Buttered Red Bliss and a Pinch of Thyme

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. 😉

Catering trick: If you want your food to make a statement, put a frame around it. These buttered red bliss beauties are escorted by a bed of simple sauteed spinach.

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. 🙂

(L to R) Tammy, Terrie and Lee-Lee, back in the day! We were, as they say, thick as thieves! ❤

Makes about 6 servings

Ingredients

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)

*Notes

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.


Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Sprinkle the fresh thyme leaves over the potatoes, give the pan another swirl to distribute the thyme, and transfer to a platter for serving.


A Quick Flick of the Wrist…

First of all, I’m fine. As the Black Knight declared after King Arthur slashed off his entire arm in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, my injury also is “just a flesh wound.” And it is already on the mend. But as I scrambled this past Wednesday to rip off wads of paper towels to stop the profuse bleeding of my right ring finger, it sure seemed a lot worse.

My afternoon had been going swimmingly up to that point, as I had just finished making a perfect stack of fresh, handmade corn tortillas for our intended Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner. The wild-caught American shrimp were thawing in a colander over the sink, ready to be peeled and deveined. I had a lovely homemade ranch dressing that was ready to be spiked with green chiles. And as I sipped down the last of my dry martini, happily distracted by two separate texting conversations I was having on my smartphone—one by text and the other by email—I brimmed with confidence because all the prep for our shrimp tacos was done in advance of my husband, Les, walking through the door.

All, that is, except for shredding the fresh cabbage.

Does this mean my supper will be late?

If only I had reached for the food processor to handle this task. But I really didn’t want to deal with having to take so much time to clean it later, and my multi-function mandoline was right over there anyway. Uh-huh. Friends, those things have a safety warning (not to mention a perfectly good safety feature) for a very real reason. It is a lesson I should have learned long ago, and one that I promised the doctor at our urgent care facility I would hold dear going forward.

“Cabbage doesn’t even fit in a mandoline,” Dr. Obvious declared. And of course, he was correct, and that was the reason I had skipped the safety guard in the first place. He was good-hearted in his teasing, though, and he fixed me up in no time, with assurance that my finger will be fine—I just need to take it easy in the kitchen for a few days. Les, who was ironically lamenting just last week that he never gets to cook anymore, is being a sweetheart and picking up my slack. In the meantime, I am constantly reminded how much we use even the lesser fingers for everyday essential tasks—including zipping up jeans, latching the seat belt, washing the dishes and using a cimputer keyb0ard (oops, there I go again).

There’s still plenty that I can do, including complain (ask Les), pour wine (from a screw-top bottle, anyway) and shop for more clear plastic containers (to hold all the extra kitchen things I don’t really need). I’ve been doing my share of all three since my little kitchen accident.

At least I can still feed the pets.

I’ve also been remembering a similar, but much worse experience many years ago—one that ultimately resulted in me leaving my upstate N.Y. home for greener pastures here in the South. I was 21 and nearing the end of my long shift in my tiny town’s only grocery store. I was about to clock out and get home to ready myself for an especially important job interview the next day. It was a Tuesday, and I know this because Charlie, the produce manager, was off on Tuesdays and he had trained me to be his backup for his days off. I wore a green apron and I loved working with the fresh produce, and Charlie had trained me well. I was a conscientious worker, proud to keep the fresh cases looking nice, and I noticed as I was about to remove my apron that the “moonlight mushrooms” were nearly emptied from their endcap display. On sale at 88 cents a pound, they would certainly be sold out before I even punched the time clock.

So, me being me, I went back to the walk-in, grabbed another wax-coated case of the white button mushrooms, rolled them on a produce cart onto the sales floor, and swiftly slashed open the case with my brand-new box cutter. First the right-hand side of the box, then across the front, and then down the left side—except by that time, my blade must have picked up too much of the waxy coating on the box because it slicked off the edge and landed on my left thumb, straight down and hard, through my skin, the tendons, the artery, the nerve, all the way down to the bone. I spent eight long weeks healing, four of which had me in a cast over my whole hand. Fortuitously, a hand specialist was on rotation that day in the E.R.

In the moment, as the doctor sewed my thumb back on, my biggest concern was how I was ever going to manage my next-day interview for what I had hoped would be a steppingstone to my dream career—as a radio deejay.

As an only child, who spent a lot of time (grounded, and for no good reason) in my room, I found comfort and kinship in the voices behind the radio that sat on my nightstand, and I yearned to one day be on the other side of the speaker. I grew up counting down the hits with Casey Kasem’s weekly “American Top 40” show, and listening to the real-life stories narrated by the legendary Paul Harvey. I stayed up late to listen to Dr. Demento and I can still sing the jingle for Chicken Man (“he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere”).

The day after my dreadful thumb accident, I was scheduled to audition for a small, part-time job at a radio station in Springville, N.Y., a burg that sits about halfway between Buffalo and my tiny hometown. A friend of a friend that knew the guy who ran the station had hooked me up with an interview and I was elated, though I had no previous experience and no idea how I would manage working weekends on the radio in another town when I was already on the weekend schedule at the grocery store. Thanks to my hand injury, that concern resolved itself. I was so doped up on pain meds on the day of my audition that I could barely recite my own name, let alone talk up a record intro in front of two strangers. The program director admired my persistence in making it to the interview (I had paid my cousin to take the day off from her waitressing job to help me wash my hair, get dressed and get there on time), but he wished me well and politely invited me to try again another time. And this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

If I had gotten that job—and that is a big IF because radio is extremely competitive, even in small towns—I may have stayed in western N.Y., where I would still be bitching about the snow and the utter lack of adventure that made me so restless in my life. I wanted more than my tiny town would ever be able to offer, and so I packed up the next summer and moved to North Carolina. It was here that I later satisfied my career dream of being a deejay in ways that I did not ever imagine or expect, and in an unexpected but related turn, I also wound up in a concurrent, part-time gig at A Pinch of Thyme, the catering kitchen I’ve mentioned here previously.

I used a mandoline for the first time in the “Pinch” kitchen, and I remember being cautioned, ad nauseum, about the safety risks associated with them. And, given that I am not busy making food this week, I’ve had plenty of time to recall some very specific adventures and even a few of those recipes, which I can’t wait to share with you. First though, I’ll have to explain how I got there. And that, as Paul Harvey would say, will be “the rest of the story.”

Stay tuned.