Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo

 

Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

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Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

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Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

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I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

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Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!

Foodie Tuesday: Potato Famished

photoI’m going to keep this supremely simple. I love potatoes. Among my ridiculously long list of edible loves, potatoes rank pretty high on the list. It’s clear that my Viking ancestry designed my particular corporeal form to be composed of 70% potato water, so I’m spending my years just fueling it up as best I can.

Barring allergies or outright dislike, it’s hard not to admire the potato regardless of one’s lineage. It’s one of the most inspiringly versatile foodstuffs on this little old planet. There’s hardly anything that a potato can’t gussy up nicely. Let me just commune with the spirit of the potato here for a moment:

Boiled, roasted, fried, baked, steamed. Even raw. Yes, on rare occasions Mom gave them to us sliced like cold little potato bruschetti, buttered and salted and munched out of hand. Odd, but not unpleasant. Still, I’m a little more of an old stick in the mud and like them best cooked up one way or another. Grated, mashed, bashed, diced. Sliced and made into insanely tasty (and of course buttery as can be) Hasselback potatoes. Cooked and smashed, with lots of gloriously rich cream. French fried, skin on, in beef fat. Scalloped with a passel of cheese. Okay, you caught me. I’m stuck as always on my beloved theme of delicious FATS. Yeah, I yelled. Ahem. Now, back to our regularly scheduled swooning over potatoes. Tenderly toothsome cubes in vegetable soup or clam chowder or some dreamy slow-cooked stew. Crisply golden-browned hash browns tenderly steaming at heart. Silky smooth in a luscious cool Vichyssoise.

And of course, sometimes nothing else can possible compare to a fine and dandy baked potato. Say, served with tonight’s very simply cooked steak and very simply plain romaine and tomato salad. Just halve the russet potatoes, coat well with coconut oil, place cut side down in a baking pan and then stab them thoroughly in the back with a fork or knife to prevent in-oven explosion (or zombie resurrection, if that’s your concern), salt them well with coarse good salt, and bake until they’re tender inside and crispy outside (circa 20-30 minutes, depending on the oven and the size of your potatoes) at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Some things can’t really be improved, now, can they.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Lefse as History

digital imageMama’s Justifiably Famous Potato Lefse

[This is a recipe she developed in collusion with a group of faithful Old Norskies in Puyallup, Washington, one of whom added the strict instruction that the lefse must be rolled “so thin you can read a faded love letter through it”. I’ve spelled out the procedure here in my own words, so Mom can’t be blamed for that part of the recipe!]

8 c. cooked and finely mashed potatoes

1/4 lb. butter

1/2 T salt

1/4 c. potato cooking water plus 1/4 c. evaporated milk

2-3 c. flour + more for rolling the lefse

Take a gallon bowl filled with 8 cups of riced cooked Russet potatoes, still hot, and press 1/4-pound piece of butter into the middle of it. Put a generous 1/2 tablespoon of salt on top. Pour a mixture of 1/4 cup of the potatoes’ cooking water plus 1/4 cup of evaporated milk over the top of the salt. Mash everything together thoroughly and mix it with 2-3 cups of flour. This makes enough dough for 20 lefse. [Yes, Mom was likely to make a triple recipe or more for many occasions. Eat one piece and you’ll know why.]

The flour amount should start out as small as possible and only get the potatoes into a very light dough-like, rather spongy consistency, and not stick to your hands as you mix. The more flour added, the tougher and drier the finished lefse will be. Mom almost always did the potatoes the day before their appointed baking day, rolled the tender dough into logs about 3″ in diameter and wrapped them in cling film, storing them in a cool place. The fridge is forever too crowded at the time when you’re lefse-baking for festivities of any kind, so if the weather was cool enough, the potatoes usually waited overnight on the workbench in the garage in that state for their final apotheosis.

Baking day is invariably messy and laborious, particularly on the days of multiple batch preparation. One does best to have the correct tools for the occasion, and they are many and specialized. First, you really ought to have a lefse griddle, which is a flat, circular electric griddle about 18″ in diameter and capable of reaching around 500º F in temperature. You’ll also want some nice old flour-sack dish towels or linen tea-towels to stack freshly baked lefse between on the counter as you take them off the griddle. You’ll find it helpful to have a pastry rolling cloth on your work surface, because not only will it keep the lefse from sticking as easily to the countertop, it’ll also help hold the lovely texture of the lefse’s surface that is so ideal for carrying oodles of melted butter and other fillings.

Make sure to have not just a rolling pin but an actual lefse rolling pin, a wooden pin whose roller surface is scored to create the optimum texture: some are simply grooved with parallel lines around the circumference of the roller and others, like Mom’s, textured with a full crosshatch of about 1/16th-inch grooves). Most people using the lefse rolling pins also like to use a soft cloth sleeve over the roller, because (and you can guess how I know this), a very soft, tender and potentially super-sticky dough will create a remarkably gunky agglomeration in the grooves of the pin, and lemme tell you, it’s a serious undertaking to get that concrete out ever again. Think about how many of those little grooves are on a whole rolling pin. Think fondly of an early death. Nahhh, just cover the pin.

