September 30, 2010

oh, gratin!

the other night i couldn't decide what to make for dinner when i noticed we had three, nice sized potatoes. i thought, "baked potatoes, easy peasy!" but then noticed that the peels were somewhat green.

okay, i wasn't feeling like mashed potatoes but knew i had to do something that involved peeling them when suddenly i got an urge to make a creamy, cheesy, au gratin-inspired dish.

now, being that i don't really enjoy cooking and i don't have natural ability in the kitchen, i tried to find a decent recipe in one of our many cookbooks or all the magazine recipes i tear out from time to time (in hopes that i'll be inspired to actually cook more often, which has yet to happen).

i came up short and didn't find a single recipe involving cheesy, creamy, potato goodness and i didn't want to resort to looking online since my husband has a grip of cookbooks. he even has how to cook everything which has a somewhat misleading title because there was no scalloped or au gratin potato recipe to be found. finally, in my copy of passionate vegetarian, i found a very basic set of au gratin variations and decided to go at it with what i was envisioning and what i had on-hand.

now, when i say "what i was envisioning" please keep in mind that my mom did not teach me to cook as a child or young adult. when i moved out, at age 17, i was equipped with just slightly more knowledge than that required to boil water. i could make macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, and i could read.

so my mom sent me on my way with a bag of prepackaged foods and a cookbook dedicated to chicken since that was the only meat i ate. to this day, i think i've only ever used two recipes from that book - but it taught me how to bake chicken breasts without using shake and bake and trust that it was cooked thoroughly. i honestly, and this not in any way an exaggeration, i honestly do not know how my young son and i survived for the first few years on our own, aside from the fact that he often stayed with my mom while i was working, or in school, and my mom can cook. i think i ate out a lot and it didn't get much cheaper than taco bell bean burritos. i also relied on the staples like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and breakfast cereal as dinner.

when my son was three i got a roommate who was an aspiring chef. he was a great cook and while he never cooked for all of us, i learned a few tricks from him and got really creative and good at stir-frying soba noodles and rice dishes. so we at a lot of that until my son was seven and i moved (practically) next door to a friend of mine who could have been the next julia child had she applied herself. i had never before met anyone who knew so much about everything food-related, or who was so willing to share all that information. it wasn't until then that i broke out of my stir-fry comfort zone and started baking things other than the occasional chicken breasts. i started buying wholesome ingredients and cooked from scratch. i got rid of my microwave, i was already on a health-kick but this reinforced my ideals as i had complete control of what we ingested. nearly every night, we would alternate who would cook dinner, sometimes we'd eat at my apartment, sometimes hers. she was a single mother, too, and we both agreed that it was easier to cook for the four of us, than the two people that lived in each respective household.

within two years i'd met and moved in with awesome papa and, as i've mentioned before, he's not just an awesome papa, but an awesome cook. so. i had a baby, i was still in school, i wasn't forced to cook often (and yes, that's how i see it, even though i'd come to enjoy cooking, it is still a chore) and it's been that way ever since. so, the other night when i wanted some cheesy au gratin-like potato thing, you'd have thought, that at 31 years of age, this would have been no big deal, an easy feat or not even a feat at all.

and you'd have been wrong.

like i mentioned, i found a basic recipe and i felt confident in switching things up a little. the result is what i would like to call Lazy Cheesy Potatoes.

on a scale of 1-10, it wasn't terrible.

i peeled and sliced three medium sized potatoes and chopped up about half of a yellow onion.

then i mixed a cup of 2% milk with 1/2 cup of plain greek style yogurt (instead of sour cream) but i didn't mix it well and i almost thought this was a fatal error but it turned out okay.

i sauteed the onion in a small amount of butter, then added the milk/yogurt and potatoes. it was on medium-low and as i was stirring (too slowly, probably) the yogurt started to curdle in the most unappetizing manner ever. i cannot even begin to describe what it looked like but i started to stir faster but the yogurt was turning into thick, chunks that didn't seem like they'd ever break up. i googled this and realized that 1. it wasn't going to hurt us, it would just look gross and 2. you should always put in fatty, heavy, creamy things in at the last possible minute and 3. it helps to actually stir/incorporate things like yogurt or sour cream completely and use cornstarch, if necessary. these are the kinds of things that people like my husband or my old neighbor/friend would have known.

it was already too late for what was on the stove top so i decided to scoop out the biggest, ickiest looking chunks. i removed two chunks and realized that it was actually slowly separating and the sauce was looking more consistent throughout, so it wasn't as bad as i thought it would be.

when the potatoes looked nearly done, i layered them in a dish, with shredded colby/jack cheese and then poured the creamy sauce all over it, topped it with more cheese and put a lid on the dish.

i put it in the oven, which was preheated to 375 degrees F. it was to bake for 15 minutes before removing the cover but about halfway through, i remembered that i hadn't put the panko bread crumbs on top. i am sure i could have waited until the next step, but i didn't. i took the dish out, sprinkled some breadcrumbs on top, put the lid back on and put it back in the oven for 10 more minutes. not sure if this was my next almost fatal error or not because *then* i thought it was supposed to go back in the oven, uncovered for 15-20 minutes. i erred on what i thought was the high end of the suggested cooking time and removed it after 20 more minutes, uncovered, and even though it tasted mighty delicious, the potatoes were slightly undercooked.

they looked pretty, though....

i looked at the recipe i was semi-following, again, and saw that it was supposed to be 20-30 minutes in the last step. so....this is what we call around here "a valeri" because i am known to see what i want to see when looking at recipes or missing a crucial step or something.

after it had all been served up on plates, my husband explained that putting it back in the oven would be pointless because we'd have to add even more than ten minutes to account for heat loss. so we ate yummy, semi-soft potatoes and that was that.

really, if it hadn't tasted so good, it would have been hard to get past the fact that they were not as tender as i'd anticipated. there was a small amount of leftovers and the next day, i took my husband's awesome suggestion and fried some up with scrambled eggs. see? like that - he is that awesome. i'd have never thought of something like that on my own and would have had no idea what to do with them.

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