(The recipe’s below.)
As a general rule, I hate fish cakes. It’s just one of those things. Few foods will drop my appetite faster than the hint of one cooking. If fish cakes suddenly became the only meal available, I’d scrape moss and eat bugs.
This came to mind the other night when I walked in late to find my wife making fish cakes. Actually, my first reflex was to think hard whether today was our anniversary.
Let me explain how I got into this situation. It’s actually my father’s fault. Dad was cut from a sheet of stainless steel. When I was growing up, he was never confused by subtleties. Things were either black, or white. Which is why the idea that romance might require a bit more than a hallmark card with flowers on it, did not automatically occur to him.
Matters came to a head one birthday when he actually gifted my mother a large, brightly wrapped box brimming with vacuum cleaner. In his mind, he was saving his wife unnecessary labor. All those new, nifty attachments. A modern shiny replacement for the old upright.
In front of the family, my mother bit her lip. I don’t know what was said privately. But my mother made fish cakes for dinner that night. Oily, pungent canned tuna and bread crumbs, fried crispy brown in oil. The house reeked for days.
Now dad, raised on a North Dakota farm with plain boiled potatoes, as far from an ocean as it was possible to be, was not a fan of fish in any form. I don’t know if he’d ever actually run across anything with fins before he left home. I think he privately doubted humans were intended to eat any creature that swam in its own pee and smelled like it.
But he’d raised his children to clean their plates of whatever dinner was put in front of them. So he sat with his back straight and silently ate his fish cakes.
After that, fish cake nights would appear every so often. And I never developed a taste.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I say.
‘New recipe’, my wife says, over a bowl of potent canned salmon and spices, already being formed into patties. The dog is on station, alerted by the smell, hoping for an accident.
‘And rice’, she says. And its clear, if I’m going to get something to eat, I’m going to have to make it myself. What have I forgotten?
‘You said you’d make dinner tonight’, she says, solving the riddle, and then I remember, she’d asked me to cover.
‘Coming up’, I reply, and wonder whether somewhere, silently, dad’s smiling. It’s a brave new world, pop.
Now, the only way to make up for a lousy main dish is to load on the sides. And if possible, make something that will stand on its own. I happen to have just the recipe. And, while it’s pretty simple to make, it’s actual cooking, not just opening a box. Julia Childs made it. It even has a French name: Gratin Dauphinois. So, it qualifies as fixing dinner. And, Dad would approve.
You’ll Need: a 9 x 13 baking dish, cheese grater, knife or mandoline (the slicing tool, not the musical instrument), medium sauce pan
- six large russet or other starchy potato
- 1 unpeeled garlic, cut in half
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere or good Swiss cheese
- 2 cups boiling milk or (it’s better with) cream
How To Make:
- Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C. Peel and slice the potatoes into rounds 1/8 inch thick.
- Bring the milk or cream to steaming hot in the saucepan, but don’t let it boil over. When it tries, turn off the heat.
- Rub the cut side of the garlic clove all around the baking dish. Then smear, to cover, the baking dish bottom and sides with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
- Spread half the potato slices in the baking dish, top with half the remaining butter, and half the salt and pepper.
- Put the rest of the potatoes in a layer on top. Add the remaining butter, salt pepper, and then sprinkle evenly with the cheese.
- Carefully pour the milk or cream into the baking dish.
- Put a baking sheet (with a lip) in the oven on a shelf about one third of the way from the top. Put the baking dish with potatoes on the baking sheet. (Pull the shelf partly out to help keep from spilling.)
- Bake about 30 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done when the potatoes are tender to a fork, the top is golden brown and bubbly.
- Let it set out of the oven about ten minutes before serving.