A lady friend once asked me why she couldn’t make potatoes “like granny used to make”. I knew what she was talking about since people have been making these potatoes this way since they’ve had potatoes on hand. Many people in the American South remember this from their childhoods as one of those dishes that always appeared on the table. It’s true comfort food, and bespeaks of the poverty in our region. Simply peel and cut those lumpy red potatoes you see in the store into more or less bite-size pieces, boil them with water to cover by an inch until they’re just done. Add a smooth flour and water mixture (1:2T) and cook on a very low heat until quite thick. You can add bacon drippings or butter; not olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper.
This old New Orleans side dish is different from most pan potato recipes such as hash or fritters, which usually call for waxy potatoes because they hold their shape better than starchy russets. This one, however, does use white/baking potatoes, and the result is a pan full of golden cubes with a crunchy outside and a fluffy inside. The recipe for Brabant potatoes in The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (1901) doesn’t include garlic, but most contemporary recipes use about a clove, minced or slivered, per potato. Oh, by the way, Brabant is a region in the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands); how this Crescent City side came by the name is unknown . New Orleans is a full of mysteries.
For two servings, scrub and cut into large dice (about a half inch) two russet potatoes. You can peel them if you like. Place potatoes in a colander and rinse until the water runs clear. You want to get rid of the surface starch. Dry thoroughly between paper towels. Heat about a half inch of vegetable oil in a skillet. I don’t recommend olive oil because it has a lower burn, and you want the oil very hot to flash fry the cubes. Stir the potatoes vigorously to ensure that the cubes are a uniform nice light brown. Then drain the oil, add about three tablespoons butter and two finely diced cloves of garlic. Reduce heat to simmer until garlic is fragrant and potatoes are coated with butter. Chopped parsley and/or green onion are traditional toppings.
My maternal grandfather and my father were both GIs, and they both served in the Pacific, where a staple ration for the troops was Hormel’s Spam. SPAM is an acronym for “spiced ham”, but it soon became known as “Special Army Meat” by soldiers. The meat product, consisting of pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, salt, and sodium nitrate, doesn’t require refrigeration, has a long shelf life, and is arguably toothsome. Between 1941 and 1945, Hormel shipped over fifteen million cans every week, over all in excess of one hundred million pounds of Spam overseas between 1941 and 1945.
Like so many boomers, I grew up with Spam. We’d have it fried with eggs for breakfast or between two slices of Wonder bread slathered with mayo for lunch, but for very special occasions we would have scalloped potatoes with Spam. While this dish likely just screams of trailer park cuisine to many, I’m certain that millions in my generation who grew up in small towns across the South, likely across the nation, remember Spam in scalloped potatoes as a familiar side on the dinner table and a standard of church potlucks and dinners-on-the-ground.
The bone of contention with scalloped potatoes is whether to add cheese or not. Purists will insist that any scalloped potato recipe with cheese a gratin, when actually a “gratin” is a technique referencing any recipe cooked with a crust, whether it be of cheese, breadcrumbs or some other ingredient, or a container, a gratin dish, which is a shallow oven-proof container. I rarely use cheese myself, opting instead to use a light butter roux, and a mixture of whole milk of milk and heavy cream in a somewhat thin sauce between layers of thinly-sliced starchy potatoes (peeled or unpeeled). This is baked in a medium-high oven (350 or so) until the potatoes are tender and the top somewhat browned. Spam, cubed or sliced (more often cubed), is first lightly fried with just enough oil to toss, and layered in. The Spam itself is quite salty, but you’re going to need to salt the sauce anyway, and I like black pepper. If I use cheese, I’ll use a dry cheese; Romano or Parmesan. Finely diced onions are always an option.
A different version of what most of us know as scalloped potatoes, this simple recipe is also known as a potato cake for obvious reasons. Most recipes will instruct you to peel the potatoes, but I don’t find this necessary, justifying my lassitude by claiming it makes for a prettier presentation. The only trick to preparation is turning the cake to brown both sides. I’m certain that there are people in the world who have the manual dexterity to flip the cake with a flick of the wrist, but a pound of potatoes is a hell of a lot heavier than an omelette, so I’ve yet to master this technique. Instead, I place a lightly oiled plate over the pan, flip it and and slid the potatoes (with exceeding grace and beauty) back into the pan to brown evenly.
Slice small red potatoes very thinly (having a mandolin comes in handy here, and you can find a simple one for a dozen dollars or so) and–working quickly before the potatoes discolor–arrange in layers, sprinkling with salt and pepper, in a small sauté pan with plenty of oil or melted butter. Place in a hot oven—400 or so—until bubbling and lightly browned. Flip (however best you can) to brown evenly. Serve hot with a hard grated cheese and sour cream. Pugnacious people would add rosemary, but I find it annoying.