The Curious Cook

Every romance has a humble beginning

“I have made friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes…” writes Nora Ephron in her wonderful early novel Heartburn. “Sometimes meat and potatoes and sometimes fish and potatoes, but always potatoes. I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.”

The celebrated journalist, director and screenwriter was an ardent foodie, as her homage to Julia Child in the film Julie and Julia, attests. Written with characteristic acerbic wit and heartfelt honesty, Heartburn is based on the all-too real experience of the end of her first marriage, which came to a dramatic close when she pitched a perfect Key lime pie in his face. But for now, it’s the beginning of the romance and she describes the meals she makes to win his heart. She reminds us to immerse the peeled potatoes in cold water to prevent them discolouring, as well as to pat them dry before cooking. Plain boiled or baked potatoes won’t cut it for the beginnings of a great romance, only crispy potatoes will do. “All this takes time, and time, as any fool will tell you, is what romance is all about.”

The dishes that marked the beginnings of some of my romances included some fairly disastrous first attempts at gnocchi, dolmades from the vine leaves off a pergola in Wellington and eating fried snoek and fresh oysters on the quay in Hermanus. In the first year we knew each other, J would surprise me by driving 800km to arrive on my doorstep at 11pm. I would then make him something that perfectly encapsulated those simple, lovely times: spaghetti with Napoletana sauce and grated cheese.

Nora reckons there are only two ways of preparing potatoes that are worth their salt – Swiss potatoes (what we know as rӧsti) and the French classic Potatoes Anna. She doesn’t make individual rӧsti but a generous crispy potato pancake as big as the pan she made it in. Potatoes Anna she describes as “thin circles of potatoes cooked in a shallow pan in the oven and then turned out onto a plate in a darling mound of crunchy brownness”. Delicious! I like to make Potatoes Anna with pounded fennel seed and black pepper and caramelised leeks. Either way, I find it essential to use the rather excessive amount of four tablespoons of clarified butter and two of olive oil to ensure the potatoes come out all tender and caramel-coloured. After about 45 minutes of patience, you are then rewarded with a glorious potato cake which is cut into generous wedges.

I am agreement with Nora that it is difficult to choose between rӧsti and Potatoes Anna, a different as they are, they are both spectacular. I love rӧsti with creamed mushroom sauce and topped with a poached egg for a rather licentious breakfast-in-bed. But my favourite of all time is potatoes with fresh rosemary, the way my mother makes it, in my grandmother’s cast iron pot- the inside of which is as smooth as silk from all the years of use. This wonderful pot happens to be the sole survivor of my maternal grandmother’s household, the contents of which was regrettably and all too hastily sold when my family mourned her sudden death. In my opinion this recipe, a peasant version of Potatoes Anna, can only be made in a cast iron pot, lined with enamel or not. So here’s to a lifelong romance – whether it be the beginnings of love or balm for a broken heart – the humble spud!

Rachel’s rosemary potatoes

300g waxy potatoes

4 short sprigs of rosemary or 3 long ones (or the equivalent of 4-6 tablespoons when removed from stalks and chopped)

Maldon sea salt

Four cloves of garlic

1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground (or to taste)

200ml olive oil

100g salted butter


Begin by peeling the potatoes and boil them for 8 minutes until parboiled. Do not overcook. Drain and allow to cool before slicing with a mandolin into medium thick rounds, about 1cm thick.

Remove the rosemary from its twigs and coarsely chop with a mezzaluna. Peel the garlic and slice very thinly. Set both aside.

Preheat a large cast-iron pot on high for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and add the olive oil and the butter, swirling to coat the bottom and up to halfway up the sides. Sprinkle with a bit of rosemary, about a teaspoon’s worth.

Then pack a layer of potatoes tightly around the bottom of the pot, sprinkling with a small amount of garlic. Each layer gets more rosemary and garlic as well as a generous sprinkle of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Repeat until all the potatoes are neatly layered in the pot.

Now patience is required – don’t forget Nora Ephron’s sage advice. With the heat on low, gently cook with the lid on and DO NOT be tempted to turn the potatoes. They are done when they are soft enough to stick a bread knife into them like a knife through butter. The best part is that they are all brown and crusty at the bottom and meltingly tender and fragrant throughout.

Serve for Sunday lunch with roast lamb, spiced dried peach compote and a green salad.

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