Scallop Potatoes

Scallop potatoes: sliced potatoes, cheese, and creamI think I remember scallop potatoes more fondly than any other form of the tuber.  Maybe French fries were more highly prized when I was a child, but truth be told I ate them much more often than scallop potatoes.  Scallop potatoes, being a casserole dish, was reserved for large dinners, especially Easter.

At its core the dish is potatoes, cut into rounds (scalloped), then baked in cream and cheese.  There are obviously countless variations; I know some mothers who bake their scallop potatoes in mushroom or onion soup mix.  There is a classic French dish called pommes à la dauphinois that is identical to scallop potatoes.  The addition of grated cheese to the top of the dish would make gratin dauphinois.  Sometimes eggs are included with the cream to bind the dish, though if you use starchy potatoes and bake the dish uncovered so that the cream reduces, the egg binder is unnecessary.

Thomas Keller has popularized a version of this dish called pavéPavé means simply block, or square, and is related to the English word pave, as in paving stone.  It is therefore applied to a number of dishes that take a blockish shape, though most famously sweet sponge cakes smooshed together with buttercream.  Over the last few years most every fine dining restaurant in Edmonton has offered Keller’s potato pavé at some point or another.

Seriously the only difference between your mother’s scallop potatoes and Thomas Keller’s pavé is that she cut the potatoes to 1/4″ thickness with a knife, and Tom cuts them to 1/16″ or finer with a mandolin.  I like leaving the skins on the potatoes.  There’s a lot of flavour in the skins.  And the sliced potatoes look nice with the dark perimeter.

You can use any type of potato, but the more starchy the potato, the tighter the layers will bind.  When you cut into a casserole made with thinly sliced Russets, it will hold its shape very well, and each block can be extricated cleanly.  Sweet potatoes, which have very little starch, will not bind and will slide over each other.  If you want an especially tightly bound dish, you can weigh the pavé down after it comes out of the oven, pressing the potatoes together and exuding some of the excess cream.  What a graphic image.

I use a cheese that blends the good melting characteristics of youth with the complex flavours of aged.  Sylvan Star medium Gouda or Gruyere  or six month Pecorino from The Cheesiry, for instance.

Bake at medium heat for a long time, uncovered.  This will let the cream reduce, and the cheese on top brown and form a crust.  The dish is done when a paring knife slides easily into the cooked potatoes.

Scallop potatoes with a hearty crust of baked cheese

Easter Sunday

The food commonly eaten on Easter Sunday is rich in symbolism.  The ingredients and dishes are rooted in two traditions: the Jewish Passover dinner, or Seder, and the pagan springtime festival of renewal and fertility.  Easter food shows how these two traditions have combined to form our current concept of the holiday.

Bread and Wine

Growing up, Easter Sundays began with a church service that re-enacts the last supper of Christ, which was a Seder.  The first “meal” that we ate on Easter Sunday was therefore a meager one: the sacrament of communion, an unleavened wafer and a sip of red wine.
It is said that when the pharaoh freed the Hebrews, they fled Egypt so abruptly that they didn’t have time to let their bread dough rise.  To this day, for eight days at Passover, Jews abstain from leavened bread, in remembrance of the flight from Egypt.

Wine, too, has special significance at a Seder.  In fact, several glasses of wine are poured during the meal, each representing a different stage of the Hebrew exodus.
At the last supper, Jesus created new meanings for these traditional foods.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples.  “Take it and eat”; he said, “this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them.  “Drink all of you from this,” he said, “for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant…”.1

Jesus used bread to symbolize his body, and wine to symbolize his blood.  Together they symbolize his bodily sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind.  The taking of holy bread and wine has been the central sacrament of the Catholic faith for centuries.  Eating the body and drinking the blood is a way for followers to renew and participate in that sacrifice.

Meat

Roasted lamb is another regular dish at Seders.  It represents the sacrificial lambs killed before the tenth plague in the exodus story.  The final plague that Yahweh sent to Egypt was a mist that killed the firstborn male of every house.  Before the plague descended, Hebrew families were instructed to slaughter a lamb and spread some of the lamb’s blood onto the door of their home.  This served as a signal for the plague to “pass over” the house.

Lamb later became a special symbol in the Christian faith, as “Lamb of God” was a common epithet for Christ.  Roasted lamb continues to be the most common Easter meal in sheep-rearing regions like Greece and Provence.

Beyond the specific religious connotations of lamb, there is a general connection between newly born animals and spring.  Animals, both wild and farmed, give birth in the spring so that the arrival of their children corresponds to the start of the growing season.  Beyond lamb, all manner of young animals have come to represent spring generally, and Easter specifically.  Suckling pig, for instance, is a common Easter dish in Lorraine.2

Rabbit is a symbol of spring for a different reason.  With a long breeding season, a short gestation time, and large litters, rabbits have been pagan symbols of fertility since ancient times.  They often feature in Easter meals, especially in Germanic nations.3  Rabbit is not a common meat in North American homes, but it appears on our Easter tables in a different form, namely chocolate bunnies.

