Some days you don’t want something heady and exotic.
Some days, the thought of mixing one more ingredient into your life is too much. Doctor’s appointments, work, worries, they gang up on the horizon like oncoming storms and the mere idea of doing anything more complicated than scrambling eggs is enough to send you in search of a hole to hide in.
These are the days when you need Gentle Food. Plain, homey dishes that come in and embrace you with their delicious simplicity- you don’t have to be brave or stalwart in order to enjoy them. Food that understands a rough day or wayward month and isn’t going to challenge you or ask you difficult questions like, “Is there too much pepper in this?” or “How long do I roast this eggplant?” You need food that *answers* questions, that sends reassuring messages to you through your tastebuds when the super-simple cheese recipe you tried earlier on in the day utterly flopped, or the dinner casserole has permanently burned itself to the bottom of your new casserole dish. You need, “cheer-up-it’s-all-going-to-be-ok-in-the-morning-but-it’s-alright-if-you-need-to-have-a-good-cry-now” food. Gentle food.
For some, thick macaroni and cheese is gentle food. Others may enjoy the ever-elegant peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off, or a bowl of ice cream. I know someone whose ultimate comfort food is a slice of meatloaf.
When I need gentle food, I often turn to potatoes (are you surprised?). This is my favorite potato recipe; it is, for me, the epitome of gentle food. The taste is friendly and kind, the preparation incredibly rhythmic and eating it is something akin to therapy. Here you go.
Mom’s Scalloped Potatoes
This recipe will feed four people (or just me on a rough day)
4 potatoes (I used heartier russets today and really liked how they kept their shape. If you can bear a little variety, feel free to substitute one or two of the white potatoes for sweet ones)
1/4 cup flour
4 cups milk
salt and pepper
an 8×8 casserole dish
There you are, how can you not already like a recipe that calls for only four ingredients? Scrub, then slice the potatoes rather thinly but the thickness is really up to you. This is gentle food, it isn’t going to demand anything too strenuous. Peeling is optional unless of course you have decided to use some sweet potatoes, then you had better peel those. Next, grease the casserole dish. Now you’re going to put a layer of potatoes down on the bottom of the dish, roughly two slices deep. I lay a single layer down and then go back and lay a second, covering the gaps left by the first- almost like laying bricks- only not that hard. Sprinkle some salt around on the potatoes- this is another step that is entirely dependent upon your taste. Remember that potatoes have a habit of being salt gluttons… I probably use around 1/8 tsp or thereabouts. I *also* have a reputation for being a bit of a salt glutton. Sprinkle pepper on the layer, then a tablespoon or two of flour evenly distributed around on top of that. There’s the pattern- go to it. It doesn’t matter if you mix the sweet potatoes in with the white ones, or if you layer them separately, but you are going to fill the dish making sure to gently season and flour each layer. You may not use all the flour, and that’s ok. No pressure. Now for the milk, poured right on top of the potatoes. It should come a little more than halfway up the pan but more or less isn’t going to hurt anything. Hug it with aluminum foil and send it to the heat. I baked mine for a good hour before I had to take it out to make way for the eggplant that had been impatiently waiting in line for 20 minutes. In an ideal world (or perhaps just a world where ovens have more room), it would bake for 45 minutes to an hour covered, and then I would take off the foil and let it cook for another 15 minutes or so, so that the ‘sauce’ could thicken and the potatoes brown. Keep your eye on it, don’t let it get ahead of itself and burn to a crisp. Gentle is the key. As it stands, mine came out of the oven looking a little northern and pale, but cooked through and good enough to eat.
And eat it, we did. Mildly sweet, comforting, milky, gentle. Perfect.
Serve hot, with lots of consolation and good hope.