Raiding the larder of ideas.

What one family eats, plans to eat, dreams of eating. Plus, other food and kitchen-related stuff from the home of steak-and-potatoes, pie and fresh green beans from the garden.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Escalloped Edges: Adventures in Comfort Foods

I read the other day that scientists now have definitive proof there is no such thing as "comfort food." Well, I am here to say, right here and now, that scientists can sometimes be kind of stupid.

For starters, it was they who chose which foods qualified, for each test subject, as the comfort food. None of the subjects had the power to decide – and this makes a bit of a difference. After all, what may be comforting to the palate and soul of one person may have little impact on another.

It isn't about the starches and sugars alone (that's what we used to call carbohydrates before everybody decided they wanted to sound more intellectual, even when they really had no clue). It's also about emotional associations, such as the memory of one's grandmother slicing off a slab of fresh baked bread and slathering it with homemade butter. Or one's mother, on a miserably cold January serving up a bowl of tomato soup  and a slice of toast.

And then there is the physiological response one might not otherwise realize should be factored into things, e.g., undiagnosed mild allergies and intolerances may come into play. I get migraines from eating wheat and aged cheeses. I have few problems with fresh dairy, but toss it into a vat, throw in a little fermenter, let it sit around and get hard, combine it with your average semolina pasta, and if I swallow it, I'm a whiny, useless puddle for about two days.

So, if the scientists want me to find a food (other than a slice of lovely gluten-free yeast bread cut warm and slathered with fresh butter) to take the edge off, they could do no better than to serve me escalloped potatoes (I like leaving the original "e" on the front of it. It distinguishes this dish from the seafood to which I am violently allergic. We all find comfort in different ways).

And, since I've been thinking about my favorite comfort food since the moment I first read the article on scientists displaying their silliness, I decided it was time to break down, say, "to heck with rational thought," and pile on the carbs for a day.

Now, there are two ways to make escalloped potatoes: the right way, and the diet way. The right way is simple, clean, and laden with fat, as well as carbs. All you need to do is preheat the oven to 400º F, thinly slice a few potatoes (about 1 cup per person you're serving, or enough to half-fill the dish you're using), chop an onion, butter the heck out of your baking dish, layer the onions and potatoes in the dish, pour enough heavy cream over the top of it to half-cover (about 2 cups, for a 9"x9"x4" casserole. For a larger dish, adjust upward accordingly). Bake for about an hour, until the potatoes in the center are firm, yet tender.

For the less decadent version (but one to fool your taste buds into thinking it's worse for you than it is), I swap out the cream and boost the protein. It goes something like this:

Skinnier Escalloped Potatoes


4 cups thinly sliced potatoes, skins on
1 medium onion (about 1 cup), sliced thinly, or, if you prefer, chopped finely
1/2 cup chopped ham
1 cup lowfat milk (I like 2%)
1 brick (8 ounces) neufchatel cheese (reduced fat cream cheese)
1 clove roasted garlic, crushed, or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt, pepper to taste
butter or butter blend, for greasing the dish


Preheat oven to 400º F.

Heavily coat 9"x9"x4" baking dish with butter or butter blend.

Scrub potatoes thoroughly, slice as thinly and evenly as you can (if you have a kitchen mandolin, use the thinnest straight setting it has). Keep in a bowl of very cold water until ready to use.

Slice or chop onions, chop ham.

Place unwrapped cheese in a medium microwave-safe bowl, mash up slightly to spread out, heat on high about 1 minute, until completely softened. Add garlic, pepper, salt. Add approximately 1/4 cup milk, stirring with whisk until completely mixed. Add another 1/4 to 1/3 cup milk, stirring thoroughly again, until it is smooth and liquid. Stir in remaining milk.

In the baking dish, spread a layer of onion, then drain half the potatoes, spread them evenly over the onions, then sprinkle half the ham evenly over that, and the rest of the potatoes, the rest of the onions, and the rest of the ham over that. Press down to compact it.

Pour the milk/cheese mixture evenly over the whole dish, allowing it to percolate downward.

Place on center rack of hot oven, bake for 1 hour, or until bubbles on top have begun to turn dark brown.

Remove from oven, allow to cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

It ain't pretty, but it tastes like a hug from Mom…

Note: I, personally, prefer to eat this as leftovers. Like chili, its flavors have more time to steep, so that it usually tastes even better on the second day. I put about a cup of this in a microwave-safe bowl, cover loosely, and heat on high 3 minutes. Let stand in the microwave oven at least 1 minute. Stir, enjoy.

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