I have a secret weapon against the gloom and doom of endlessly rainy days, the everyday grind, the early mornings, the exhausted evenings—in short, the business of being a grown-up. It’s not easy, this grown-up schtick. More often than I’d like to admit, I’m completely overwhelmed by it all—job, bills, cleaning, feeding myself, and trying not to go crazy. I could really use a housewife to take care of me, someone to put a hot dinner on the table for me and rub my back while making soothing shhh, it’s okay sounds. Housewives were really a fabulous invention. If only we could all run over to Target to buy one!
Without a housewife around, the temptation to buy a one-way ticket to Italy, where I could eat my weight in pasta and gelato a la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love is almost more than I can bear. But in desperate times, my secret weapon is stashed in the pantry or, rather, a brown paper bag in the corner since my kitchen’s pantry is laughably small. It’s a stack of lumpy red-skinned potatoes. It’s no housewife, but it’s awfully nice in its own ugly way.
Potatoes are, for me, one of the ultimate comfort foods. I love that they are dug straight out of the earth, like a hidden treasure, a gift nurtured by the dirt, the rain, and, on nicer days, the sunshine. I like their musty smell and the way they feel in my hand, solid and heavy. When I was a child, I even liked the crunch of raw potato, snatched from my mother’s countertop as she cut potatoes into chunks for boiling or mashing. Potatoes were a constant of my childhood, and though I rarely eat them now as my mother prepared them, potatoes are deeply, viscerally comforting to me.
I also like that potatoes are not an instant food. Despite my childhood potato-snatching, I no longer eat them raw. I like them in soups and stews, and there’s a really wonderful recipe for Golden Cheddar Cheese Soup in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home that uses potatoes to make a creamy base for a bright but soothing pureed soup. But my favorite way to eat potatoes these days is roasted. The dry oven heat creates the perfect combination of textures: crispy-crunchy brown on the outside, creamy and soft on the inside. Flavor-wise, I find potatoes to be a blank slate. I like that about them. They’re so forgiving about seasonings that you can ask yourself what flavors sound good to you right now, and the potato will take happily to just about whatever you throw at it. If only all things in life were so carefree and accommodating!
On these endlessly rainy winter nights, I’ve returned to a recipe that started me on my potato-roasting path. The original recipe is from my favorite all-purpose cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian, a book that I think every serious vegetarian cook should own. The recipe first caught my eye with its clever name: Ned’s Fiery Oven French-Bakes. What is a French-Bake?, I wondered. “Spicy, Cajun-style French fries that aren’t fried but baked,” the recipe answered. It warned me that these fries are addictive, but I paid it no mind and made them anyway. And you know, I’m really glad I let my belly make decisions in these matters because the belly knows best. Five years and a few recipe tweaks later, these oven fries still slay me with their incredible depth of flavor and crispy-creamy texture. The secret is the use of rice vinegar with garlic oil on the fries before they go into the oven. The finished fries deliver an immediate tang of flavor, followed by something savory and rich, a sort of deep umami that tastes unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. They are seriously good—better than a raw potato even. Now, head into the kitchen because I’m about to give you the recipe.
Oil-and-Vinegar Oven Fries
Adapted from Passionate Vegetarian
Serves 2 (or 1, maybe with leftovers depending on greediness)
2 medium-large red-skinned potatoes (mine are about baseball-sized these days)
1/2 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil
1 tbsp. rice vinegar
1/8-1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce (I’d lean toward 1/8 tsp. here, but if you like a lot of heat, go for the 1/4 tsp.)
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat.
2) Rinse the potatoes thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel. Use a vegetable peeler to remove any eyes or other really funky spots. With a knife, slice the potatoes into French fry-shaped pieces about 1/2-inch thick. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the garlic oil, then add the vinegar and toss again. Dribble the Tabasco over them, add some salt and pepper, and toss again.
3) Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the Silpat-covered baking sheet. Pop them in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes or so. These fries don’t turn spectacularly brown and crisp, but if you are so inclined, you could try baking them longer to get a browner, crispier oven fry. I like them a little crispy with a nice, creamy interior. And that flavor! Amazing.