Retro springy cloth from Frangipani Fabrics
I was unwell recently and for too-many days I went off my food. Completely — the smell, sight, even the thought of food made me grimace. Eagerly anticipated library books were pushed away for another day. Tepid water was all I could stomach; even tea was disastrous.
Gradually though, I began eating; I knew I needed to so I could get better. Half a slice of dry toast. A silver of tinned pear. A spoonful or two of over-boiled broccoli and peas, mushed to baby-food consistency. Bland, easy to down without further waves of nausea. As an exercise in mindfulness I might perhaps recommend it, as I thought long and hard about every mouthful. For someone who usually eats with abandon, it was a surreal horror.
It wasn’t until I chatting to my friend F that I finally realised I was ready to cook and eat again. We were discussing Spanish food — F is Spanish; it is wonderful to hear her say ‘chorizo’ – and she described a simple dish of boiled potatoes and green beans, drizzled with olive oil and scattered with crunchy salt. Something easy and comforting for when you have little time or inclination or appetite for stronger flavours, she said. Perfect for a recovering tummy and palate.
I bought four medium-sized potatoes on the way home from work. I don’t eat a lot of potatoes; they are not even a pantry staple, as many a spud has sat in a dark cupboard and grown those long white feelers before I’ve gotten to them.
The potatoes were cut into chunks and steamed, not with beans but tender young kale leaves, as well as their almost-flowering heads (it looks a little like very loose, long florets of broccoli). Appropriately dressed, the meal was simple but substantial, and I ate with real enjoyment.
I decided then to re-make a dish I’d made a month or so ago: essentially a potato bake or sort-of dauphinnoise, with additional layers of green peas and spinach. I had mixed results: it tasted delicious – once I’d added extra ingredients like my zingy parsley pesto – but looked sloppy, all the creamy layers melting together wonderfully – instead of staying distinct as they were in the recipe photo. At the time I knew I’d make it again but tweak it even further, because the potatoes and creamy ricotta delivered perfect comfort food.
However, for some reason, the dish didn't turn out with the same sloppiness as the first time - which may have looked a mess but was delicious. Did I bake it a tad longer this time? Did I actually bake it at 180, not 200 last time? Were the potatoes a different variety? Should I have used even more sour cream? Was I imagining it?! But the flavours were the same balance of fresh and almost-rich. I know this will be one of my staples – for convalescence or otherwise.
Spring potato bake
Adapted wildly from a Delicious magazine recipe. This is not a quick dish to make, as there are lots of stages, so perhaps save it for the weekend. Or find someone to help you.
- First, defrost or cook a cup of frozen peas, then mash or blitz them a little in a food processor.
- Next, put 3 cups of water and 1 cup of milk in a large saucepan - I actually used 4 cups of water and 3 huge serving spoons of full-fat dried milk as I don't keep cows' milk. Add a couple of cloves of garlic and a small lump of butter.
- Then slice 1 kg of potatoes very thinly; a mandoline makes short work of this. Add to the milk and bring to the boil, then reduce and simmer until the potatoes are just tender, but still retaining some bite. Stir gently every now and then, but be prepared for some of the potato to stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Meanwhile, mix 500 grams of the ricotta you buy at the deli with 3 or 4 tbspns sour cream, some salt and pepper, and a generous amount of finely chopped chives (the original recipe specified 2 tbspns).
- Meanwhile (the potatoes do take a while), you can either make a portion of my parsley pesto... or open a jar of your favourite green pesto.
- Back to the potatoes. Once done, drain the potatoes but not too well; keep some of that creamy liquid clinging. And quickly put some soapy water in the empty pan to soak those stuck-on bits of tatie!
- Grease a biggish casserole dish - mine is a 25cm round one - and heat your oven to 200.
- Start assembling: put half the potatoes in, then all the ricotta-chive mix, then the mashed peas, then blobs of your pesto (blobs, not a thick layer), then the rest of the potatoes. Then top with a spinkling of parmesan and breadcrumbs or panko crumbs.
- Bake for about 30 minutes or until crisp on top.