Scalloped Potatoes — Down-Home Comfort
Scalloped Potatoes. Potatoes au Gratin. Potato Cheese Casserole. Potato Cheese Bake. Many names describe this mouthwatering, golden-brown, bubbly dish of down-home comfort.
I have a friend who is a personal chef in Atlanta. She told me that she once described a possible menu dish to her customer as a casserole and her customer responded with a slightly disdainful, haughty voice, "Oh, no, our family doesn't eat casseroles." Duly noted, my wise friend observed. A few weeks later she thought she'd try again. She described pretty much the same dish, but this time as a gratin. The same customer replied in that same disdainful voice, "No, that's too far too fancy, our family doesn’t eat gratins." My friend knew her stumbling block was the language, the description, the perception, because she knew she meant the same recipe. So, going up to bat for a third time, a few weeks later still, she described the dish as a "bake." It worked. "Oh, yes," the customer happily replied, "that sounds lovely."
I don't care what you call it; if you marry potatoes and cheese with a bit of cream in a fit of glorious excess, the result is down-home comfort. And, in the battle for the ne plus ultra comfort-food dish, it's scalloped potatoes that smash mashed potatoes, it's scalloped potatoes that are the mack daddy to mac and cheese, and it's scalloped potatoes that grind it out over grits.
Scalloped potatoes are the food equivalent of your favorite ancient, threadbare cotton T-shirt. Scalloped potatoes are the culinary version of a warm, cuddly puppy. Scalloped potatoes are walking in dappled sunlight hand-in-hand with your sweetie through autumn leaves. Scalloped potatoes are sitting by a roaring fire in your warmest slippers reading your favorite book. Scalloped potatoes are the berry-stained hands of a grandmother and the smile of a sweet, gurgling baby rolled into one. Scalloped potatoes are a downy-soft feather bed and comforter on a cold winter's night and the bright, cold burst of a sparkling glass of lemonade on a hot summer day.
The word "scallop" comes from the French word escalope, which means something thinly sliced, often baked in a sauce. Thinly slicing the potatoes so that they melt into one another, bound by their own starch, is key to the success of this recipe. Don’t wash the potatoes! The quickest way to slice the potatoes is in a food processor fitted with a thin slicing blade. If the potatoes are too large to fit into the feed tube, halve them and place them in the feed tube cut-side down so that they sit on a flat surface. Alternatively, pull out the mandoline — or a chef's knife and a dose of patience — and get busy getting comfortable.
P.S. Happy birthday, Mama! Thank you for teaching me to love food and cooking. I love YOU the most!
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother's country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y'all , among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.