Happy Belated Birthday to My Poor Sister Potato Casserole

For the first time in the 20+ years my sister Jinjifore and I have been adults, I forgot to call her on her birthday yesterday. So in belated commemoration of her birthday, here are a couple of memories from earlier times, when someone else was in charge of remembering birthdays and all we had to do was eat the cake.

Today’s potato casserole recipe is in Jinjifore’s honor. (In case you’re wondering, Jinjifore is a childhood nickname for Jennifer, which has stuck to her like a fly in ointment.)

The first potato casserole recipe I tried was “Golden Parsley Potatoes,” from Diet for a Small Planet. It was during a heady, crazy six months in the late eighties when I lived as a vegetarian, in solidarity with migrant workers oppressed in chicken factories, African farmers who could not survive because all the grain in the world was going to feed factory-farmed cows that were headed straight to McDonald’s, and cats. (You know: I wouldn’t eat a cat, so why would I eat another animal?)

Now, I have not completely given up on these ideals, but I realize that my refusing to eat any meat whatsoever was probably not going to make much of a difference. And then of course I married “I love vegetables especially when they are accompanied by a slab of flesh” Fred.

But last night, unconstrained by the need to work bacon, ham, hot dogs, or steak into the meal, I returned to potato casserole. The recipe below is based on “Golden Parsley Potatoes,” which is a wonderful recipe but which I don’t currently have access to because it’s in a storage locker off I-285 right now. It was not entirely vegetarian, as I used the remaining chicken fat from a roast chicken earlier in the week. But frankly I think it would have been better with butter, which is why that is featured in the recipe below.

The beauty and poetry of potato casserole is its variability. Few things taste bad when mixed with potatoes, as the inventor of the restaurant potato bar will tell you. So this recipe contains infite possibility–just like life when you’re 3 and your sister has not yet forgotten your birthday.

Potato Casserole (serves 4)

4 large russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled if desired and sliced thin
1/2 stick butter
2 large yellow onions, peeled, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups grated cheese (any kind will do!)
Salt and pepper to taste
A little cream or half and half

Cook potatoes in salted water until just tender and drain. While potatoes are cooking, melt butter in medium to large skillet on medium heat. Saute onions until translucent. Turn off heat, add garlic, and stir. Preheat oven to 350. Layer potatoes, onions and cheese in medium sized casserole dish (potatoes, onions and garlic, cheese). You can break potatoes into smaller pieces during this process if you wish. If you like a creamy, moist casserole, pour a little cream (1/4 cup or so) over the top. Bake for 30 minutes.

Variations: 1) Last night, before adding the final layer of cheese, I poured 1 cup plain tomato sauce mixed with about 1/4 cup cream over the top of the casserole. This was nice and gives the dish a slightly Italian feel. You could also add olives, capers, anchovies, or similar items to make it “Sicilian” (just remember to add less salt!). 2) Add ham, bacon, or other pork. To add, saute along with the onions and layer with them as well. 3) Add cooked chicken and parsley.

Jinjifore, I promise to call today!

We May or May Not Have a House

Reading Fred’s post from earlier this week, I feel a little sad. We did make an offer on a beautiful little house–in a very expensive neighborhood. But the night after we signed the contract–I burst into tears when the agent brought it in–I dreamed that I was in an airplane, ready to take off on a trip to Paris, its back wheels perched on the edge of a cliff. I was sitting in the back, facing toward a beautiful picture window along the back of the plane. (You find this in all nice airplanes, of course).

The plane made several 360 degree turns in preparation for takeoff, as good dream planes do. It spun one last time and backed up just a little in preparation to fly us away. But the pilot had miscalculated. The back wheels bumped just a little over the edge of the cliff. I knew it was all over. My stomach hit the floor as the plane tipped over backwards, nose in the air. Suddenly I was staring at the bottom of the cliff through the picture window, and we plunged to the ground.

We hit the ground, everything went dark, and I woke up. I guess the good news is that the old myth about falling in dreams is not true. If you hit the ground, you won’t die.

So what has happened? I let myself get caught up in the classic buyer’s mistake–wanting the house too badly. I suspect we talked ourselves into (or I talked Fred into) conceding too much to get the house. On top of that, the timing may not be right for us since we have yet to sell our house in the ATL.

Luckily the agent had not yet submitted the contract to the seller, so we have a little time to think. We’ve called an appraiser and are paying him $400 for my peace of mind.

I am going to cook today, on the first rainy Saturday we’ve had in ages, and will post results.

Root Vegetables and Chicken Fat (oh, and we also made an offer on a house)

Fred had a great dinner on Saturday night and so did I. However, a recent perusal of his online checking account suggests that his vegetable consumption at our dinner was probably equal to what he normally eats in an average month, viz:

Purchase PURCHASE TWAIN`S BILLIARDS 10/07 $11.00
Purchase PURCHASE TWAIN`S BILLIARDS 10/06 $12.09
Purchase PURCHASE WAFFLE HOUSE #0001 10/07 $14.58
Purchase PURCHASE TWAIN`S BILLIARDS 10/05 $20.53
Purchase PURCHASE TWAIN`S BILLIARDS 10/04 $12.09

Note the number on that Waffle House. It’s actually not the original, which is now a defunct Chinese restaurant with an overgrown parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, but the replacement across the street. This is how they do things in the ATL–and why no one worried when Sherman burned it to the ground, since they don’t save anything anyway.

