The Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Me

When I first thought about trying my hand at food writing, I figured I'd be jotting down the same sort of musings that Molly Wizenberg shares in her blog, Orangette (I'm providing the link, but that doesn't mean you should start reading it instead of Umami). Soon after the blog's launch, a cool-yet-adorable food-loving musician from New York would read my oh-so-clever and delicious posts and leave everything behind for me. Within the year, I'd write about the hors d'oeuvres served at our wedding by the sea. Almost immediately afterward I'd surprise my dozens, no, hundreds, of followers with the news that I'd been hired to write a monthly food column for a national magazine. Next would come the book deal, and then my new husband (who lo and behold is a chef as well!) would open a trendy pizza restaurant. We’d agonize over ovens and dough and imported peppers and cheese, but it would only bring us closer together.

Nothing of the sort has happened to either Mara or me since we started Umami. We may agonize over cheese, but that’s where the similarities end.

Life does go on, though, and things do happen. Just not those sorts of things. But last Thursday, I did have a memoir-worthy experience. I was arraigned. In a court of law. I have to admit that I still don’t know what “arraigned” actually means. I should ask my lawyer, but, since I pay him a hefty hourly fee, the two-minute answer would probably cost me 100 bucks.

Normally on a Thursday morning, I get out of bed, take my kid to school, and head off to work, maybe humming a jaunty tune. Perhaps something by Lady GaGa. On this particular Thursday I took my kid to school, lied about where I was going, and headed to the Roxbury District Courthouse to meet my attorney. After listening to a string of other people’s traffic infractions (for which, again, I was being charged at an hourly rate), I heard the words I never thought I'd hear in my life:

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Janetta S_________

Really? The whole Commonwealth? I darted my eyes around the room looking for Ashton Kutcher. I’m still looking.

Two-and-a-half years ago, someone hit my parked car and didn’t leave a note. And, even though I paid my bills on time every month, Hanover Insurance (I spit at the name) didn’t think that was enough. They refused to pay my claim and got all CSI on me, regaling me with stories of forensic evidence and my alleged duplicity. So, I cried and I cried, and I paid the freaking $3500 to have my car fixed. And I never really got over the unfairness of it all.

Jump forward to 2010, and I’m in court – being prosecuted for insurance fraud and plotting to commit a crime. I’d love to explain how this happened, but I really don’t understand it enough to jot that particular musing down. I do plot, but not about crimes – mostly just about which friends I’m going to invite over on the weekend and what I’m going to cook.

The arraignment only lasted a minute or two. My lawyer informed the court that I was “not guilty,” (another $100), and we settled on a date for the “pre-trial" (whatever that means). It was easy enough, but it was only the beginning, so I didn't have the best day. I stayed home from work and went to yoga and made dinner. The good news is that when you're not having the best day, you can still have the best tacos. So, if you have to go to court and the entire Commonwealth is against you, make these. You’ll feel better. A margarita or two wouldn’t hurt either.

The Best Tacos
a recipe in my head based on one I read in Cook's Illustrated several years ago

For meat filling:

1 T canola oil
1 lb ground beef
3/4 c diced onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T chili powder
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T brown sugar
1/2 c tomato sauce
1/2 c chicken broth

For shells:

10 corn tortillas
a lot of canola oil

First make the shells:

Heat about 3/4 c of canola in a small frying pan – it's hot enough when a corner of tortilla dipped in the oil makes it bubble. With tongs, gently place one half of the tortilla in the oil, keeping it submerged while folding the un-submerged half into a taco shell shape. When the bottom half is golden brown, use tongs to flip and continue to shape. It may take some practice, but the ones that don't work out can be crumbled on top of a taco salad. Drain on paper towels. Repeat for remaining shells.

Heat 1 T oil in pan, add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and spices and cook for a minute more, until fragrant. Add ground beef and sauté, breaking up meat, until brown. Add broth, tomato sauce, brown sugar, and vinegar and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Meat filling can be made several hours in advance and reheated.

Fill shells w meat filling and accompany w any or all of the following toppings (in no particular order, although there's a reason that the guacamole is listed first):

Sour Cream
Hot sauce
Grated Cheese
Olives (I prefer green w pimentos, or the ones they sell at Trader Joe's stuffed with garlic. Canned black ones are okay too, I guess)
Shredded Lettuce (not my personal fave, but some people like it)

A bowl filled with the perfect antidote to the courthouse blues. Enjoy.


Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover: Blue Books and Rutabagas

I apologize for the tardiness of my post; I’ve been busy cooking up and serving something special: midyear exams for my students. And of course, once I’ve written the exams and my students have taken them, I find myself surrounded, for days, by piles of blue books to be read and graded.

My feelings about blue books are, shall we say, complicated. I love proctoring my exams. Witnessing my students bent earnestly over their work, consulting their books and notes in an effort to do their very best, warms me, and I find the intensity of their effort and the honesty of their engagement quite moving. Once I lug all the exams home, though, my elation fades. I feel less jazzed and more discouraged: the pile of books looks tall, and the time to read them all feels distressingly short. In fact, after a few hours of reading blue books, the light blue of their covers, rather than looking assertively fresh and full of possibilities, begins to appear more noncommittal, even insipid. And that little lamp logo—representing wisdom, I suppose—starts to look cartoonish.

But there are rewards. I never know what I’ll discover inside those covers. Yes, of course some exams will disappoint both me and their authors—maybe a student had an off day, or did not prepare sufficiently, or suffered a bad night’s sleep. But other exams will deliver flashes of brilliance, lovely turns of phrase, or inspired insight into a text. The pleasure is mine, as I read, and then again as I assign a well-earned grade that I know will bring a smile to student and parents.

And then there’s a final treat. Following in the footsteps of my esteemed colleague Eric, I am in the practice of including an optional little extra-credit exercise at the end of every exam. It’s supposed to be amusing for both me and my students, and usually asks them to think and write creatively, playfully, about things we’ve read. For example, I might ask them to write a description of themselves performing an everyday activity—brushing their teeth, say—in a Homeric voice. I call this exercise “dessert,” and I hope that my students enjoy it as much as I do. On the English 12 midyear, for which my students wrote about Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of the “dessert” options was to write a limerick or haiku inspired by Milton’s vast and erudite epic poem. The kids rose to the occasion. I laughed out loud when I read this limerick by one of my more sober students, R.:

There once was a Miltonic Bard
Who said, “You know, writing is hard!
A classical reference
Will make all the difference!”
And added them in by the yard.

And here's another, by L.:

There once was an angel who fell
From the sky, as old Milton will tell.
He was chained to a stake
On a big burning lake,
And he said, I don't kid you, "Oh hell!"

Such lovely flights of fanciful wit often bubble from even my most serious students, to my great delight. Those moments serve to remind me that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

Which leads me to the rutabaga. More than a month ago, our friend Kathleen brought in some enormous, dirt-bedaubed rutabagas for my friend Bob and me; she’d received them from a local farmer. Let’s just say that those earthy beasties would not win any beauty contests, even among their own clan, the less than flashy root vegetables. They needed serious cleaning, and looked as if they were daring me to just try to cook and eat them. I toted the bag home and stuffed it in the pantry, where it remained, more or less forgotten for a good long while as I lived life and pursued other, more compelling cooking projects. But in the back of my mind, I kept mulling over the question Kathy asked as she handed me the bag: “What do you do with a rutabaga?”

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent much time forging meaningful relationships with rutabagas. I haven’t eaten them often, nor have I grown them. I categorize them in my mind with their cousins the turnips and their more distant relatives, such as the kohlrabi—which I think about, let alone cook with, next to never. Not that I have anything against root vegetables per se. Generally tasty, nutritious, and dependable, they are the seasonal veggies of choice these winter days. As evidenced by my last post, I feel unbridled affection for the potato. Sweet potatoes appear regularly on my table. I adore celery root, in soup or transformed into remoulade. Leeks are my go-to veggie for everything from soups to stir-fries to braises. The few times I’ve eaten rutabagas, though, they proved rather unremarkable, having endured a fate common to many a root vegetable: they’d been roasted, mashed, puréed, tossed with their rooty brethren, and then served as a side dish that languished next to the main dishes and the more glamorous leafy or brightly colored vegetables that had ripened in the air rather than deep underground. (Hello, red pepper! Come on in, baby bok choy! Where have you been all my life, you sexy royal-purple eggplant?!)

