Malibu Way of Life

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    You are what you eat

    By Jody

    Stump

    One drizzly dusky twilight, as I tried to flag down a cab, a mysterious stranger shambled up to me and said, “I’ll bet you the next cab I can tell where you’re from, with what you’re eating for Thanksgiving.”

    He was bundled in old tweeds with a battered felt hat that looked like generations of city mice had dwelled therein. Yet, still, there was something about the sparkle in the blue eyes I could barely see behind the crinkle in his smile, and his voice was firm with that funny, highly educated Upper East Side accent that sounds as though its denizens of a few square miles were really born mid-way between Britain and the CBS news room. “Okay,” I replied, “I’ll share a cab if you can tell me.”

    Deal done, I told him my dinner would be turkey with a sage bread stuffing, giblet gravy, cranberry chutney, whipped sweet potatoes and creamed onions. He asked only one question, “Marshmallows?” No. He muttered, “Tough,” as he thought a moment, and then said, “Your mother’s family’s from the South, but not too far down, probably Virginia, but your father is not American. English or Welsh?” Bingo!

    “How do you do that?” I asked. “How about some ‘f’rinstances’?”

    I tried a sampling of my friends and he never faltered, hinting that the telltale clues are in the starches, stuffing and potatoes or rice. It’s as though the map of our genes is written on the festal plate.

    I thought about that at a dinner given by the Idaho Potato Commission at Spago. When a 6-foot tall tuber introduced himself as “Spuddy Buddy,” I tried my Thanksgiving trick on him and the friendly crowd of folks from everywhere. Sure enough, people are passionate about potatoes. For many Midwestern Americans, mashed is nirvana, especially when drenched in gravy. All Southerners expect some version of sweet potatoes, and coastal dwellers have the most cosmopolitan selections, some even opting for rice or pasta.

    Here’s a suggestion for those of you adventurous enough to eschew tradition with your turkey, but even if you quake at the thought, save the recipe, it’s good any time. The perfect antidote to any dismal day is scalloped potatoes baked to a delicate creaminess. I offer two versions-American and French, low fat and decadent. Russets are a given for the first, but Yukon Gold would be closer to the source in the second. Your choice. Happy holidays!

    HOLIDAY GRATIN

    Serves 6 – 8

    3 Tbs. butter

    1 1/ 2 Tbs. olive oil

    3 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced very thin

    2 Tsp. fresh thyme, chopped (optional)

    Kosher or sea salt

    Freshly ground black pepper

    Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

    Gruyere cheese, freshly grated and packed tight to measure

    SPUDDY-BUDDY PARISIENNE

    2 large onions, 1 clove garlic

    peeled and thinly sliced,

    vertically

    1 1/ 2 cups chicken broth 1 1/ 2 cups crme fraiche

    1 cup of Gruyere 2 cups of Gruyere

    3 Tbs. grated Parmesan

    1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

    2. Grease a 3-quart casserole dish with 1 tablespoon of butter. For Parisienne, thoroughly rub the dish with the garlic.

    3. For Spuddy, saut the onions in the oil until they are soft and translucent-about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to high and brown them-another 3 – 4 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the broth, allowing it to boil about a minute.

    4. Layer a third of the potatoes in the dish, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with some Gruyere and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and a third of the thyme.

    5A. Spuddy, use a slotted spoon to cover the potatoes with a third of the onions.

    5B. Parisienne, pour on a third of the crme.

    6. Dot potatoes with butter and repeat steps 4 and 5 twice more, ending with cheese and butter.

    7. Spuddy, pour on the broth and finish with a sprinkle of Parmesan.

    8. Bake uncovered 45 – 60 minutes until the top is crisp and golden. Let cool 20 minutes before cutting and serving so the layers tighten up and absorb all the liquid.

    Regional variations:

    Wisconsin: Using the French version, use cheddar instead of Gruyere and cube the potatoes.

    Irish: Add bacon and sauted peppers to the Idaho version.

    Italian: Omit the onions and reduce the broth to 3/4 cup. Replace Gruyere with Fontina and add chopped tomatoes, zucchini and fresh rosemary to Idaho gratin.

    Swiss: Add chopped ham to the French version.