During the last two months, have you found yourself drawn to nibbling cookie dough, craving Cheetos or sitting with a spoon and a jar of Skippy? Me, too.
When things get tough, we often, without realizing it, reach for certain foods. Most times, we don’t even realize we’re doing it until we’ve done it. Then, at a certain point, we give up a heavy sigh and settle back more physically relaxed.
Is it the aroma? The crunch, the creaminess? Yes, all of the above.
Comfort foods are called such because that’s what they provide. Foods that offer feelings of well being and solace. Foods that we associate with childhood and the home cooking of someone who nurtured us. When times are hard, we often long for things that soothe us. Simple things.
Why these foods most often fall into the categories of high calories, high sugar or complex carbs is simply body chemistry. The message food chemistry sends to our brain.
After nine days of evacuation during the October wildfires, I was heading home and needed to stop at a market for replenishment of basic supplies. I had no shopping list, just the knowledge that whatever remained in my fridge would need to be discarded after nine days without electricity.
I grab a cart and stroll the aisles. Condiments, check. Milk, check. So it went. ‘Keep it simple’ was my only clear thought.
Arriving home, the first task was cleaning out the fridge. Then cleaning the fridge itself, which had not been this sparkly since the day it was delivered.
As I began to unload grocery bags, I found myself shaking my head and chuckling out loud.
Shopping while on autopilot and coming from a place of emotional highs and lows I had not even realized what I’d done as I cruised through the market.
Sitting on my counter were two russet potatoes for baking, a bag of frozen crinkle fries, a bag of Lays potato chips and from the fresh deli there were containers of both garlic mashies and potato salad. I hadn’t shopped with intent, but here were my comfort foods. I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like.
I slipped into my comfy pj’s, nestled into my favorite comfy chair and heard that heavy sigh.
In honor of the versatile potato I would like to share a very special recipe with you. This was a signature dish of Chef Roberto “Jerry” Zanieri, the original Chef for “Let’s Go Cook Italian” in Tuscany. Jerry created a “Symphony of Potatoes.”
Potatoes pair wonderfully with so many accompanying ingredients that they lend themselves to every occasion.
At first glance, you may feel that there are way too many steps to this recipe. I ask you to keep in mind that three of the ingredients, the polenta, pesto and mousse, can be made a day ahead of time, leaving the serving day steps to mostly peeling, chopping, boiling and assembling.
I save this dish for special occasions where I might want to show off a bit to my dinner guests.
The presentation gets people’s attention and the flavor profiles are unique.
While potatoes are traditionally a side dish, this dish is a course unto itself. I like to present it as a starter. You’ll create a carpet of potatoes that will be topped with four individually created different potato bites.
A must for this dish is a distinct extra virgin olive oil. Grove 45 or Regina Grove, both local artisan oils, are my go to’s.
Symphony of Potatoes
5 small white potatoes
Cut each potato into small match sticks. Drop match sticks into boiling unsalted water for 8 to 10 minutes, until just tender. Remove sticks with slotted spoon and set aside.
3 medium white potatoes Extra virgin olive oil Sea salt and pepper to taste Peel and thinly slice potatoes. Lay on a shallow baking sheet which has been lined with parchment. Salt and pepper to taste. Lightly drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 450 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes, until just golden on the edges. The chips will not be crunchy at this stage. They will cook further as the Symphony is completed. Set chips aside.
The following three recipe components can be prepared in advance — up to 24 hours prior to completion of your Symphony.
The Polenta Make polenta according to package directions for 4 servings. Regular or quick cooking may be used. You will know polenta is the correct thickness when a wooden spoon stands up alone in the center of the pot of polenta.
When thickened, pour polenta into large baking dish and allow to set and cool. Polenta can be kept in refrigerator until day of Symphony service.
When ready to complete you will cut small rounds of polenta using circular form and grill on your stove top in an iron skillet using no oil. Flip when just browned on one side.
Polenta rounds will be topped with mousse and baked at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes on day of service.
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3 large bunches fresh basil 1 clove fresh garlic, finely minced 4 heaping Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese 4 heaping Tbsp. freshly grated Pecorino cheese 3 Tbsp. pine nuts 6 oz. extra virgin olive oil Few leaves of fresh parsley for color Clean and remove stems from basil. Use only the leaves. Add all ingredients in food processor and whip until pesto is well blended and creamy texture. Set aside in refrigerator until ready to use.
To save time, you can also use your favorite commercial pesto.
You will probably have extra pesto remaining. Put into ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, remove and place loosely into zip lock bag. Store in freezer until needed. One cube equals 1/4 cup pesto.
1 medium fillet of white fish. I use cod. 1 large white potato Whole milk 1⁄8 cup finely chopped fresh parsley Clean and bone fillet. Cover with milk in a medium sauce pan. Slice potato into thick slices, add to milk and fish. Simmer slowly until potatoes are done and fish is almost dissolved.
Mash potatoes and fish with a fork. Whip until mousse is creamy. Stir in fresh parsley. This mixture can be kept 24 hours in refrigerator.
When ready for Symphony assembly, warm in sauce pan.
This mousse is served in a generous dollop atop grilled polenta rounds.
3 medium white potatoes 1⁄2 lb. Taleggio cheese
Peel and cut each potato in half. Slice a thin piece off the bottom of each piece so that the potato can eventually stand on it’s bottom.
Scoop our a small well in the top of each potato to form a boat. Keep in cool water until ready to cook.
To cook, simmer in unsalted water 8 minutes or until just tender. Do not over cook. Remove and put in a bowl of ice water to stop cooking process.
When ready to complete, dry the potatoes and fill each boat with Taleggio cheese. Just prior to serving bake at 400 degrees until cheese is melted. About 3 minutes.
5 small white potatoes 1 1⁄2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil No salt and pepper
Peel potatoes and boil in unsalted water until ready to mash. Drain liquid.
Add olive oil to potatoes and whip with fork until creamy, but still thick enough to peak.
When ready to serve, use round cutter form which you will place atop the potato carpet. Fill the form to the top with the whipped potato mixture. Allow to set 1 minute. Slide form off of potatoes and top potato with a dollop of pesto.
Partially baked potato chips 4 oz. fresh Mozzarella cheese , sliced thin 3 anchovies Extra virgin olive oil
Clean and rinse anchovy fillets. Remove fin, tale and all bones. Set aside.
On baking sheet lined with parchment place one chip per person. Top chip with thin slice of Mozzarella and a pinch of anchovy. Repeat for 3 layers. Top the tower with a chip.
Bake at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Towers will flatten as cheese melts.
When you are ready to serve your “Symphony” you will use a warm plate.
Warm the match stick potatoes in the oven.
Make a “carpet” on each plate with the sticks. One horizontal layer and one vertical layer. Layers should be single and tight. If it’s easier, you can opt to do a single layer.
On top of the carpet you will serve a row of the 4 different hot potato offerings. Alternate the pieces with and without fish ingredients. Best not to place the fish offerings next to one another.
From left to right, I place 1 polenta with fish mousse, 1 potato boat, 1 chip tower and finally the whipped potato with pesto.
Drizzle the entire presentation with extra virgin olive oil.
Keep individual plates of the Symphony warm in the oven until ready to serve to all of your guests at the same time. Mangia Bene.