My friend, Tammy, was accustomed to bossing people around—politely, of course, because this is the South.
“We need you in the kitchen on Friday,” she declared. “Can you be there around noon?”
Her proposal, more like marching orders, was nonetheless music to my foodie ears. It is not a stretch to say that meeting Tammy, events manager for a local catering company, was a pivotal point in my culinary experience.
As I have mentioned many times, I learned all the basic, important cooking skills from my grandmother. In Gram’s kitchen, I learned to sear meat before roasting, to blanch vegetables before freezing and to sift flour before measuring. I learned plenty about cooking safety, too—including proper use of an old-school pressure cooker and how to not blow up the kitchen when lighting the gas oven. That second lesson was temporarily forgotten when I was 9 and I was “teaching” the babysitter how to make cinnamon rolls. I was lucky that I only lost my eyebrows that day.
My finer culinary skills, however, were honed in a different place and time, when I was all grown up and living in Greensboro, North Carolina, hundreds of miles away from Gram. At 28, I was already a pretty good cook (said my friends), and I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged foodie. Being a disc jockey had led to delectable restaurant experiences, as record company reps were always wining and dining us at the nicest places in town. Plus, we frequently had the unbearable responsibility of accompanying contest winners on fabulous vacations and getaways, including cruises, week-long events at Walt Disney World (where I met Alex Trebek) and even a live broadcast from Jamaica. It was rough, but someone had to do it, and the food was always incredible.
Meeting our listeners was one of the best parts of the job for me, and I had plenty of occasions to do so. Tammy and another friend, Lee, were regular, loyal listeners of our morning show (P-1 is what we called them in the biz), and they started “stalking” me at my live-on-location visits to car dealerships and retail stores. After several of these visits, Tammy and Lee (or “Lee-Lee,” as we all called her) invited me to join them for after-work drinks at their favorite Friday hangout, which happened to be exactly three blocks from the radio station. In no time, we became “The Three Amigos,” and as it became obvious to Tammy that I knew my way around the kitchen, she decided that I could be an asset to the crew in the catering kitchen.
A Pinch of Thyme was one of the premiere caterers in the area during that time, and the kitchen was slammed during the spring and fall “furniture markets.” That was the International Home Furnishings Market in nearby High Point—it drew upward of 70,000 buyers, dealers, designers and manufacturers from all over the world—and it was an all-hands-on-deck situation for caterers, who scrambled to meet the crushing demand for fancy foods. There were many cocktail parties, receptions, box lunches and fully catered dinners to be prepped, and Tammy’s invitation was my cue to get in there and help them get it all done.
I showed up on Friday, donned my white apron and got to work, following whatever instructions Chef Rodney barked out. Tammy stopped by the kitchen periodically to check on things, and she was well-known for telling us, as she handed over yet another client order, “y’all can handle it.” And we always did, despite some near-disasters that I’ll save for another day.
The stories in my head are many, but what I’d like to share today is one of the first, most essential lessons I learned during my time in the “Pinch” kitchen: simple is always best, and it is usually the smallest “tweak” that makes the most important impact on a dish, whether that is a squeeze of lemon, a quick scatter of finishing salt or, yes, a pinch of fresh herbs. There is no need for grand gestures, and the client requests proved that time and again.
We served up all varieties of side dishes, but it was always the buttered red bliss potatoes that made our clients swoon. That’s what I’m serving up today. The presentation of these humble early potatoes is elevated, with a distinctive, thin strip of peel removed from each perfect little spud. But the ingredients list is short and sweet: new potatoes, butter, garlic, salt and pepper.
Also, obviously, a pinch of thyme. 😉
These potatoes are cooked twice—simmered to produce a tender, creamy interior, and then lightly pan roasted in clarified butter, infused with garlic and herbs, for a perfect finishing touch. The delicate flavors do not overpower the potato, and the result complements any main dish on your table. If you wish to make it vegan, substitute a mild-flavored, extra virgin olive oil for the butter.
This post for simple, but elegant, buttered red bliss potatoes is dedicated to the memory of my friend. We would be celebrating Tammy’s birthday today, and you can bet there would be some amazing food on the table, and Tammy’s favorite chardonnay would flow freely, as would the reminiscing and giggling over inside jokes. Sadly, we lost her three summers ago, following her very brave (second) battle with cancer. I think about Tammy every time I put on my white apron, though today it is a bit tattered and stained. It is still my favorite. 🙂
Makes about 6 servings
2 lbs. red baby (new) potatoes* (see notes)
6 Tbsp. clarified butter*
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed (you will measure about 1 tsp. leaves)
Choose the most uniform, small, round potatoes possible. Ideally, they should be no larger than 2 inches across. Other small, waxy potatoes, and even the medium-starchy Yukon gold, will also be delicious in this recipe, but the contrast of color provided by the red ones is perfect for visual appeal. Russet potatoes are not recommended here; their skins are too thick and the interior too starchy.
To clarify butter, melt an entire stick (8 tablespoons) in a small saucepan over very low heat. Allow the milk solids to settle to the bottom of the pan, and carefully pour off the clear butter. Discard the solids or save them for another use later. You may clarify the butter ahead of time and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. Reheat it on the stove over medium-low heat or microwave, about 15 seconds at a time, until melted. To save time, you could also use purchased ghee, which is essentially the same thing, but more expensive than making your own.
Here’s an interesting tidbit about clarified butter (or ghee): The casein proteins in butter are concentrated in the milk fat solids, so melting to separate them, and straining them from your final product reduces or removes the lactose, making it more easily digestible.
- Rinse the potatoes, rubbing gently to clean, and keep skin intact. Use a sharp vegetable peeler or channel knife to carefully remove one thin strip of peel, all the way around the potato, like a band.
- Cover potatoes with cold water and bring potatoes to a gentle boil. Cook until easily pierced by the tip of a paring knife. Be sure potatoes are tender to the center.
- While potatoes cook, make the clarified butter. Pour off the clear butter into a large, non-stick skillet and place it over low heat. Add garlic to the butter, season with a pinch of kosher salt and slow-cook on very low heat, just until garlic is softened and plump.
- Drain potatoes gently in a large colander, taking care not to tear off the skins. Transfer the potatoes to the butter skillet and swirl the pan to coat the potatoes. Season with kosher salt and black pepper and cook until potatoes take on a slight “roasted” appearance. Keep the temperature in the medium-low range.
- Sprinkle the fresh thyme leaves over the potatoes, give the pan another swirl to distribute the thyme, and transfer to a platter for serving.