September 30, 2010

Batting .500

On Monday night, I decided to make two recipes I'd never tried before.  One, which sounded great and was quite straight-forward, came from an earlier edition of the Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook, pictured below.  The other came from America's Test Kitchen Special Collector's Edition Best-Ever Recipes, which I've mentioned several times previously (and which you may well be tired of hearing about... but trust me, it really is that good)

Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook: More Than 1,000 Recipes * 1,800 Photographs * 500 Techniques

The easier recipe was Pork Chops with Apples and Cream - a very basic recipe, but with some nice extra features.  This is the dish I had in mind when purchasing the apple brandy a few days earlier.  The other was Potatoes Anna, a recipe that is pretty straight-forward in concept, but which I've read is notoriously tricky in the details.  This dish, which involves carefully layering thin potato slices in a hot skillet and letting them fry for a time before finishing them in the oven, has a high rate of failure on the last step, which is turning over the skillet to release the dish, such that what was the bottom of the arrangement of potato slices becomes the top of the dish when served.  When properly done, the presentation is quite nice, but oftentimes the potatoes stick in the pan, resulting in what might range from merely a somewhat-less-than-perfect presentation to a loose mess of fried potatoes.

The chops and apples cooked up wonderfully.  The nice, thick chops were moist and flavorful, the cream sauce was savory and the apples... well, they were the highlight of the dish.  They were tender and juicy, and had soaked up a lot of the brandy flavor.  The Potatoes Anna... well, not quite so successful.

The recipe called for the potatoes to be arranged in the skillet with the heat set at medium-low and allowed to fry for a total of 30 minutes from the time one starts to arrange the potatoes, then put in a very hot oven for another 25 minutes or so.  Our stove has settings ranging from 1 (Low) to 9 (High).  I figured 2 1/2 was a good, safe medium-low setting.  Turns out I was wrong. 

I figured I might have a problem when I could smell the potatoes starting to burn about 20 minutes into the frying.  I considered turning down the heat a bit at that point, but thought perhaps what I was smelling was just the potatoes getting a bit crispy on the bottom.  So I decided to let things play out.  I let the potatoes fry the suggested amount of time, then covered the skillet with foil, transferred it to the oven, already at 450 degrees, then cooked it as directed, first covered and then uncovered at the end. 

This was is the result.  The bottom layer was indeed burnt.  Well, actually, "burnt" isn't an adequate description.  Say, "charred to a completely dried crisp" and you're in the ballpark.  Or go with "turned to charcoal" and you're spot-on.  Really a shame, too, because it came out of the pan without a hitch, perfectly formed, no sticking at all.  My very first pass at this somewhat-difficult dish, and it would have been perfect, if not for the inedibly-burnt part.  Pretty big "if" though.

A tad overdone
I'm not sure if maybe our oven's settings are just a bit on the over-warm side, or perhaps this occurred because I prepared the dish in my new Lodge Logic skillet, which conducts heat really, really well.  Either way, though, I figured I'd learned something - one can, after all, learn as much or more from failures as from successes - and next time I make this, I'll start with the heat set at 2. 

I was worried this bit of learning might have come at the price of a ruined dinner, but thankfully that was not the case.  The story has a happy ending.

As it turns out, while the very top layer of the Potatoes Anna was completely inedible, it wasn't hard to remove the worst-burnt stuff (most of the top layer, as shown above), and the rest of the dish was really, really good... tender and creamy and wonderfully yummy.  And, as I wrote above, the Pork Chops with Apples and Cream turned out great.  Served up with some asparagus Juli steamed, it was still a really tasty dinner with good leftovers. 

I will be giving Potatoes Anna another try, though... and probably soon.

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