Which brings me back to Durham, where my old urges to carry cloth bags into grocery stores and take a travel mug with me everywhere for refills (even in those few cases when I’m forced to enter McDonald’s)–well, where those old urges are coming back now that I’m in a land where well-heeled but earnest students eagerly hand out PETA flyers and there’s always a vegan option on the menu. But I still don’t dare enter Whole Foods.

Nevertheless, Whole Foods did provide a lovely if decidedly non-vegan meal on Saturday. The roasted root vegetables were especially good.

To make them, I poured off the fat from a chicken I roasted on Friday and covered the vegetables. This was what made the dish particularly good. However, realizing that vegans do need to eat and that not everyone has chicken fat lying around, I would recommend a good extra virgin olive oil as a substitute.

Roasted Fall Vegetables (serves 4 as a side dish)

1. Heat oven to 350.

2. Peel and cut into 1 – 1/2″ pieces:
2 large sweet potatoes
4 -5 carrots
3 -4 golden beets
2 large yellow onions

3. Put vegetables in shallow casserole dish (metal is good) or roasting pan. Add:
1/2 cup chicken fat or extra virgin, extra good olive oil

4. Sprinkle with:
Salt to taste
1 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

Variations: Substitute 3 -4 parsnips or 1 potato if you don’t like beets and add an extra sweet potato. I would not add too many regular potatoes since they would make the dish too bland. You could also add squash (butternut, acorn, calabasa, etc.)–if you are more industrious than I am, that is, and felt up to seeding, peeling, and cutting them up, then roasting the seeds because you have spent too much time around vegans and don’t want to be wasteful, even though you think pouring chicken fat on vegetables is a good idea.

By the way, we also made an offer on a house–$40,000 below the asking price. HAHAHAHA!! Which is what the seller, who doesn’t seem to have listened to the news in the last year and has never heard the term “buyer’s market,” will probably say too.

Belated Pumpkin Soup Results and Other News

The pumpkin soup was quite good–but not until the next day. Unlike butternut squash, calabasa, or many other squashes, most pumpkins you find in the store are a bit less flavorful and therefore benefit from a little time to absorb seasonings. If you really want tasty pumpkin, look for “cooking pumpkins”–they’re smaller than those enormous “carving pumpkins” you see right now, which taste like candle wax and are really best used only as decoration.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly what I put in the white pumpkin soup. But the Calabasa Soup recipe from February is a good starting point for any squashy soup. If you’re vegetarian, just substitute vegetable stock for chicken and add more garlic and onion to increase flavor.

And now for other news.


Not permanently, but for the weekend, as we look for a house here in Durham. We are down to four possibilities (really, only two) and should visit them sometime tomorrow. Our top choice is a “botanical paradise in southwest Durham”–a 1962 ranch house on half an acre, owned by a landscape architect. As long as the wooded lot across the street is not slated to be turned into a gas station or strip mall, that could end up being our new home. It has an outdoor shower. (And one inside too.) That’s enough for me.

For dinner tonight, in a fall harvest extravaganza, Fred is having pork chops, roasted vegetables (golden beets, carrots, sweet potato, and onion) and possibly mashed turnips. I went to Whole Paycheck to purchase the meat and ended up buying all the food for the meal there. Their marketing is absolutely masterful–you are sucked in like an ant up an armadillo snout, and the next thing you know you and your entire savings account have been digested and absorbed in the giant beast of corporate profit.

And on top of all that, I couldn’t even get parsnips there because they had gone floppy. And one of the potatoes I bought was rotted inside. I thought about returning it, but I’m afraid to go back in.

White Pumpkin

Tonight in a fit of cooking extravaganza I’m cooking a white pumpkin and will probably make a soup. Pumpkins, I recently learned, come in all kinds of colors. So when I saw a white one recently at a local market (well, Whole Foods), I had to try it.

The pumpkin soup recipe I came up with last year can be found in the October edition of the Oakhurst Leaflet, where I write a food column. However, this version will be different, as I have no pork sausage, just side meat I picked up at the Raleigh Farmer’s Market. As far as I can tell, this is basically uncured bacon, but I am going to contribute to the generally unreliability of the Internet and not look that up just now.

I will report results.

Fred Ate a Vegetable

Last night as I was talking to my beloved husband in Atlanta as I drove through Durham (yes, I’m one of THOSE people), I could hear loud voices and music in the background.

“Where are you?” I asked.

Twain’s,” he said. “I’ve ordered wings. It’s 9:00 and I haven’t eaten since noon.”

This didn’t surprise me. Before we married, you could find Fred here just about any night of the week, sitting at the bar next to a plate littered with a few scraps of bone and animal flesh, reading Zizek, his Greek New Testament, or some other book without an actual narrative, or perhaps drawing a picture of a kitten on a napkin.

We talked for a while and the noise suddenly increased. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was me eating the celery.”

“That’s okay,” I said, relieved that some fiber had finally entered his system. “At least it’s a vegetable.”

“You know,” he continued, “celery supposedly has negative calories. You burn more calories eating it than it has. So it should offset the effect of the wings.”

I really miss that man.