Now's time to reach for potatoes

December 12, 2007|By ROB KASPER

As the days get darker, I get hungrier for potatoes.

I am not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with my diurnal rhythm. When the night is cold and scary, I tend to stay indoors and seek warm and comforting potatoes.

Moreover, to cook potatoes you need a strong fire. A hot oven is a welcome companion when the sky turns to pitch at 5 p.m. and the north winds rattle the windows. It could be that my increased appetite for potatoes is linked to some instinct to burrow, to avoid the bitter outdoors by retreating deep into the familiarity of the kitchen and eating things grown underground. Somehow when I peek in the oven and see potato slivers quivering, I feel warm all over.

In addition to all these pro-potato leanings, I am here to tell you that it is also a real kick to pour a cup of beer on some sliced potatoes, then mix them with onions and cheese to create a savory, bubbling gratin.

That is what I did the other night when the gales were keening and trashcans were skittering down the alley. On such a night, I don't crave rice cakes. Instead, I want a dish with substance.

This one had a trio of ingredients - potatoes, onions and beer - that were not shy about making their presence known. Man, was it good. After downing a few portions I felt satisfied, centered and in no danger of being blown away by a gust of wind. On the contrary, I felt almost immobile.

One of the appealing points of the recipe I used, which I found in Lydie Marshall's A Passion for Potatoes, was that it called for a cup of beer. I had made loaves of bread and many bratwurst with beer before. But I had never poured beer on my potatoes, at least on purpose.

Chopping the four cups of onions that this dish required brought me to tears. To put me in a better mood I opened a Victory Moonglow Weizenbock, a potent, aromatic wheat beer from our friends in Downingtown, Pa.

I sliced four large russet potatoes into 1/16-inch slices. As I maneuvered my fingers near the knife, I was grateful I had refrained from drinking any beer before the slicing started.

When the beer hit the potatoes, they sizzled. I am not sure what caused this reaction; I spent most of high school chemistry class looking out the window.

Meanwhile, I simmered the onions in some melted butter, then got ready to assemble the dish.

I put the potato slices on the bottom of a buttered baking dish, sprinkled on some shredded cheese and spooned on half of the onions. I added more until the mixture reached the top of the dish. The beer bottle held a little more than the one cup called for in the recipe, so I poured the dregs over the dish, then stuck it in a 350-degree oven.

After cooking for a little more than an hour, the dish emerged brown and bubbling, filling the kitchen with a powerful, pleasing fragrance.

The taste surprised me. It was sweet. Somehow when beer and onions got together with potatoes and cheese, the results were amicable, almost sugary.

Brawny brown food like this may not be what you want to eat on a spring evening. But when the sky turns somber and the weather turns rough, it is a sure source of solace.

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

Potatoes With Onions and Beer

Serves 6

2 pounds (6 cups) potatoes, russet, Yukon Gold or White Rose, peeled and sliced 1/16 inch thick

1 cup beer

3 tablespoons butter or margarine (divided use)

4 cups coarsely chopped onion

1 1/2 teaspoons salt (divided use)

fresh ground pepper to taste

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

In a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the beer.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a Dutch oven, add the chopped onions and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and some freshly ground pepper. Stir. Cover and simmer slowly for 15 minutes, checking that onions do not burn.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart rectangular or oval baking dish 14 inches by 8 inches by 2 inches.

Overlap one-third of the potato slices in one layer; season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle on one-third of the Gruyere and half the braised onions. Continue with more layers, ending with cheese (do not salt the top layer). There will be only 2 layers of onions. Pour any remaining beer over the onions and dot the top with the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Bake on the middle shelf of the oven until potatoes are soft, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

From "A Passion for Potatoes," by Lydie Marshall

Per serving: 298 calories, 9 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 40 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 654 milligrams sodium

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