Eggs

Eggs are an obvious symbol of birth and renewal, as they contain the beginnings of life.  Before the advent of industrial agriculture, the first eggs of the season would have been laid around Easter, as hens stopped laying during the winter.  Even if eggs could have somehow been coaxed out of chickens earlier in the year, they were forbidden during Lent through much of European history.

There are many elaborate Easter baking traditions involving eggs, notably from Mediterranean Europe, where Greek and Italian bakers make rich loaves of bread with coloured, hard-boiled eggs baked into them.  Often the colour of the eggs is important.  Red, for instance, represents Christ’s blood.

A more modest version of this baking tradition is found in the hot cross bun.  Made from rich, yeasted dough with plenty of eggs and milk, traditionally these buns were scored with a cross before baking.  The cross has been deeply symbolic for thousands of years, representing infinity, rebirth, and the sun, so there was a tradition in Europe of scoring bread with a cross long before the birth of Christ.4 In fact the cross was a symbol of shame for early Christians, a reminder of Christ’s betrayal and death.  Over time the cross has come to symbolize resurrection.  Modern hot cross buns are usually drizzled with a cross of sweet sauce.

Hot cross buns as we know them originated in England, where street vendors sold them around Easter, singing:

Hot Cross Buns!
Hot Cross Buns!
One a penny!  Two a penny!
Hot Cross Buns! 

This song is still commonly sung to children across the British commonwealth.

Eggs that don’t make their way into Easter breads are often used in crafts, like painted eggs.  Eggs are either evacuated or hardboiled, then died or painted.  Traditionally the colours were extracted from food: red from beets, and blue from cabbage, for example.

Despite these long and (ahem) colourful traditions, eggs increasingly only appear in one form: chocolate.

Vegetables

Another way that the Easter dinner table mimics the renewal in the field is in the use of vegetables.  Spring provides fresh vegetables that haven’t been seen in months.  Early-rising plants, like chives, onions, and asparagus are common at Easter dinner.

Conclusion

Easter food represents the complex history of the Christian faith from its roots in Judaism, its gradual break from several Jewish practices, such as dietary laws, and the assumption of many pagan holidays and symbols.  Easter food, from the communion wafer to the chocolate egg, represents the amalgamation of the Jewish and pagan cultures in the form of Christianity.

A Button Soup Easter Dinner

Easter Dinner with Lisa’s family, featuring some of the traditional, symbolic ingredients and dishes discussed above.

References

  1. The Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 26:26-28
  2. Larousse, p. 959.
  3. Larousse, p. 442.
  4. Duncan, p, 123.

Sources

1.     Jones, Alexander (Ed.).  The Jerusalem Bible.  ©1968 Doubleday and Company, Inc, Garden City, NY.
2.     Various.  Larousse.  © 2001 Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY.
3.     Duncan, Dorothy.  Feasting and Fasting.  © 2010 Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON.
4.     Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition.  ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.

Ash Wednesday

As I mentioned in my description of Lent, a 1966 papal decree changed Catholic fasting practices, but when my mom was little Fridays were still fast days.  Meat was forbidden, but fish was allowed.  This is why in 1963 McDonald’s added the Filet O’ Fish to their menu – so that Catholics could eat there seven days a week.[1]

There aren’t any McDonald’s in Webbwood, Ontario, so in my mom’s house, Friday dinner was always macaroni and cheese, usually with fish cakes. Her family observed these meatless Fridays for decades after 1966. In fact when I was growing up, I had macaroni and cheese for dinner every Friday.  We also had this meal on Ash Wednesday.  No food could be taken between meals.  It’s a modest concept of “fasting,” but any form of self-denial is noteworthy in our society.

Restaurants are tapping into nostalgia with gourmet re-inventions of mac and cheese.  In the last year I have eaten macaroni at The Sugar Bowl, Urban Diner, Hardware Grill (served with loin and belly of pork – a combination borrowed from The Fat Duck), Avenue Diner (in Calgary) and Farm (in Calgary). These versions were all made with a Mornay sauce: a bechamel (roux and milk) with cheese. Some were finished with truffle oil.

My mom’s mac and cheese has three ingredients: parboiled macaroni, canned tomato juice, and grated cheddar are mixed in a casserole and baked in the oven until the juice has reduced to a sauce and the cheese has formed a crust on the top. Taken with black pepper.

Below is a picture of this year’s Ash Wednesday dinner: macaroni in cheddar, with canned tomatoes (the last of last season!) and dried hot peppers.

1.  The history of the Filet o’ Fish is detailed in this article from USA Today

Lent

A Primer, for the Uninitiated

What is Lent?

Lent is the Christian season of repentance and self-denial preceding Easter. It is commonly said to represent the forty days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Until the 1960s, the Catholic Church had strict laws about what food could be eaten during Lent: all animal products, whether meat, eggs, butter, or cream, were forbidden.