In short, rutabagas get little respect. Armed with the conviction that there are no bad vegetables, only inappropriate cooking methods, I set out to research the rutabaga. As it turns out, there was quite a lot to be learned. My favorite line came courtesy of the folks at Natural Solutions Magazine: “Best imagined as the lovechild of a cabbage and a turnip, the rutabaga is often overlooked because of its unappetizing name and history as peasant food." (http://www.naturalsolutionsmag.com) Rutabagas are exceptionally nutritious, containing more vitamin C and calcium than potatoes, beets, or turnips. They also contain folate, potassium, and a good bit of fiber. Wikipedia divulged even more: rutabagas are thought to have originated in Scandinavia or Russia and are the product of a cross between a wild strain of cabbage and the turnip. The first known printed reference to rutabagas is attributed to Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in 1620; he noted that they grew wild in Sweden. They spread throughout Europe, eventually making their way to North America in the early 19th century. They are now widely cultivated here, especially in Oregon and Washington. Fun facts about rutabagas? They are apparently commonly carved into jack-o'-lanterns for the Halloween season throughout Britain and Ireland, and the International Rutabaga Curling Championship takes place annually at the Ithaca, NY, Farmers' Market on the last day of the market season. Who knew?

Despite the rutabaga’s many notable qualities, even the most ardent veggie lovers and advocates seem to resort to qualifications or euphemisms when discussing it. Even though she claims elsewhere to be a fan of rutabagas, Deborah Madison, a doyenne of vegetarian cooking and author of the comprehensive Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, lumps them in with turnips in VCfE. She suggests seeking out young specimens, whose greens also taste good. Then she adds, “However, storage turnips and rutabagas shouldn’t be overlooked, for they can be a valuable addition to the winter kitchen and their limitations are manageable.”

Those rutabagas from Kathleen? Their “limitations” seemed entirely unmanageable: they’d been in deep storage, and when I finally dug them out, they were even homelier than I remembered. And rather wizened and, um, flaccid. (I found out later that I should have kept them cool and damp, as our ancestors did in root cellars… as I could have, in my fridge.)

Looking at them, I realized that my prejudices against rutabagas are likely rooted (sorry) in their rather staid, dumpy appearance in addition to my past experiences of their flavor: simultaneously sweet and bitter—but often, especially in older, larger rutabagas, intensely bitter. I decided that to use the old rutabagas from Kathleen would not be giving the vegetable a fair shake. Clearly I needed some younger, smaller, more pert rutabagas for my experiments. The ones I bought at Whole Foods were, actually, a revelation—solid, chipper-looking and smallish, their exteriors a rather jaunty creamy white and purple, their inner flesh a creamier pale gold.

From right: youthful rutabagas alongside their rooty brethren, the celery root and the Macomber turnip (a Massachusetts native)

After reading and thinking about rutabagas much longer than I should have—particularly given the number of blue books still waiting to be read—I decided to cook two different rutabaga-based soups. Joe, my ever-accommodating sous chef and willing and able guinea pig, helped me prepare and sample them. We came up with a clear winner, a golden and velvety soup devised by Deborah Madison. What sets it apart is, I think, the use of pimentón de la Vera, Spanish smoked paprika—which imparts a shot of umamiful smokiness (the vegetarian equivalent of the flavor, maybe, of bacon or ham) to the soup’s already intriguing layers of sweet, salty, and bitter flavors. And Madison’s garnish, freshly made croutons dusted with the pimentón, adds a pleasing bit of crunch—and then chewiness, as the croutons soften. (Oddly, my son, Sam, says that the soup tastes like puréed pizza. He thinks that is a good thing.) Joe and I agreed that the runner-up, Peter Berley’s Rutabaga Soup with Sizzling Spice Oil, from his Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, shows promise. At the end of cooking Berley’s soup, you swirl in olive oil in which you have heated a number of freshly ground spices, much as you might with a dal. I will continue to tweak the recipe; if the results prove revelatory, I’ll let you know....

As I cooked with rutabagas, something interesting happened. I began to accept them on their own terms. Okay, frilly and delicate frisée they will never be, but perhaps that’s their strength. As Joe noted, there’s something subtle and mysterious in the flavor of this vegetable—probably exactly because it has spent its entire life underground.

