Grandma’s Potatoes

When I emailed my family and friends a few weeks ago, asking them for their food and fond memories of my grandmother, almost all of them mentioned these potatoes.  Which is funny because, while I remember these potatoes fondly, I don’t remember them being as amazing as everyone else does.  It was one of Grandma’s standby sides, however, and they are pretty easy.  I’m not sure what made them so special except that maybe it was Grandma making them.

Because as I’ve said, it was something about Grandma.  She was able to make everyone feel welcome, comfortable and a part of the family.  When you sat at her table you felt like you were one of the gang, regardless of which particular gang was present.

Which reminds me of a story via my Uncle P.  He had some friends from Canada who were, shall we say, rough. One of them was very big and very tough and very scary-looking.  While I can’t remember his name it was something like “Bubba” or “Killer”.  For the sake of this story, we will call him Killer.  Anyway, P. was living at home but was away for a few days and Killer came to visit.

My grandmother opened the door and was faced with a large, tall, gruff, bearded, tattooed man.  He asked for P. and my grandmother replied that he wasn’t there but Killer should come in and wait for him.  She showed him into the den and brought him food and asked what kind of beer he wanted.  Killer tried to say that he’d just come back later but my grandmother, all five feet of her, insisted.  Two days later, my uncle came home and found Killer, still in the den, still eating and drinking beer.  He asked him why he hadn’t left and Killer replied, “I would have but I was afraid of your mother!” All five feet of her.

That was Grandma- small, powerful and fiercely loving.  She made everyone feel welcome regardless of the color of your skin, the language on your lips or your affiliations, religious, political or otherwise.

So in honor of that, I give you grandma’s unforgettable potatoes.  For all I know, she served them to Killer.

Ingredients

small red (new) potatoes, scrubbed and eyes removed

1 onion, thinly chopped

mushrooms, sliced (optional)

salt, pepper, dill (dried or fresh, chopped, about a teaspoon, also optional- I personally hate dill)

Oil- maybe a tablespoon or two- olive or canola would do

Directions

Keep in mind that I’m making these from memory as I couldn’t find a written recipe.

Wash and clean your potatoes.  (Funny tip, the Hippo uses her fingernails to get all the eyes out. Who knew?)

Put them in a pot and cover them with water.  Put it over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Let them boil until they are soft but not mushy.  You should be able to put a fork in easily but without them falling apart.  On my induction burner it took about ten minutes.  It may take longer on a gas/electric range.

Meanwhile, chop your onion.

And your mushrooms.

Heat a large, shallow pan over medium high heat.  I use a wok.  Grandma also used a wok.  If you don’t have a wok, then I think a large, shallow pan will do. Add the onions and mushrooms.

 

Let them cook until they start to brown.

When your potatoes are ready, take them out of the water and let them cool.  Slice them in half.

Throw them into the wok (or pan) with the onions and mushrooms.  Stir frequently but let them get brown and crispy on the outside.

At this point, season the potatoes with salt, pepper and dill, if you’re using it.  Serve alongside whatever you like.

These potatoes are like the perfect mix of crispy and soft. The outside has a slight crunch and the inside is soft and smooth.  The onions and mushrooms add a nice flavor and texture to go along with the creamy potatoes.  If you like dill, it adds a nice freshness to the dish.  Really, you can’t go wrong.

Uncles

My mother has two brothers.  She’s the oldest and then there’s P. and then the baby of family, A.  My mother also has an “adopted” brother, S.  S. is Japanese and was on the wrestling team in high school with P.  S. didn’t like the family he was boarding with and spent so much time at the house that he eventually moved in and became one of the family.  Really.  My grandmother even learned how to say, “Wake up, S.” in Japanese and how to make sushi.  But that’s another story, for another post.

My uncles are hard livin’ kind of men.  They smoke, they drink, they ride motorcycles.  In fact, all the men in my family are cut from the same cloth, even if some of the details are different.  Our long standing joke is how homey it felt for me after my grandfather died and everyone came home a year later for the unveiling.  I came downstairs at 9am to my dad standing in the kitchen, in his boxers and t-shirt, cooking bacon and drinking beer, my uncles P. and A. at the kitchen table with their coffee mugs, bottle of whiskey and the go board out and my uncle S. face down, asleep on the living room floor, beer just out of reach of his hand.  My family isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly for me.

My Uncle P. is my favorite uncle.  My relationship with A. is complicated due to choices he’s made that I’ve struggled with and my relationship with S. is good but a bit distant as I don’t see him or email with him as often.  P. was the middle child and first boy, so he had the honor and burden of paving the way for his younger brother(s).  My grandparents were wonderful people but my grandfather could be difficult.  It wasn’t easy for P. and as a result, he’s one of the most interesting and smartest people I know. He’s also had an amazingly interesting life which I’m only just now hearing stories about- I cornered him this summer and made him tell me his stories.  I got to hear about him traveling around the country on his bike, about spending time in Alaska, about living in Canada and about different brawls and fights.  I also got to hear about the people he’s loved along the way.

