Debbie Matthews: Good on paper, not on the plate

May. 07, 2013 @ 03:11 PM

Normally our doctor’s office runs like clockwork. Petey and I are the ones that are usually racing to make our appointments on time. So, I never take a book or anything for the wait.
For some reason, this time, every step had a 20-minute delay.
I grabbed a magazine to keep me from pacing the waiting room like a caged, hungry tiger (patience isn’t really my bag).
I began reading a Woman’s Day. About halfway through, I spied a recipe for a potato dish.
It was a gratin (a baked dish, topped with browned bread crumbs—think scalloped potatoes).
This one was potatoes, leeks, and artichoke hearts, with tons of cheese and cream.
Most meals we eat have a starch component on the plate. Pasta, rice, potatoes and the occasional exotic guest star like quinoa or Israeli cous cous.
After 30 years of cooking dinners, I’m always on the lookout for new recipes. This one hit all our favorite notes. The only iffy ingredient was artichokes. The Kid and I are huge fans, but Petey, not so much. Because the artichokes were chopped and mixed with leeks, I figured the flavor of them would be a bit muted, so I could slip it past my patient spouse.
Petey and I have made the choice to not own mobile phones. Luckily, The Kid had come along with us, so I asked my cell-equipped child to snap a picture of the recipe, and email it to me. That way I didn’t have to write the whole thing out, or rip a page out of the clinic’s mag (I felt kinda tech savvy about that idea).
One Saturday afternoon, I gathered the ingredients and set to work.
There was quite a bit of prep. Peeling and slicing the potatoes, and cleaning, cutting up, and sautéing the leek and artichokes that go between spud layers. It took about 45 minutes to assemble the dish and get it into the oven.
After a little over an hour, I removed the dish from the oven, and we sat down to eat.
We were all excited to dig in, because taters cooked with cheese and cream, it’s got to be amazing, right?
We tucked in to what we were expecting to become one of our new favorites.
It was OK. And nothing more.
The casserole had a too-sweet flavor, and even though it was full of fats and cheese, it didn’t thrill any of us.
Petey summed it up for us all. “It’s not bad, but Chrissie’s potato leek thing is much better.”
That was our inaugural and final consumption of the casserole. I didn’t even save the leftovers, and I absolutely hate wasting food. But nobody would eat any more of it, and I knew it would sit undisturbed in the fridge until it got fuzzy and had to be tossed.
The eating of this so-so dish made us all hunger for Chef Chrissie’s version, so a week or so later, I prepared it.
As always, it was a big hit.

Chef Chrissie’s Potato/Leek Stuff
4 medium-large baking potatoes
2 large bunches of leeks
2 tablespoons butter
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped, or put through press
1½ cups heavy cream
Chicken stock (if needed)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Clean and prepare leeks: cut off bottoms, and the green tops. Slice into1/4 inch slices and place in colander. Wash the leeks, separating the rings so any soil is washed away. Peel potatoes and cut into about 2½ inch chunks.
In a heavy bottomed pot, melt butter and pour in washed and drained leeks. Sautee until the leeks start to soften. Add garlic and cook until you can smell the aroma. Pour in potatoes and toss with leek mixture until they are coated. Season.
Pour cream in pot and turn heat down to very, very low (I have 1-10 on my stove-top; I cook it at no higher than 2).
Cook slowly, stirring often, until potatoes have mostly broken down, and you have a creamy pot of potatoes (approximately 2-3 hours). The leeks will cook in, and it will take on a light golden color.
Because starch content varies from spud to spud, it may end up a little stiff. If this happens, stir in a splash of stock until it’s the consistency of chunky, rustic mashed potatoes.
Check for seasoning, and serve.

A word of caution: This stuff will seem to take forever to cook. DO NOT try and speed it up by turning up the heat (The Kid did this and almost burned it—I caught it just in time). Because starch is a sugar, it will stick to the pot and burn. Even when you cook slowly and stir regularly, it will still stick a bit. Just scrape the bottom well when stirring. Those little bits of light brown contribute to the flavor of the finished recipe.
Trying out new recipes is a favorite past-time of mine. But from now on, I‘ll adjust my expectations. Just like sometimes a dress will look much better on the hanger, sometimes a recipe will look delicious on paper.
And once in a while it needs to stay there.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is