Historically, this “meatless fast” was observed not only during Lent, but on every Friday of the year, as well as certain solemn holidays like Ash Wednesday. This played an important role in European history. It was a major point of contention between Rome (where olive oil was common) and northern Europe (where animal fats like butter were common). During Lent, countries like Germany would have to buy huge amounts of olive oil from Italy. (It’s not a coincidence that Germany and many other animal-fat-loving nations are now protestant.)

In medieval Europe there were ways around these fasts. The wealthy could buy dispensations from their local church, allowing them to eat animal products on fast days without divine retribution. The Church made a huge amount of money selling dispensations. The tallest tower of the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy (which was the tallest building in the world for a few years in the 19th century) is often called The Butter Tower, because its construction was paid for largely by the sale of such dispensations.[1]

The ban was not rooted in religious doctrine, per se, but rather Medieval ideas on the human diet, which were based on the ancient concept of the four humours.

Red meat was “hot” and therefore banned because it was associated with sex.  However, animals found in water … were deemed cool, and acceptable food for religious days.[2]

Fish was therefore not considered meat in Catholic dietary law, and many a medieval European lived half his life on some form of gruel and salt cod.

Catholics continued to observe these laws until a papal decree in 1966 made Lenten fasting more or less optional. These days Catholics will voluntarily give something up for Lent, whether it be meat, alcohol, Jersey Shore, et c.  When I was little we usually gave up candy, which made the chocolate eggs and bunnies of Easter morning all the sweeter.


When is Lent?

Let’s work backwards. Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. In 2011 the equinox (ie. first day of spring) was on March 20. The first full moon after that was Monday, April 18, so Easter was the following Sunday, April 24.

Look at a calendar. Starting at Easter Sunday, go back exactly one week: that is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Go forty days back from Palm Sunday and you should be on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Lent corresponds to one of two seasons traditionally associated with famine: early spring, when winter stores are running low and spring crops haven’t yet appeared.[3] Easter, at the end of Lent, occurs during the greatest time of rebirth in plants and animals. (Maybe not so much in Edmonton, but definitely in places like Rome and Avignon…)  The “spiritual seasons” of the Catholic Church mirror the natural seasons.

I have a special interest in this seasonality, because in our industrial food system there are no seasons, let alone seasons of scarcity. I have never in my entire life, for instance, been more than a few hours from my next meal.  The only seasonality in the supermarket is in prices: you can buy strawberries in January, but it will cost $20 a pint.

I have written some posts about the food I cook and eat during Lent, including an interesting tradition for Ash Wednesday.

 

References

1. Soyer, Alexis. The Pantropheon: or, a History of Food and its Preparation in Ancient Times. ©1977 Paddington Press.  Page 172.  There’s a copy of this book at Cameron Library on the U of A campus.
2.  Kurlansky, Mark.  Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky.  Vintage Canada 2002 Edition.  Page 110.

3.  Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc.  Pages 59-60.  The other famine-time is mid-summer, when the crops have been sown but aren’t ready to harvest.

Easter Ham

For the last few years we’ve been curing our own Easter ham with more or less an entire leg of pork.

The primal cut of pork known as the leg is separated from the loin and belly by sawing through the middle of the pelvic bone.  The section of the pelvis that is left on the loin is called the pin bone.  The section on the leg is the haitch bone.  To remove the haitch bone you have to follow its frustrating curves with your knife until you expose the ball joint where the leg meets the pelvis.  Cut through this joint.

Next the skin is removed in one large sheet.

What remains of the leg typically weighs about 15 lbs, though obviously this depends on the animal. I brine the leg for about a week, a half pound per day, though I’ve been having some…

 

Problems with Brine Penetration 

Even working from Ruhlman’s recipes for ham, I always (always!) have problems with brine penetration.  With any ham larger than a hock, it seems that no matter how long I leave the meat in the brine, the brine can’t reach the middle of the cut, closest to the bone. The cheap and simple solution is to buy a syringe and inject brine to the innermost regions of the ham.

Anyways.

After curing I leave the ham in the fridge uncovered for a day so that the surface can dry and form a pellicle.  On Easter morning I smoke the ham on my barbecue. It takes about five hours to come to temperature. Usually for a roast this size I would expect at least ten degrees of carry-over cooking, but since the smoking temperature is so low, around 225°F, it’s typically closer to five degrees.

Grocery-store hams just don’t compare. Texturally they are very uniform, and kind of resemble a soft rubber. Flavour-wise, though most grocery-store hams are naturally smoked, they only taste of salt and sugar. The home-made ham is sinuous, but incredibly tender; since it’s a large cut, with the bones still in place, it actually tastes of pork; and the smoke lends a warm campfire complexity to that natural taste.

Even with eight people dining, a whole leg is overkill.  Thankfully we have ways of dealing with leftovers.

A freshly glazed ham, smoking on the barbecue

A plate of ham and scallop potatoes