He’s a set of contradictions.  He’s tough and gruff (he hung around with a motorcycle gang for a long time but didn’t join because he didn’t want to have to back them up in a fight if he felt like it was started for a stupid reason.  Which is not to say that he didn’t fight.  Apparently he once dropped a television on someone’s head.) but really sweet and gentle.  He loves motorcycles and fast cars (when I was little he lived across the street from us and used to take me to school in his red corvette), tequila and smoking.  He also loves animals and flying model planes.  He worked with computers long before the dot-com boom and he programmed my grandparents’ computer to talk with me when I was little (I’d type in “Hi” and the computer would print, “Hi, will you be my friend?” across the screen. And then it would play a guessing game with me.  It wasn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds now- this was before we felt like computers would take over the world).  He is impatient with people but has boundless patience for animals.  Or for figuring out how something works.  He is extremely stoic and extremely generous.  He’s not someone you’d figure out just by looking at him.

To demonstrate, this is my uncle P. with his newest bike:

And this is also my uncle P., with my daughter when she was about 4 months old:

I think P. is my favorite because as a child I was told not to bother him since he didn’t like kids.  As a result, I grew up a little afraid of him.  We saw him often because he lived across the street from us for several years but I have very few memories of spending time with him.  When he would drive me to school, I’d sit really quietly, afraid to annoy or bother him.  As an adult, I started to get to know him when I was in college and have really valued the times I’ve sat, talking with him at the kitchen table.  He’s not someone who’s warm and fuzzy but he is someone who cares about his family deeply.  I’m tearing up as I write that but don’t want to share how I know.  Suffice to say I’ve witnessed some displays of emotion I wouldn’t have thought would come from him.

P. started riding motorcycles because he really wanted a horse.  My grandparents couldn’t afford one so he got a motorcycle instead.  I guess I can see that- it’s probably a very similar feeling when you’re going fast.  I wouldn’t know as the last time I rode a horse I was 12 and it was on a trail in Colorado and I’ve never been on a bike.  I’m scared to be on a bike but if I were ever going to ride one, it would be with my uncle P.  Maybe it’ll be on my life list.  On my living room wall, I have a contract typed up and signed by my uncle P. and my grandparents outlining the rules and use of his first motorcycle (I think he was 16).  Among the things listed are, “No leather jacket.  Not to play the part of a toughie.”  One of my most valued possessions for several years running was a black leather motorcycle jacket left here by my uncle P.  Apparently that rule didn’t get followed.

So where’s the recipe?? you ask.  It’s coming, hang on.  I asked P. what he remembered Grandma cooking.  He responded that he actually remembers Mama’s cooking better than Grandma’s, which makes sense.  So he remembered her chopped liver and her blintzes.  It’s a well-documented fact that no one makes things as well as Mama did so I will state right here and now that I didn’t even try.  But in honor of my uncle P., I did make cheese blintzes.  They probably aren’t as good as Mama’s but Uncle P. lives across the country so I couldn’t ask him to taste test for me.  I used a recipe Grandma had in her recipe box which was entitled “Al’s Crepes.”  Not sure which Al it was (we know a few) but I figured it had to be somewhat authentic since it was in her collection.  I made up my own filling, based on a bunch of recipes I’ve read over the years.

Cheese Blintzes for Uncle P.

Ingredients:

For the Crepes:

3 egg whites

2 egg yolks

pinch of salt

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup water

5 Tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon sugar

For Filling:

1 cup cottage cheese

2 eggs

4 Tablespoons cream cheese

1-2 Tablespoons sour cream

2 Tablespoons sugar

pinch of salt

Directions:

Make the crepes: Blend all crepe ingredients in the blender.  To be fair, you could probably also just whisk together if you don’t have a blender. 

Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat.  Melt a tablespoon of butter in pan but don’t let it burn.  If you have a really good nonstick pan, you might be able to forgo the butter.  Pour a little bit of the crepe batter into the center of the pan and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. 

Keep swirling until it sets

Sort of hard to swirl and photograph at the same time but you get the idea.

 

and then let it cook for just a minute or two, until it starts to brown slightly.

Flip it over- carefully!  I used a spatula and my fingers to flip mine but the difficulty will depend on how thin you’ve made it- and let it cook for a minute.

You want it to be cooked but not brown.  Make several crepes- I gave up after about 8 but probably could have made at least 10-15, depending.  Also, account for some waste– you’ll throw away your first crepe if you’re new at this because it won’t be the right width and it’ll have holes and you’ll screw up the flipping.  It’s not hard, just takes a few tries to get the hang of it.

I'm still learning how to make the perfect crepe- as demonstrated by the varying thickness and color on these.

Make the filling:

Place the filling ingredients into a food processor.

Process until blended.  You could probably use a whisk (or blender) for this too, if you don’t have a food processor.

When the crepes are cool enough to work with but not cold, place one on a flat surface.  Put about one to two Tablespoons of filling a little below center (facing you)- how much filling will depend on how big your crepes are. 

 

Fold up and over the filling.

Fold the sides in towards the center. Fold the top down to cover the sides.

Set aside, seam down, as you make the rest.  At this point, you could freeze these to eat later.

To cook the blintzes, heat some butter and oil in a saute pan over medium heat.  I’d say between 1-2 Tablespoons of both.  This is not a low-cal meal.  You want to brown the blintzes well and it just doesn’t work as well without the oil/butter.

Place them seam side down in the pan and let them get brown and crispy.  Flip once.

I like my blintzes with sour cream but I’ve been known to eat them with applesauce or blueberry jam. The cheese gives a nice tang and the crepes are the perfect smoothness to go with it. The jam adds a nice sweetness but it’s not necessary.

Lest you forget, these are in honor of my Uncle P.  The toughest and gentlest man I’ve ever met.