Last and not least, it’s good to have a really fine lefse turner. Yes, the person who will flip the lefse when it is appropriately birthmarked on one side with light brown speckling to give the other side its chance for equally pretty freckling, that person will be an important part of your equipment. But even more important is the modest sword-like object known in our household as a lefse turner. It’s a flat stick around a yard/metre long. Yes, it would probably be entirely possible to use an actual sword for the purpose, but if you did, what would you use to fend off the ravening lefse-starved Viking invaders whilst baking? You could probably use a yardstick. Then you might well benefit from the ability to measure your lefse’s circumference in the very midst of moving them from griddle to stack. My mother has two lefse turners of both great practical beauty and artful grace. Gramps handcrafted them from fine-grained wood, making a 3/16″ thick x 2-1/2″ wide handle end pierced with a hanging hole and tapering them down to a soft ovoid tip less than 1/16th” thick, each turner sanded down to perfectly smooth softness so that it feels as sweet in the hand as that aforementioned sword ought to do in a master swordsman’s, and able to slip its narrowest point easily under a magically tender hot lefse to lift it from the griddle to the cooling stack.

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Mama's lefse turners, handcrafted by her father, hang on her kitchen wall.

With your mise en place, off you go. Slice the log of soft potato dough into evenly measured pieces that, when you pat them gently into shape, are about the size and shape of a slightly smaller diameter, slightly thicker than typical hamburger patty (twenty pieces from a whole batch, if you remember). Keep them rather cool, so that they don’t become more difficult to roll–they’re sensitive enough as it is. Gently flour the outside of a piece of dough, pop it in the middle of a small handful of flour in the center of the pastry cloth and roll the lefse out into a circle of delicate, ethereal, dainty, lightly textured sheerness as big as you can fit on the lefse griddle–even a tiny bit too big, because it’ll retract a tad and shrink to fit the griddle as soon as it hits the 450-500º heat; test to see how quickly your griddle bakes the flatbreads without either scorching or drying them out.

You don’t want the baked lefse’s spots too dark brown–lift an edge and check occasionally as they cook. You don’t want too much flour flying around–always use the smallest amount you can get away with using. You don’t want the lefse too dry–they’ll dry a bit as it is, when they’re awaiting use. As you can imagine, during the baking day one works hard, gets hungry, and smells buttery mashed potato dough cooking, so some of the lefse will not live long enough to worry your pretty little head about any real drying-out problems with them. Some will have to be rescued from their intended wait immediately for slathering with beautiful melting butter and eaten instantly. After all, there are always some lefse that resist the most valiant efforts to make them into a perfect circle and choose instead to replicate maps of various continents, and once you get too far away from Australia-looking they’re just not going to fold into even quarters for the standard packaging and serving format and it’s best to destroy the evidence. It’s sort of like James Mason’s delightfully dry remark in ‘11 Harrowhouse‘ when he’s found apparently in the midst of removing the contents of a diamond safe: “I’ve eaten the inventory.”

What else is there to say? Roll. Bake. Lay a freshly-minted lefse flat on a clean towel and cover it with another towel. Roll. Bake. Lay the next lefse on top of the first and cover it with that top towel. Repeat until all of that carefully crafted dough is baked into giant, tissue thin circles of lightly moist flatbread. When the whole batch is done, either eat it all for supper or let it cool under its towel, carefully fold each piece into quarters and then package small stacks of the finished lefse in zipper bags for the counter, refrigerator or freezer, depending on how long until they will be eaten.

And what is all of this enormous effort for? Some, including members of my own family, would say as Grandma W said regarding lefse’s cousin kumpe (Norwegian potato dumplings) that it was “a lot of work to spoil potatoes”. Others revere them as the Norsk version of the Mexican tortilla, Middle Eastern pita, South/Central Asian naan, or any other culture’s soft flatbread. Making lefse is of course potentially a fine way both to preserve the Norwegian culture in both country and family, as well as a social event. You know me, though: Lazy Girl helped only when I had to other than in the devouring of the finished product. It was usually other relatives and friends that pitched in with Mom in the manufacturing of lefse. And it’s so fragile, both as a tensile object and in its moisture content, that it doesn’t taste good for very long.

So in my opinion, what this labor of love is about is, well, love. Secondarily, it’s about a great potato flatbread best hot off the griddle and smeared with fresh butter only, as it always was preferred in my family. Others like it best with sugar and perhaps some cinnamon sprinkled on it before it’s folded up and jammed into their mouths, and we would sometimes, if the day had grown extra long and laborious over multiple batches of lefse, make a heartier meal of it by making a sort of quesadilla out of a hot lefse with some cheddar or Jarlsberg cheese and thin slices of good ham folded and warmed inside, not a bad “sandwich” at all.

In any case, I can tell you that there are many who will vouch for Mama’s inimitable lefse as the archetype of all potato lefse. But then, you already knew that Mom is pretty much the archetype of moms, so what would you expect! As for Grandma W, she may be forgiven for thinking potato dumplings, and possibly lefse as well, too labor-intensive for their meager culinary payoff since she grew up in her immigrant father’s grocery store and might have considered it better to enjoy prepared foods in that Modern, American way.photoThat’s Grandma, by the way, the little barefoot girl in white, Christmas-tree-tipping Auntie Ingeborg behind her, with their parents and little brother and an employee (haloed in window light) in Great-Grandpa’s grocery store. Lefse or no, they apparently did have some fine food on hand! May all of you dear readers eat well–whatever you’re eating!