Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Hash Browns

We were not a family that breakfasted together regularly when I was growing up. On school days, my mother would make our breakfasts and set them on the table and we would each come and eat when we were ready. As we got older, we would just grab a piece of toast on our way out the door.

Weekends were not much different. The main change is that we would each make our own breakfasts as we got up. I would alternate between oatmeal (with lots of margarine and brown sugar, of course), soft-boiled eggs and toast, or, more often, a bowl of cereal.

Except for the occasional Sunday, when my father would be up and in the kitchen at what seemed to me at the time to be the crack of dawn, putting together a righteous spread. Sometimes it was because we had guests; sometimes my older brother or sister were home from college. And sometimes it was just because my dad felt like making breakfast.

And he made wonderful breakfasts. My father loved to cook, and he was good at it. He was an amateur Alton Brown - he knew why oil and water don't mix, and he knew that you have to braise a tough piece of meat and not overcook a lean one. We were eating flank steak when it was still one of the cheaper cuts you could buy, and I grew up eating his skirt steak long before we ever heard the word fajita.

He was adventurous too. One of my earliest memories is rolling out bagel dough and shaping it into rounds. He worked at perfecting pickles, and even took a stab at salami. He got pretty good at both.

But he had his failures, too. Like the time he made teiglach, a Lithuanian dessert made of small pieces of dough cooked in honey. It all congealed into one hard sticky blob that had to be tackled with a chisel. But tackle it we did, because if I remember correctly it sure tasted good. And then there was the lemon meringue pie incident, when because he was immutably convinced that you should be able to throw anything into a blender and have it be pulverized beyond all recognition he threw a whole lemon into the blender and thus, into the pie. Every bite had that luscious, lovely lemony tang, followed by thousands of teeny tiny pieces of bitter lemon pulp. And I will never forget the whole egg milkshake (and yes, I mean shell and all) that did not go down at all smoothly.

But mostly, he was successful. And I know that I inherited my love of cooking and my adventurous culinary spirit from him, and I will always be grateful to him for that.

And for his hash browns. My dad made the best hash browns I have ever had, and I can still say that to this day. Evenly diced squares, cooked low and slow on the electric skillet. It didn't matter if they were raw or leftover baked potatoes, they always came out the same. Perfectly seasoned with a crunchy, crusty, almost burned crust. The eggs would vary - sometimes scrambled, sometimes fried. Sometimes we would have rye bread toast with the eggs, other times we would have bagels and lox. Every Passover it would be fried matzos. The only constant was the hash browns.

I gave up trying to make them years ago. I do not have the patience to let anything sit for that long on the stove. Instead I resigned myself to only having them at restaurants, and rarely having them cooked long and slowly enough to be as good as the ones my father made.

Until a few weeks ago. I had bought so many fingerling potatoes at the green market that there were too many to go into the baking dish in which I was going to roast them. So I had five or six leftover and I didn't know what to do with them. The next morning, a Sunday, I started thinking about breakfast. And I started thinking about those potatoes.

And figured maybe by now I had learned a little something about patience. So I diced them up, turned the heat on low under my large skillet, added a little oil and, when it had heated up, added the potatoes. I seasoned them, and then I left them alone. For quite a while. I turned on my computer, read my email, and then played some computer games. After a while I went back into the kitchen and checked on them. They were coming along quite nicely - the heat was low enough that I felt comfortable turning them, seasoning them, and then leaving them alone again while I wrote some blog posts and played some more computer games.

And I continued to let them cook, until they were golden brown and starting to look a little crispy. Then I emptied them out of the skillet onto some paper towels so some of the oil could drain. I made some whole wheat biscuits from a new recipe, which I will share with you at some point, and fried a couple of eggs.

Were these as good as my dad's? Not at all. But they were close, and for the first time I can see myself getting there. It's not something I would do every day, or even every weekend, but every once in a while it is definitely worth the time and effort to put some potatoes in a pan and cook them low and slow.
HASH BROWN POTATOES

Potatoes, any kind, raw or baked, diced evenly
Canola oil
paprika
cumin (optional)
chili powder or cayenne powder (optional)
any other spice or herb you would like to try (I'm thinking rosemary would be good)
salt and pepper to taste

Place skillet over low heat. Add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan and heat it. Add potatoes and whatever spices you are using. Stir the potatoes to get them evenly coated with the oil, then let them cook, checking occasionally, until they have turned golden brown and have a good crust on them. Turn them over and season them on the other side, then let them cook until they have reached the same golden crust all over.

When they have almost reached the desired crustiness, prepare the rest of your breakfast.

2 comments:

Gabriel said...

Hi Debi. I love this posting; very Laurie Colwin. Thinking of everyone at knight night. Lots of love,
Raquel

dejamo said...

Thank you for the lovely compliment, Raquel. I'm so glad you stopped by! I hope you and the little one are doing well.

And you know there's always room at the table on Thursday nights . . .

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