Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cookbook challenge

A few weeks ago, Craig, the Director of Marketing at Algonquin Books, issued a Bookseller Challenge: he wanted to get booksellers at 10 different stores around the country to make a meal with recipes from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita, an Italian-Southern fusion cookbook published by Artisan, one of Algonquin's affiliated publishers. I responded to his email immediately, saying I felt up to the challenge. Little did I know that Sherri, our store's buyer and my good friend, sitting in another office twenty feet away from me, emailed Craig at almost the exact same moment with the same response. Craig answered us both, saying he was trying to get 10 different bookstores, not just 10 different booksellers, involved, and how were we going to settle this smackdown? Sherri and I consulted one another briefly, then informed Craig that we could happily work together. So our dinner was on: we decided to get together last night, the 28th of February, and we invited Jen, our store's promotional director, and Patrick, the webmaster, and his wife Edan to join us. Sherri's and my sweethearts, Rich and Sean, rounded out the guest list.

I was a bit nervous from the get-go. I love to cook and I think I'm pretty good at it, but I've heard Patrick discuss cooking and dining enough to know that he and Edan are real foodies. Sherri and Rich are adventurous diners, always trying new restaurants and growing a good deal of their own produce and harvesting eggs from their chickens. Jen was an unknown quantity: I know she loves a good meal and enjoys cooking, and she is always out and about with her friends, traveling and checking out new clubs. She's also a devoted Top Chef aficionado. I was worried that my down-home approach to food might seem a bit hick for the other guests.

We each decided to pick a recipe from the cookbook. Sherri and Rich chose the Lamb Spiedini with Sicilian Couscous and Yogurt Sauce, Jen the Apple Crostata, and Patrick and Edan the Roasted Beet Crostini; they also made a simple green salad with a light vinaigrette. I, of course, went the obvious route and decided to make Potato and Fontina Gratin. See? Nothing sophisticated about my choice, but . . . potatoes and cheese, baby! It might not be the evening's star, but at least there was going to be something on the menu guaranteed to please my tastebuds.

Potato and Fontina Gratin was really easy to make. You slice the potatoes and soak them in heavy cream for a little while, then layer them in a seasoned casserole with freshly grated Parmesan, kosher salt, and white pepper; you "drizzle" some of the cream over the potatoes, cover the dish and bake the potatoes for two hours, then sprinkle grated Fontina on top and bake for another hour. I just love dishes you can forget about for hours at a time.

I knew everybody would either be buying their ingredients at the farmer's market or harvesting them from their yards. I, however, had to work Saturday morning and neither was an option for me. Instead, I went to Whole Foods and bought everything I needed; I opted for organic, so at least my dish had that going for it.

I borrowed Sherri's mandoline so I could slice the potatoes uniformly. The recipe called for eighth-inch-thick slices, but I couldn't figure out how to adjust the blade so my potatoes ended up a quarter of an inch thick. No worries -- I figured I'd just turn up the oven temp a bit and cook the dish a little longer. Both Sherri and Patrick had warned me of the dangers inherent in using a mandoline, so I was careful to use the guard so I didn't slice off the tips of any of my fingers the way Patrick once did. My hands reeked of garlic after I rubbed a crushed clove over the inside of my casserole dish and no matter how many times I washed my hands, I couldn't quite get the aroma to go away. I also was irritated by one of the directions in the recipe: it said to top each layer of the potatoes with "a drizzle of cream." I wasn't plating a dessert here, dammit, I was baking! How much is a drizzle, especially when you're going to bake something for three hours and you don't want it to dry out? I ended up using about half of the two cups of cream called for in the recipe in my drizzling, and I could only pray the dish wouldn't end up all soggy.

We met at Sherri's house at 6 and began drinking and tasting immediately. I'm not a huge fan of beets, but Patrick and Edan's Roasted Beet Crostini were superb; the baguette slices were topped with olive oil, ricotta, lemon zest, fresh ground pepper, the aforementioned beets, toasted walnuts, and sea salt. Each one was tiny but full of complex flavors. Sherri's husband Rich, a talented photographer, took pictures of everything before it was devoured, and the photos will no doubt show up on the store's blog early next week when Patrick recounts his version of our dinner. All I will say is, the evening got off to a fine start with those crostini.

