest, but the memory has stuck with me. It lives in the small notebook I carry with me at all times, the list of ideas for here that just keeps growing and growing. After Easter I was scanning that notebook. I needed a way to use up potatoes. 15 pounds of potatoes is far too many for 5 people, it turns out. Among the other suspects (roast potatoes with mustard, loaded potato wedges, shepherd’s pie) skoralia stuck out. It was time to make mashed potato hummus.

It’s quite easy to make. You roast potatoes, mash, bash garlic, and mix. It’s deeply flavorful, garlic-y and savory and slightly sweet. It would be a great dip for a party, as it’s the rare combination of unique and comforting. I imagine it would also excel in any role that mashed potatoes are commonly stuck in.

Happy April! I’m wishing you all beautiful weather and delicious potatoes.

Skordalia

The recipe originally calls for “ground almonds”. I made the substitution for almond flour, as it’s the same thing just already conveniently made. If you don’t keep almond flour on hand and have a food processor, go ahead and grind those almonds yourself. Additionally, the original recipe called for 1 cup of olive oil (and no water). If you are braver than I, please try it and tell me what you think.

Adapted from this recipe from the Culinary Institute of America via Epicurious

Yield: About three cups

1 pound small, starchy potatoes (I used half white, half purple potatoes)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup almond flour
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water

To serve
Olive oil
Slivered almonds
Cut raw vegetables of choice, such as carrot batons and radish rounds
Crackers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork or small sharp knife. Roast the potatoes until tender. The time will depend on how large your potatoes are. Mine were quite small, and took about half an hour, but they may take an hour or more. Remove the potatoes when they’re tender, and set aside until they’re cool enough to touch. Once they’re cool enough to touch, place in a medium sized bowl and mash using a potato masher until tender.

In a mortar and pestle, or using a knife and cutting board, pound the garlic cloves with the salt until you have a smooth paste.

Add the garlic paste, yolk, pepper, almond flour, lemon, olive oil, and water to the smooth potato mash. Mix well and taste. Adjust the lemon, salt, and pepper according to taste, and if you’d like a looser consistency add more oil or water.

To serve, drizzle with olive oil and top with slivered almonds, and arrange vegetables and crackers as desired.

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Kale Stuffed Double Baked Potatoes


Growing up in the Midwest, celebrations meant going out to the steakhouse. In my family, that meant going to one in particular. Cousins in town? 50th anniversary? Funeral luncheon? It was always Syl’s. Syl’s was my grandparent’s steakhouse of choice, a restaurant founded in the 40s and that, save the clothing choices of some patrons, could have passed for being in the 40s still. It was at Syl’s where I would order the fillet mignon with mushrooms, unaware of its extravagance and without my parents correcting me. It was at Syl’s when Abby daringly tried frog’s legs and declared after careful chewing that they tasted just like chicken. It was at Syl’s where my Grandpa  and Uncles would order rounds of Manhattans, and where as a legal adult I disappointed them all by ordering an Old Fashioned.

It was a magical place, old fashioned and jovial. It left me with a serious appreciation for steak, the only meat that I craved during two separate bouts of vegetarianism. It was my template for what an grown-up restaurant was until I was well into college. And it fed me on a steady diet of potatoes.

Syl’s, like any good steakhouse, was serious about their potatoes. They came as a side for any steak in a list of magical variety. Whipped! Garlic mashed! Baked! And the king of it all, double baked potatoes. Even if I hadn’t gained a taste for steak, I would have still ordered it to get that side of potatoes.The potatoes were the main event. The steak was only a very tasty accompaniment.

I was evangelical about my potatoes. And double baked have long been one of my favorites. My aunt would bring them for Christmas, filled with cheddar and sprinkled with bright red paprika. I would gobble up so many my mom would shoot me a look across the room. My parents would buy them frozen from the bulk store and I would eat them for many dinners, mostly satisfied with their buttery flavor and smooth filling contrasted with tough skins. They were on the menu at Syl’s, beautifully piped. And double baked potatoes were on the menu of the first meal I tried to make my family. (Along with potato skins and gnocchi. Like I said, I have a thing for potatoes.)

Like so many things from my childhood- Applebee’s spinach artichoke dip, cinnamon toast crunch for breakfast, Dannon peach yogurt- double baked potatoes haven’t had a place in my life for a long time. The older I get, the more the double baked potato- white potatoes drowning in dairy- seems resigned to the list of food I can’t feel good about eating anymore. But when I was making a list of things I wanted to make double baked potatoes kept popping up. And I realized that I don’t have to slavishly recreate my nostalgic double baked potatoes. I can smarten up my childhood love for me to enjoy now.

These double baked potatoes are a stunner. They’re stuffed with kale and shallots and bound together with a tart helping of Greek yogurt with a little bit of milk for moisture. The goat cheese is for a grown up palate, and the dusting of smoked paprika is a twist of smart nostalgia. They are satisfying and hearty. If you eat meat, they’d be stunning with steak and if you don’t, they make a beautiful meal on their own. They are not the recreation of my childhood love, but rather the heir to its legacy. They’re what I love about where I was, and what I crave where I am.

 

Kale Stuffed Double Baked Potatoes

Serves 4

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large bunch of Dino kale, centers removed, thinly sliced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
Smoked paprika, to sprinkle

Preheat the oven to 400. Prick each potato in several places with a fork. Place the potatoes in the preheated oven and roast, for about an hour, until the potatoes are cooked through and give a bit when squeezed. Remove from the oven and set aside until you can comfortably touch them, about ten to fifteen minutes.

In a skillet warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the kale, shallots, and a sprinkle of salt and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale has cooked down and the shallots have softened. Sprinkle the two tablespoons of vinegar over the kale and continue to sauté for about another minute. The kale should be tender.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Slice the potatoes in half. Using a large spoon, scoop out the insides of the potato and place in a large bowl. Be careful to leave a ring of potato around the edges- you’ll need a bit for structure. Use a potato masher or an electric mixer to smooth the potatoes.

Combine the potatoes with the kale-shallot combination, the yogurt, the milk, and the nutmeg. Mix well add the goat cheese and mix again. Taste the poatao filling, and add salt as necessary.

Evenly divide the filling between the empty potato skins. Sprinkle with the smoked paprika. Place on a tray, and bake until the edges are crispy, about 30 minutes.

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