Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Culinary Adventures: Savory Pommes-de-Terre Hachées

I decided it was time to buy potatoes this afternoon, and upon depositing the 5-lb. bag in my pantry (who needs 5 lbs of Minnesota-grown red potatoes?  I do, apparently, especially since the bag was only $3.00) I began to run through all the potato recipes I knew.  This process took about 30 seconds, as I only know one, which requires boiling the potatoes before they are sautéed, which is tedious.  So I turned to my cookbooks and found, in Better Homes and Gardens' New Cookbook, 10th edition ("designed with you, the cook of the '90s, in mind") I found a recipe for hash browns which sounded like a good place to start, since I had all five ingredients readily available (potatoes, onions, butter, garlic, and pepper).  So off I went, on another culinary adventure!

What's for Dinner?

I washed one of the potatoes, about the size of my fist, and cut it into pieces about a inch long and put half the pieces into my food chopper, chopped them, emptied the contents into a colander, and chopped the other half.  Then I rinsed them to get rid of extra starch and took a quarter of that Spanish onion that I used for the Savory Chicken with Peas and chopped it in the chopper.  I put the potatoes and the onion in a mixing bowl, added garlic powder and black pepper, and stirred.  In a saucepan I melted half a stick of margarine that I had been trying to figure out what to do with ever since I generated it making cookies last week, and then spooned in the potato-onion mixture.  I sautéed it, warmed a pita in the microwave, and washed some spinach (also purchased this afternoon at $.60 for a fifth of a pound).  Once the potatoes were sautéed (I attempted a potato pancake, but the potatoes wouldn't cohere), I spooned them over the heated pita and the bed of spinach, garnished with shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, and took the above photo (again, a bit more yellow than it was in real life).  So, how'd I do?

Preparation: 4 of 5
A bit of chopping was necessary, and while I don't like cleaning the food chopper (it's not a processor - it's too small), it does make chopping a breeze.  The sautéing took a little longer than it should have, and I should have melted the margarine beforehand, but altogether not too hard, and since I had the onion cut in quarters ahead of time, no tears either!
How to Improve: Have the onion chopped ahead of time so only the potatoes need to go into the chopper, melt the margarine before putting it in the pan, and make sure to use the right size pan (I started out one size too small)!

Presentation: 5 of 5
Please excuse the less-than-ideal picture - this is what I get for taking photos after dark.  But really, this is what I look for in presentation in a home environment (restaurants are expected to be flashy, but this is about what I expect from home cooking).  The whole thing is balanced, but breaking up the pita provides "action" beyond the mere circular.  The spinach is an excellent blast of bright color, and the brightness of the cheddar cheese inside the mozzarella draws your eye straight to the middle of the plate.  Just right.

Taste: 9 of 10
Crisp, fresh spinach meets the warm potato mixture, the cheese provides a little fat and the onion gives a little kick.  All of this is set against a pita, which provides a perfect blank canvas on which the other flavors can run rampant.
How to Improve: The pita is a little too dull, and should be heated more, maybe even buttered, to give it its own taste.  The potato-onion mixture could have been cooked a little longer to make it approach creamy, and tone down the onion a whisper.  Still, doing well.

Health: 4 of 5
Had this dish not had spinach, I don't think I could have justified preparing or eating it, as it would have been entirely white (save for the cheese garnish).  However, it's a completely meatless dish and, if you remove the cheese and sauté in olive oil rather than margarine, it would also be vegan, which is a pretty good.  However, it is a bit carb/starch heavy; fortunately, the spinach lightens it up.
How to Improve: We don't actually need all that potato - a higher ratio of vegetable (spinach, and maybe some others) to starch would give this meal more serious health-food credentials.

Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
Since I took my inspiration from a well-known comfort food and even consulted a recipe for pointers, I can't claim much ingenuity or creativity on this one.  However, I am proud of venturing in a meatless direction, and I'd not done a whole lot of cooking with potatoes before, so those are both good steps.  But the real selling point for this baby is its price.

Because it's a meatless dish, this is a really inexpensive meal.  One potato can't be worth more than a quarter, a quarter of an onion has already been determined to be worth about 7 cents, the spinach was 60 cents total and I didn't use even half (call it a quarter), and some cheese, maybe 60 cents-worth, plus a pita for 20 cents (10 in a pack for $1.99).  Really, a meal for under $2, and I only ate half of it, so $1.  Perhaps I'll write a book called "One-Dollar Meals: Cooking on the Cheap."  In this kind of economy I have no doubt that it would sell.

Overall: 26 of 30 (A-)
While not a culinary revelation, this dish only needs a little tweaking before I could serve it to a guest, even a vegan one.  Not only that, it need not play the role of main dish - the same portion I cooked tonight could be split in half and used as a side to accompany something else, like a small-scale meat entrée (pork medallions, for example), or stuffed inside pitas or other dough and baked to make an appetizer. 
So, when are you coming over to dinner?

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