We moved from the kitchen into the living room and enjoyed some Mexican olives and wine, and here's when I began to get nervous: Patrick, Edan, Sherri and Rich all began talking food. Seriously talking. It started with observations of Sherri's extensive cookbook collection -- both Patrick and Edan seemed familiar with just about every title displayed on her shelves, and the three of them began discussing particular recipes, most of which sounded delicious but too high-falutin' for my own home dining. Then they moved on to restaurants. They talked in great detail about a number of places that sounded interesting, inventive, and terribly upscale, places I've never heard of and will probably never visit. I did notice that Jen was rather quiet during this discussion, too, which made me feel a little better; she had also confided to me earlier that she did not have complete faith in her Apple Crostata. I felt as if we were unspoken allies. Sean, of course, has traveled a great deal more than I have and was able to talk about some wonderful restaurants he'd visited in Spain and Australia, among other places.

While all this was going on, dinner preparation was continuing. My potatoes had been sprinkled with the grated Fontina and popped in the oven for the final melting/browning. Rich threaded chunks of lamb on rosemary skewers so that they could be grilled. And Sherri sauteed some highly seasoned vegetables and chickpeas to mix into her Sicilian couscous -- only the couscous wasn't having any of it. It just would not soften up, remaining, as Sherri put it, "chalky." The sauteed vegetables smelled so good that we all said, hey, serve them as a side and forget about the couscous. Which she did, with smashing results.

All my worrying ended up being for naught. My gratin was well-received, which should have been no surprise: it was, after all, a huge pot of potatoes and cheese. All of the other food was delicious. And despite all their foodie knowledge, Patrick, Edan, Sherri and Rich are not food snobs and clearly wanted everyone included in the conversation. Patrick may understand wine structure, and Edan can discuss the trajectory of a good cheese, but ultimately they just love food and enjoy talking about it. And while Sherri and Rich can describe their dining experiences at some of L.A.'s most luxurious-sounding restaurants, they talked just as enthusiastically about their favorite taco stand in Ensenada. Ultimately, all of us were pulled into the wide-ranging conversation, discussing food and books and social networking and suburban farming. When it came time for dessert, Jen's Apple Crostata was a hit, neither too sweet nor too heavy after our big meal. It was perfect with a cup of coffee.

Despite just about everyone having more than one serving of potatoes, Sean and I actually had some leftovers to bring home:

This morning Sean fried them up with a couple of eggs and ate them for breakfast.


1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and ends trimmed
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup freshly grated Parmagiano-Reggiano
Kosher salt and white pepper
1/2 cup grated Fontina

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.

Rub the bottom and sides of a 2-quart gratin dish or 3-inch-deep casserole with the crushed garlic clove. Let the dish stand for several minutes so that the oil from the garlic becomes tacky to the touch, then rub the bottom and sides of the dish with the softened butter. Set aside.

Using a mandoline or vegetable slicer, or a very sharp chef's knife, slice the potatoes lengthwise into slices about 1/8 inch thick. [NOTE: Don't be afraid if your slices are a little thick -- 1/4 inch slices worked out just fine.] Place the slices in a bowl with the cream. Layer one-third of the slices in the baking dish in a slightly overlapping fashion. Top with 1/3 cup of the grated Parmagiano, a drizzle of cream from the bowl [NOTE: a drizzle = about 1/3 cup], and a pinch each of salt and white pepper. Continue layering so that you have three layers total, finishing with Parmagiano and salt and pepper.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 2 hours.

Uncover the potatoes, top with the grated Fontina, and bake uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour more, until the potatoes are very tender and the top is brown and bubbly.

Serves 4 to 6 [according to the recipe, but really, it's more like 6 to 8]

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