So, what do you do with a rutabaga? Certainly don’t judge it by its cover. I recommend keeping an open mind and experimenting. (Mark Bittman, in his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, offers an interesting suggestion that deviates from the usual, predictable preparations: a flat omelet using diced rutabaga to impart “a nice, sweet, cabbagey flavor.”) Whatever you end up making, know that the rather homely but honest vegetable you are eating is good for you and can taste mighty fine—added to your usual mashes and purées, slipped into stews and roasted dishes, and, most definitely, featuring as the star of its own special soup.

Rutabaga and Leek Chowder with Crisp Smoky Croutons
Adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen

The Soup
1 ½ lbs rutabagas
2 to 3 T butter
Hefty pinch of dried thyme or a couple of sizable sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 medium leeks, chopped (1 to 2 c)
One ¼-lb potato, peeled and cut into 1-in cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 c vegetable stock

To Finish
2 T butter
1 c 1-in bread chunks
½ t Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera)

1. Thickly peel the rutabagas, getting under the epidermis, quarter them lengthwise, then slice crosswise about 3/8 in thick.

2. Melt the butter in a wide soup pot with the thyme and bay leaf. Let it brown a little, then add the leeks. Give a stir and cook over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, then add the rutabagas and potato. Toss in a t of salt and cook, partially covered, until everything has wilted down, 5 minutes or so. Add the stock, bring to a boil lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until the rutabagas are tender but not mushy—you’ll want some texture—20 to 25 minutes.

3. Purée half the vegetables and return them to the pot. Or purée the whole batch for a completely smooth soup. (We puréed it with an immersible blender until it was almost perfectly smooth.) Taste for salt, adjusting if necessary, and season with pepper.

4. Melt the remaining butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bread chunks, toss them in the butter, then reduce the heat and cook until crisp and golden, after 5 to 8 minutes. Add the smoked paprika, toss the croutons, and then turn off the heat. Serve the soup with croutons in each bowl and a delicate sprinkling of extra paprika over the top.

Makes 6 to 7 cups.

Write a limerick inspired by the rutabaga. (Unfinished sample below.) Reply to Comments!

There once was a root, rutabaga,
Whose bitterness threatened to plague ya,
But if you cooked it up well,
Avec deux fleurs de sel,


Just Like David Sedaris

Between book groups and brunches and birthdays, I got a lot of cooking done this weekend, but not enough writing. As a result, what follows is what one might call an "encore performance" of a piece I posted on Facebook a year ago this week. You know, just like when David Sedaris publishes an essay in the New Yorker and then there it is again in his next book. But you're supposed to love it just as much the second time around.

In the year since I wrote Spaghetti Carbonara, some things are the same in my life and in the world — I just received my new Saveur, and my retirement fund statement arrived on Friday. I opened the envelope for the first time in a year, and within lay a difference — the number had actually gone up! By a lot! But it's not money I can actually spend and peasant food is just as delicious coming out of a recession as going in, so keep reading for a flashback to January 15, 2009, and a recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara. (I seem to be establishing a reputation for heavy, fattening, winter foods, but I'm flying to LA this weekend and will try to return with some warmth and something lighter to eat.)

Spaghetti Carbonara
As the T emerged from the tunnel on my way home earlier this week, a woman sitting two people down from me started talking on her cell. Annoying, I know. Although I'm sure we've all done it. Clearly she was talking to her other adult at home (a personal pet peeve of mine as I have none) and making plans for dinner. Having procured a seat at Kenmore, I was happily flipping through the latest issue of Saveur and not really paying attention, but she was talking so loudly that I couldn't help but overhear something alarming:

"Well, there's some fish that should be cooked."

FISH? That should be cooked??

You couldn’t pay me to eat it.

When did she buy this fish? The day was Tuesday. It couldn't possibly be last Friday, could it? Although Friday is a traditional fish day. Everything I've read has told me never to purchase fish on a Monday. Maybe she bought it over the weekend. I immediately put down my magazine to contemplate the ramifications of eating fish that "should be cooked."

The way I obsess about these things, you would think I got sick from food on a regular basis, but I'm not even sure that's what I'm worried about. I've only had food poisoning once in my life, in December 1988. It was the week after Christmas, and, more importantly, the evening of my first day of work at National Geographic Television. Some friends of mine were in town for the holiday and on our first (and subsequently my only) night out, we went to the Szechwan-Hunan Cottage on the Upper East Side where they poured free watered-down wine, so, being 22, you’d drink like 15 glasses and think that you could hold your liquor. I ate something in lobster sauce – I don’t remember what exactly – for the first and last time. I threw up all night and into the next morning. As I struggled to get to my second day at National Geographic, I vomited on the train at 7th Avenue, on the platform at Bergen Street, and over the tracks at Atlantic Avenue. I had only made it two stops from home.

