Potato gratin with ricotta, honey and thyme
Potatoes are nothing short of perfect. There is nothing they cannot do, no way they can’t be cooked, and each way is best. A perfectly boiled too-young potato, straight from the ground, is one of the sweetest things I have ever eaten. A crispy hot chip is a siren call that sings to me regularly.
My earliest potato memory is the game I played with my pa: roasted potatoes stolen from his plate while he wasn’t looking. The perfect roast potato thereafter became the holy grail. The ones at Vulcan’s in Blackheath, cooked by Phillip Searle, never disappointed. My Aunty Mariette’s were also good, scraped at with a fork to get more crunch. The ultimate, though, are the hasselbacks at Ester in Chippendale, magic with smoke from the woodfire.
Before that, there was a teenage boy, Nick, who showed me his after-school snack of hot chips with grated cheddar, which I still eat, although with the addition of black pepper and tabasco. A similar combination reached its pinnacle a few years back in a dish of boiled potatoes and squacquerone dressed with balsamic at a wine bar in Milan.
Mashed potatoes were another early favourite. My mum’s initially and then the version at Bistro Moncur in Woollahra, where I worked early in my career, with a little nutmeg and a hint of white pepper. The aim was to get the texture so silky smooth then when you whooshed it onto a plate it formed an elegant wave.
Also there: hot chips dipped in wine merchant sauce, learning the surprisingly good combination of hot chips and paté, and discovering the beauty of the kipfler, boiled, crushed and pan-fried, as it appeared on most menus in Sydney in the early 2000s.
Then to Billy Kwong in Surry Hills and the discovery of the Chinese dish of potatoes cut into straws, briefly blanched and tossed in the wok to make a salad with chilli flakes and vinegar. The potatoes had bite and were just on the edge of not being cooked enough.
Behind the scenes in the kitchen we were snacking on what I still believe is one of my finest inventions: the chip boy bao. It was iceberg cups set with herbs and chilli sauce, piled with chips from our fryer, which was used solely to cook ducks and therefore laden with fat.
There also was much debate about the perfect size of chip, the conclusion being, it’s not the size of the chip, it’s how you cook it. About this time, too, I discovered the potato gem. I was 27 and it was a year of many good things.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
(The amounts are somewhat fraudulent as really it all depends on the size of your cooking vessel.)
- 120g ghee
- 1.6kg Dutch cream potatoes, washed, skin on
- salt flakes and black pepper
- 350ml chicken stock
- 150g fresh ricotta
- 1 tbsp picked thyme leaves
- drizzle of honey
- Melt the ghee until it liquefies and pour it into a large mixing bowl. Using a mandolin, slice your potatoes to a one-millimetre thickness. As you slice, place them into the bowl with the ghee, coating them as you go.
- Once they are all sliced and coated, season well and give them a good mix.
- Start arranging them in your baking dish by stacking a pile in your hands as you would cards and sitting them upright, starting on the edge of your baking dish. Continue until your baking dish is tightly packed.
- Pour the chicken stock into the base of the dish: it should come to about halfway up the potatoes. Lay a sheet of baking paper over the top of the potatoes and then cover with foil and seal the edges.
- Place the baking dish into a preheated oven at 150°C and cook for 30-40 minutes. Pull them out, uncover and check. You want the potatoes to be just cooked through. Use a skewer to poke through some of the potatoes in the middle to make sure.
- Meanwhile, turn your oven up to 200°C.
- Sprinkle the top of the dish with the thyme and then take the ricotta and add small spoonfuls of it randomly through the potato dominos, slipping it between slices with some poking out the top. This also will help press in some of the thyme.
- Drizzle the honey all over the top and then place the baking dish back into the oven. Cook it for a further 15 minutes before removing it from the oven. The potatoes should be well cooked with some lovely crunchy edges, the ricotta baked and the honey caramelised.
- Serve hot.
NB: You will need a mandolin for this recipe to cut potatoes evenly. Instead of ghee you can use half butter and half oil in the same quantity. You can use vegetable stock instead of chicken.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 25, 2021 as "The potato eaters".
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