In its frilly finest
I love having house guests. It has been brought to my attention that this is perhaps not a very common or popular stance, but I am sticking by it. As a general concept, I think house guests are pretty great. It’s like having a slumber party, only you can cuss without getting in trouble, and the mean girl from second grade isn’t around to make you cry anymore, and instead of Dr. Pepper and Funyuns, you can share such things as salami and cherries and bottles of rosé and pappardelle with bagna cauda, wilted radicchio, and eggs fried in olive oil. I think we can all get behind that.
This past weekend, my friend Leah came up from California for a visit. A couple of months ago, over some cookies and milk at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, I had suggested that she come to Seattle, and I must have been very persuasive, because she arrived on Friday morning, just in time for lunch.
The unofficial focal point of the visit was to be a day trip to Mount Rainier on Saturday, a trek we dubbed the First Annual Summer Solstice Picnic and Hike. However, as it happened, it was cold and rainy on the mountain, and the trail we wanted to take was buried under eight feet of snow, so our “picnic” took place in the car and our “hike” turned into a brisk 25-minute walk on a different, shorter trail. But it was okay, because Leah had some very cheering dirty jokes up her sleeve, and there is no situation that cannot be improved with a rousing impersonation of [warning: noisy link] Shooby Taylor. And thankfully, the other parts of the weekend went off without a hitch, and they involved even more important things, like cookies that taste like toffee, the aforementioned pasta, and Hasselback potatoes.
Have you ever had a Hasselback potato? It’s a Swedish invention, named for the restaurant in Stockholm that introduced them in the 1700s, and it’s traditionally comprised of a whole potato that has been peeled and cut to resemble a fan, dotted with butter, baked, and then topped with fine bread crumbs and broiled. When properly made, a Hasselback potato is crisp on top and creamy inside, a perfect hybrid of a roasted potato and a baked potato, dressed in its frilly finest. It’s tasty, but it’s also very old-fashioned, the kind of side dish usually relegated to stuffy, stodgy, white-tablecloth restaurants with waiters in starched vests. Until recently, I had never given it much thought. But one day a week or two ago, Brandon happened to mention the Hasselback potato, and the idea lodged itself in my mind – right beneath, come to speak of it, all those Shooby Taylor lyrics – and when it came time to decide on that night’s dinner, I thought, Hasselback potatoes.
To tell you the truth, I wasn’t particularly interested in the usual version, which would necessitate obtaining bread crumbs and pulling out the vegetable peeler. What I wanted was the pure heart of the Hasselback, which is to say a potato that straddles the line between roasted and baked, and that happens to be pretty too. So we made a rustic version. We bought some red potatoes, scrubbed them, and cut slits into them from the top down, so that they would fan open like accordions when they baked. Then, for extra flavor, we slipped slices of garlic down into the slits of some of the potatoes and, into the slits of others, some bits from a broken bay leaf. Then we drizzled them with olive oil, salted them generously, and baked them until they opened like strange flowers and their skins were wrinkled and crisp. We ate them with salmon fillets that Brandon had rubbed with crème fraîche and baked, and aside from the fact that there was way too much bay leaf in a few of the potatoes – see photo above – and one of us whose initials are MW proclaimed them “crazy, and not in a good way,” there was a lot of appreciative moaning around the table that night.
So when I thought about what to make for Leah on Friday evening for her first meal in Seattle, I decided that it was a perfect excuse for more Hasselback potatoes. This time, we flavored them with thin slices of shallot, which we all declared to be quite lovely, and we ate them with ratatouille and homemade lamb sausages. They’re just potatoes, of course, cut in a fancy way and jammed into the oven, but they’re oddly charming somehow. They look a little like roly polys, actually, which pleases me tremendously. (Is it bad to describe your food by likening it to a bug? Yes? No?) For lunch yesterday, I ate the leftovers with my fingers, dipping them into a small pile of salt on the side of the plate, and I highly recommend it. And though I do love house guests, I don’t intend to wait for another before I make them again.
Rustic Hasselback Potatoes
For this preparation, I like to use potatoes that are roughly the size of tennis balls.
Red or white potatoes, medium to large in size
Optional: thinly sliced garlic or shallots, fresh rosemary, bay leaves, butter
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Rinse (and scrub, if necessary) the potatoes, and dry them well. Working with one potato at a time, place it in the well of a wooden spoon, the kind you would use for stirring a pot of soup. Starting at one end of the potato and working toward the other, make a series of crosswise vertical cuts about ¼ inch apart, taking care not to cut all the way through the potato. The wooden spoon should help with this; the knife will hit the sides of the spoon before it can go all the way through the potato.
Place the potatoes on a baking sheet. You can either leave them plain, as is, or you can now season them by slipping herb or aromatics into the cuts. If you want to use garlic or shallots, slip a small slice into each cut. If you want to use rosemary, wedge 1 small sprig into one of the center cuts. If you want to use bay leaves, slip 1 whole leaf into one of the center cuts. (Do not use more than 1 bay leaf, and do not be tempted to crumble it into bits to put in multiple cuts. Use only 1 leaf in 1 cut. See story above.) Then, whether you have seasoned them or not, drizzle the potatoes with oil. You’ll want to sort of open the cuts with your fingers while you drizzle, so that some of the oil gets down inside, and use nice amount of oil – not a dainty little wisp, but also not a huge splash. Sprinkle generously with salt.
Slide the baking sheet into the oven, and bake until the tops are crispy and the potatoes are cooked through, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Serve hot – and, if you like, topped with a finishing sliver of butter.
Note: My friend Hannah makes an especially daring version of the Hasselback. I love her.