I had to call in sick. On my second day of work. It was humiliating and absurd, but they kept me on, and I made up for it over the next seven years.

But, really, that was the only time I had food poisoning. Except for the Lake Winnipesaukee hot dog incident in 1990, but I had eaten seven, so it was to be expected.

I'm not compulsive about a lot of things. But I am about food, specifically its age. I don't ever walk into my mother's house for dinner without getting a complete inventory about what was purchased when. But, amazing cook that she is, I don't think most people would eat from the back of her fridge. It’s always a risk. She has no guidelines and will keep and eat everything until it’s gone. In my own refrigerator, there are rules. If the expiration date on the orange juice is a week away, I throw it out. I figure if it’s that close, it’s already started to go bad. If I bought a new package of romaine hearts and the last package isn’t quite finished, I throw it out anyway. You can never be too sure. If the salsa has been open more than a week – gone. My world changed considerably when they started stamping the date on each individual egg, and don’t even get me started on milk. But, on a regular basis I make real Caesar salad dressing for guests. And after I tell my daughter she’ll die if she licks the spoon, I put it into my mouth as soon as she leaves the room.

Tonight I’m making spaghetti carbonara. If you make it right, the eggs don’t really cook, they just glaze the noodles making them shiny and slippery and able to absorb the cheese. I read somewhere that Ruth Reichl makes this dish when her son needs comfort food. I tend to eat it when I myself need comforting. Tonight I made it because my retirement fund statement came and it was thousands and thousands of dollars less than it used to be, and I happened to have all of the ingredients in the house. I thought I’d pretend I was in the Great Depression. I’m okay living through the Depression or the current recession as long as I get to play the part of Italian peasant. Spaghetti, eggs, wine, onions, Romano – a perfect combination for a perfect price. And everything was purchased within the week.

Pasta Carbonara
Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

5 ounces pancetta or Niman Ranch Applewood Uncured Bacon
1 onion, chopped
1/4 c. dry white wine
1 lb thin spaghetti
3 lrg. eggs
1 c. freshly grated pecorino Romano
1/4 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper

Cook bacon/pancetta in a heavy skillet over moderate heat until it begins to render its fat, 1 - 2 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, abt 10 minutes. Add wine and boil until reduced by half. Meanwhile, cook spaghetti until al dente. Whisk together eggs, cheeses, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Drain spaghetti, add to onion mixture, and toss over moderate heat until coated. Remove from heat and add egg mixture, tossing to combine. Serve immediately. [Note that eggs are not fully cooked, so you could potentially give or get salmonella poisoning. Proceed at your own risk.]


Palindromes and Auld Lang Syne

Well, we have entered the new year: It is officially 2010—and, to my delight, I am writing this on a palindromic (reading the same backward and forward—from Greek palindromos, running back again) day: 01/02/2010…. Apparently, only 36 such days will occur this millennium. Pretty nifty, no?

Running back again, returning in my mind to what came before, seems to be my way of experiencing a new year. (I suppose that in some ways I’m more of a rear-view mirror, “What’s past is prologue” sort of person. Not that I don’t embrace the future with optimism, but I generally don’t move ahead without thinking back.) So on New Year’s, I prefer to think about the year gone by, to spend time in with established friends rather than rushing out to meet new ones, to cook and eat dishes that feel familiar and grounding. I even try to cook in my favorite pots, skillets, and pans—a sort of culinary nod to auld lang syne.

Joe and I had planned to shop and cook together on New Year’s Eve day, but he was running quite late, and another snowstorm was in the offing, so off to Whole Foods I went, joining a hearteningly cheery mob of pre-storm and holiday shoppers in filling our carts with yummy possibilities. (It's so interesting to see what constitutes "festive" food for different people. I confess to spending a good bit of time nosily scoping out what other people were gathering for their New Year's nibbles.) I resolutely resisted that curious pre-storm habit of stockpiling bottled water, milk, and toilet paper, heading instead straight to the produce section. Then, no specific menu firmly in mind, I strolled around, eventually settling on a few things that looked appealing: a variety of delicious mushrooms, including the ultimate splurge, a little stash of chanterelles; some lacinato (“dinosaur”) kale, a current favorite of mine because of its beautiful blue-green leaves and sweet yet hearty flavor; some red-stemmed Swiss chard; a selection of fresh herbs; mesclun; several shapely russet potatoes. Then I added a baguette and cheeses galore.

