Growing up in New Orleans gave me a taste of a wide range of cuisine. There isn’t a place on the planet that isn’t represented. Dominant influences are French, Spanish, Italian and Caribbean.
Dad was the chef of our house. Never followed recipes. He’d just start throwing ingredients together and soon we’d have a scrumptious dinner.
We lived just outside the French Quarter. We’d walk down to the French Market to pick out the freshest, in-season vegetables that we could find. Dad would add that to his catch of the day and presto — dinner.
Sunshine Blackwater was the Sergeant Major of the Corp of Engineers back when the Army used actual soldiers, mostly WWII vets like dad. He’d set a net every morning on whichever part of the levee they were working that day and harvest the catch at EOD. We ate a lot of red snapper. Dad hated catfish. Used them for bait the next day. Dad hated bottom feeders – swimming and walking types.
Every meal had to feature potatoes. Had to! And bread, must have bread and potatoes. I grew up learning to bake my own bread and cook potatoes in hundreds of ways. Fish, on the other hand, were always coated with flour and fried with crispy skin.
Being from Wisconsin (born in Regina – parents relocated), Sunshine loved cheese. Potatoes often coupled with cheese and eggs, which is something of the French-Canadian influence.
Today, I’m making a dish based on Dad’s original recipe with several substitutions.
First, I gave up cow milk a while back – much to the delight of my GI tract. I’m using soy milk instead. Every time I pour it I hear Lewis Black saying, “There can’t be soy milk because there’s no soy tittie, now, is there!” Nonetheless, it is the far healthier choice.
Margarine is taking the place of butter (all apologies to Julia Child) and veggie stock is saving a chicken’s life.
In grand Native tradition, I save all veggie trimmings in the icebox for future use in a veggie stock. Honor every part of everything you take from the Earth. After a week I generally have enough onion peels, butt ends, potato ends, carrot tops, celery bottoms and tops. I toss it all in a pot of water and boil, usually overnight. Strain out all the mush and there’s a beautiful, golden vegetable stock.
In a high-sided fry pan, I melt margarine. Once melted, I add the soy milk, then flour to make a roux, which has to be stirred constantly so it doesn’t stick or burn. Only use the amount of heat that you’re comfortable. A good roux takes time. Don’t rush it. If you burn it, toss that out and start over.After it thickens a bit, add veggie stock and more flour. Hint: sift the flour slowly into the mixture for smoother roux.
It helps to have a second pair of hands for this operation. I look for an individual at the party that I can elevate to the position of Roux Maitre (roux master). That title sounds more important in French. Make sure to keep the Maitre well lubricated with beverage.
As the Roux Maitre stirs, it is time to thinly slice the potatoes. A mandolin is the easiest device for consistent cuts if your knife skills aren’t up to the job. Of course, use caution and use a food holder as a stand-off for your hand. If you bleed into the potatoes you’ll have to start that task over, too.
Grease a large baking bowl. Place a layer of thinly sliced potatoes around the bottom. Cover the potatoes with roux, then grated cheese. The type of cheese is up to your preference. In this batch, I’m using 6-cheese Italian shredded cheese for the inside and Colby-Jack slices for the top. Add each layer like the first. How many layers? Up to you.
Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and place into an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Take a breath. Have a drink. Smoke a joint. Whatever your pleasure. After 30 minutes remove the aluminum foil and bake for another 30 uncovered. This will brown up the top layer of cheese. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.
Yank it out of the oven when the cheese gets somewhat brown. Don’t let it burn! Allow the dish to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t forget: baking things are hot.
OK, it’s time to serve your guests a taste treat that they won’t soon forget.