Scalloped Potato Masterpiece

My latest Tasty Tuesday column (originally published in The News Review on March 3, 2015) Recipes in this post: Scalloped Potatoes & Ham (updated) and a vegetarian option.

Food lovers are often mocked for taking pictures of what we’re about to eat. It’s difficult for a non-foodie type to see any purpose in visually documenting a meal. For me, it’s about storing a memory — an exquisite lunch with a dear friend, a romantic dinner, a family celebration, an unusual ingredient, a beautiful setting or presentation — and since no one has developed a way to capture taste or smell, a photograph and written notes are the best we’ve got to preserve the details of an experience.

If only I’d had a smartphone back in 1977!

I was in a fine restaurant with my date, seated at a table overlooking San Diego Bay. We’d soon be heading to our senior prom at the lovely Hotel Del Coronado, affectionately referred to as “The Hotel Del” by locals. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, anything about the salad, the entrĂ©e, whether or not we even had dessert, but the baked potato on the side? I wish I had a photo of that.

The waiter rolled our orders in on a cart and prepared my potato tableside. Deftly slashing a large X in the top, he squeezed the ends together, exposing the steaming, fluffy interior. Would I like butter on my potato? Yes. Sour cream? Of course. Crispy bits of real bacon? Certainly! Freshly snipped chives? Sure. Adding a dash of salt and pepper, he wrapped a clean white towel around the potato and then, holding the ends securely with one hand, took a fork and expertly whisked the flesh and condiments together inside the peel before placing it on my plate. The result? Each bite was bursting with creamy, savory goodness. The best baked potato I’ve ever eaten!

Potatoes are a staple of our winter diet. They’re inexpensive, always available and give a cook plenty of options for preparing a wholesome meal. White potatoes get a bad rap nutritionally when compared to sweet potatoes, but they’re actually rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and, if you eat the peel, fiber. I usually buy a 50-pound box of russets at Kruse Farms in late fall and store them in the garage, covered with a thick blanket to keep out the light and cold. We eat them baked, roasted and mashed or made into hearty soups and chowders. A baked potato bar with a selection of toppings like steamed broccoli, tangy cheese sauce, chili, cooked sausage, cottage cheese, avocado and salsa lets everyone create their own “Irish Sundae.” Leftover baked potatoes get diced, browned in a bit of oil or butter and scrambled with eggs. 

If we’re not making our way through the box of potatoes fast enough and they start to shrivel, I make a huge batch of mashed potatoes and freeze portions just right for three of my favorite bread recipes: Sour Cream and Chive Potato Bread, Whole Wheat Potato Braids and my “famous” Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Buns. Finally, if we haven’t eaten all of the potatoes before the weather warms up and they begin to sprout, I bury them in my compost heap and I’ll have fresh potatoes to dig in a few months. No waste.

Potato casseroles are an excellent way to stretch a modest amount of meat to feed a family. A scalloped potatoes and ham dinner is a March tradition at our house. I won’t claim this recipe has magical properties, but I will tell you it’s the dish I served my husband just hours before he proposed. Give it a try and who knows what could happen!

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham

This is a family favorite and a fine way to stretch a bit of leftover ham into another meal. If you bake a ham for Easter, save some to give it a try. Peeling the potatoes is optional.
4 to 5 medium russet potatoes (about 2 lbs.)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder or ¼ cup finely minced onion
2 1/2 cups milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups diced ham (6 to 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon additional butter for dotting the top

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. If using fresh onion, cook it in the melted butter for a few minutes to soften. Stir in the flour, salt, pepper (and onion powder, if using) and blend well into a smooth paste. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly about 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for one minute. Remove from heat.

Scrub the potatoes well, peel if desired and slice about 1/8-inch thick. Butter a casserole dish and place half the potato slices over the bottom. Scatter the diced ham evenly over the potatoes and then cover with half the white sauce. Layer the remaining potatoes over the ham and pour the rest of the sauce over the top, smoothing with a rubber scraper to make sure all the potatoes are covered. Dot the top with 1 tablespoon butter.

Cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes on the center rack of the oven. (I like to put a sheet of foil on the rack below to catch any drips.) Remove the lid or foil, turn the oven down to 375 degrees and bake another 30 to 40 minutes until potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown.
Yield: 4-5 servings

Variation: For a vegetarian version, skip the ham and reduce the milk to 2 cups. Add 1 to 1 ½ cups of grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese to the hot white sauce, stirring until melted. Optional: top with ¼ cup dry bread crumbs after you remove the lid or foil. Bake as directed above until potatoes are tender and top is golden.

Popular Posts