In the first episode of the first season of one of the first cooking shows ever on television, Julia Child croons, "The repertoire is really endless in potatoes."
Boundlessly optimistic, super funny and charming, and best of all, devotedly instructional, Julia Child deserves all of the love and attention that continues to be lavished on her years after her death and decades after her last show or cookbook.
What's great about reexamining these recipes is that we now have six billion times (exact figure) as many options for ingredients in our markets and grocers as Julia did in 1963, when this episode aired, and can thus make comfort food that doesn't have to be so heavy or unusable by the body. My savory alternative to cream is based on the surprisingly luscious roasted whole head of garlic.
I dissected the recipes from Episode 1, "The Potato Show" (go ahead and watch, enjoy) - and do you know what I found out? Potatoes are FASCINATING. They're these vital plant body parts that are secretly packed with nutritious bits. For example, and perhaps not surprisingly, potatoes provide the US population with more Vitamin C than any other single ingredient. This is partially because potatoes have a ton of Vitamin C, and partially because Americans eat a ton of potatoes. The potato loses about 75% of its available C when fried, and 25-40% from baking - but don't despair, what's left is significant. Potatoes also have lots of potassium, with purple potatoes coming in first, and they retain most of it after being cooked. Julia's casserole recipes are better with waxy potatoes, which are able to hold together after being both boiled and baked, but for regular potato consumption, please do explore purple potatoes and sweet potatoes, both of which have even more flavor and nutrients than the white guys.
The potato is actually a plant organ! Don't let that freak you out. Potatoes provide subterraneous storage of food for the potato plant - like the basement of a house in the suburbs. They are not root vegetables, like carrots and turnips, but a swelling of the plant stem itself - known as a tuber.
Though early South Americans unearthed this buried treasure early on, it was not until the 1600s that testimonies to the hidden ingredient started popping up regularly in letters and books, mostly in reference to the sweet potato. "The nutriment which they yield is, though somewhat windie, verie substantiall...surpassing for nourishment of all other roots and fruits," gushed Dr. Tobias Venner, a well-known physician from Bath, who then offered the delicious suggestion that potatoes be "roasted in the embers, sopped in wine". I know what I'm having for dinner tonight.
What Dr. Venner means by "windie" is just what it sounds like - the tendency of potatoes to cause flatulence. This was not a problem in the 17th century; passing gas was believed to inflate the male libido and promote virility, and the flatulent effects of food, particularly meat, were used to promote them. Both potatoes and sweet potatoes have a very high starch and a moderate fiber content to thank for these magical Venus powers. Humans cannot digest raw potato, so always cook thoroughly and eat immediately!
Potatoes are also the favored lab rat in the realm of agricultural research. In the Netherlands, researchers at Salt Farm Texel have been using an open-air laboratory field to grow potatoes irrigated with saltwater. Their mission is to get ahead of the slow but steady global salinizaton that threatens the earth's freshwater supply (due to rising sea levels, receding land, and dry summers), as well as to open up non-arable land previously considered impossible to grow crops on - and they're succeeding! By watering the roots, instead of the leaves, Salt Farm Texel is nurturing salt-tolerant potatoes (and carrots, red onions, white cabbage and broccoli) on saline farmland in Pakistan, Ghana and Bangladesh. Also, Texel asserts that the potato flavor is enhanced by this process, and you "don't need to add salt when cooking". Two for one - nice. Taking extreme potato-growing one step further, the International Potato Center announced just last month that attempts to grow potatoes in a simulation of the atmosphere on Mars have been successful. Yes, Martian potatoes are in the works and coming to a planet near you.
Now that you're sufficiently impressed and you think potatoes are...tubular, on to the recipe!
Feel free to veganize this recipe by leaving out the egg and the chorizo. The egg serves to hold the casserole together, so the vegan version will be a little more of a mess to serve, but just as good. Add some more veggies to make up for the missing sausage - something both hefty and umami, like a combo of Swiss chard and shiitake mushrooms. Both the roasted garlic bulb and the garlic cream itself can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.
1 garlic bulb
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
Flaky sea salt
1 shallot, sliced
1/2 head cauliflower, in medium chunks
2 cups water
1 pastured egg
Fresh ground pepper
5 medium waxy potatoes (230 g) (I used new potatoes), thinly sliced
1 chorizo sausage, fresh or cured, thinly sliced
1 small head broccoli (150 g), cut into bite-size florets
Handful fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 400°F. Oil an 8-9 inch casserole dish. Slice 1/4th inch off the top of the garlic bulb, ensuring that all cloves are exposed. Lay down enough aluminum foil to wrap the bulb, followed by parchment paper, followed by the bulb itself. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt on the exposed cloves, and wrap in parchment, then aluminum. Roast in oven for 1 hour.
While garlic is roasting, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan on medium-low heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and shallot and brown in pan, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower and water, stir and bring to a boil. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer until cauliflower is fork tender (but not falling apart), about 15 minutes.
Pour mixture into blender, and add roasted garlic - squeeze out as much of the soft innards as you can from the skin. Puree until smooth, add egg, and blend for a few additional seconds.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to boil, and add sliced potatoes. Cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Blanch the broccoli and any additional veggies by submerging in boiling water for 2 minutes. Layer potatoes, chorizo, and broccoli in alternating layers in casserole dish, seasoning each layer with a scant 1/2 pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Slowly pour garlic cream over entire casserole, being sure to get into the gaps and evenly distribute liquid.
Bake casserole for 30 mins at 375°F on middle rack, then move to upper rack and bake for 15 minutes more. Make sure the chorizo is fully cooked if using fresh sausage. Garnish with additional salt and pepper if needed, fresh parsley, and serve immediately.