I came home and contemplated my bounty and what to cook. I was envisioning a meal of several small, tapas- or mezze-style plates, maybe. But as the afternoon waned and evening approached, I found myself reconsidering my options and my mood. And in the end, I decided to save the splurging (chanterelles!) and more elaborate cookery for the new year, instead turning back to an old friend: the venerable dean of comfort, The Potato. As the snow fell outside and I felt happily ensconced inside, a potato gratin sounded perfect—certainly not elegant, but undeniably honest and satisfying. Just to be not too boring, I decided to try a new recipe I’d been eying for a while, for a potato and chard “terrine.” (What makes it more terrine than gratin, I think, is that it features less cheese than many gratins, and the recipe calls for assembling it in a loaf pan rather than a more conventional gratin dish.)

No loaf pan for me, though, because I knew that I could prepare the potatoes in my favorite cooking vessel: the terracotta cazuela given to me by friends a couple of decades ago. Every time I use it, the cazuela reminds me of those friends and meals we have shared. And it has aged beautifully, developing a deeply rich and mottled patina that just improves over the years. Simple, predictably reliable, my cazuela effectively showcases any number of different dishes, from oven to table. Using it, cooking with it, connects me to the past in the present, and makes me happy.

Herewith, I give you the recipe, a variation on the time-honored and soul-satisfying formula of potatoes + butter + salt. Your choices of potato and cheese will determine the character of the dish. I used russets and Gruyère, and the result was a meltingly tender dish with gently robust flavors. Using Brie would yield a milder, creamier gratin. And of course, you could also substitute another vegetable for the chard—for instance, the lacinato kale. You can round out the meal with a salad and a glass of a nice red wine—our current favorites run to Argentine Malbecs—adding, say, a roasted red pepper soup if you require more sustenance. As for Joe and me, the potatoes and salad were plenty for us as we toasted in the new year.

Chard and Potato Terrine
Adapted from Georgeanne Brennan’s The Vegetarian Table: France

Georgeann Brennan puts out lovely cookbooks, with Chronicle Books. Her earlier book, Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style, features a foreword by Alice Waters and offers exquisitely edited, simple yet nuanced recipes that highlight seasonal produce. The photographs, by John Vaughan, are luscious and inviting.

6 medium-sized potatoes, such as russet or Yellow Finn
18 baby chard leaves, or 9 large chard leaves, thick midribs removed
4-5 cloves garlic; one bruised, the rest slivered
6 ½ T butter
1 ½ t salt
½ t freshly ground black pepper
3-4 oz cheese, cut into small pieces; I used Gruyère, but you could use Brie or another favorite
¼ c heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Peel and slice the potatoes as thinly as possible. (I used another old kitchen friend, my trusty mandoline, for this, but you can do the slicing by hand with little problem. Aim for slices about 1/8 in thick.) Set the slices aside. Coarsely chop the chard leaves. Rub your pan with the bruised garlic and ½ T of the butter. Arrange one third of the potatoes in a layer in the pan. Sprinkle with one third of the slivers of garlic and one third of each of the salt and pepper. Then dot with 1 ½ T of the butter and top with one third of the chard leaves. Although the chard may seem a bit bulky, know that it will wilt during cooking. Sprinkle one third of the cheese over the chard. Repeat the layers twice in the same way, ending with the cheese.

Note: It occurs to me that rather than following the stated sequence of layers, you could instead assemble this "palindromically"—just for fun. Next time....

Dot the surface with the remaining 1 ½ T butter and pour the cream evenly over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until the potatoes are easily pierced with the tip of a knife, about 1 ¼ hours.

Serve hot or warm, sliced into wedges.

Serves 4 to 6... or 2 to 3 potato lovers on a cold winter's night.

Cheers, and best wishes to everyone for a happy, healthy, safe, & delicious 2010.