Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio

This past week I was finally given the go-ahead to begin running again. Only there was a caveat. I had to ease back into it and only run for short periods of time. My joy and jubilation at hearing this news gave way to some anxiousness (you mean I have to learn how to breathe and run at the same time all over again?) and a bit of hypochondria (is that really a pain I am feeling or am I just imagining it?). These past three months may have contributed to the recovery of my stress fracture, but they haven’t done anything to curb my rather active imagination. Rejoining my running group was one of the highlights of the week although for the short term I will be more of a walk/runner than a run/runner. While my ‘running’ partner’ is making great strides in her speed and endurance, I am trying very hard to remind myself to be patient, that there are bigger goals to accomplish. Like running injury free; like getting ready for the upcoming 5k, the winter 5 miler I first ran 15 years ago, and the bridge run in Charleston, South Carolina; and oh, yes, like being able keep pace with her once again (and secretly hope to out pace her just once even though she is more than fifteen years my junior).

Speaking of secrets, most of us have a friend or family member who we hope will bring their ‘famous’ cheesey potato casserole to the summer barbecue, graduation party, or holiday gathering. You know the one. Made with some type of frozen hash brown potatoes and usually topped with crushed corn flakes.  Where the gooeyness and cheesiness factor is determined by how much cheese (or do I dare say Velvetta?), sour cream, cream cheese, canned cream soup, and/or butter going into them. The one where as you seriously consider going back for seconds, you dare not think or talk of this comfort food’s caloric content, unless of course, you want to be labeled as the spoilsport, party pooper, or killjoy. If there is a downside to these cheesey potato casseroles it’s that most recipes make enough to serve the twelve guests you invited and the other twelve you didn’t. 

Eating comfort food feels like getting a big, strong hug. You know, the really good two-armed from the heart kind, not the lame, wimpy, impersonal one-armed ones. In almost any form or combination, potatoes and cheese pull you into that kind of strong, take your breath away hug you want to get lost in and have linger on for as long as possible. A cheesey potato casserole and the Potato Leek Gratin are the tight grip kind. And just when you think it doesn’t get any better than that, along comes a potato and cheese dish created by Nigel Slater. This one completely engulfs you into a kind of pure bliss, heart-racing embrace. 

Nigel Slater is an English food writer, James Beard award winning cookbook author, and television personality (think of him as the English version of a really good Food Network Star). In the never ending world of sometimes complicated, hard to find ingredients, and trendy not destined to be timeless cookbooks, most of the recipes in Slater’s cookbooks swing closer to the ”big flavored, unpretentious, uncomplicated’ end of the pendulum. As someone who believes the quality of the ingredients is as essential as the recipe (and let’s not forget the cook), his approach to the preparation of food, of meals, is one focused on simplicity and deliciousness. My introduction to Nigel Slater came from a very dear friend, who likes to cook and was born on the other side of the Atlantic. Were it not for this friend, I may have never discovered Slater’s recipe for Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio. 

Sometimes you take a risk when you make a substitution in a recipe. However, the use of Yukon Gold potatoes (instead of the waxy Red Bliss or New Potato varieties) was one of those low risk, having a great reward decisions. If you take into consideration the Yukon Gold potato is an all-purpose kind of potato with rock star status, you know it is almost a stretch to say I took a risk.

Whenever a recipe calls for caramelizing onions, I tend to use a Spanish or a sweet onion (like a Vidalia). But the perfect looking organic yellow onions at the market this week seemed to be saying ‘pick me’. So I did.
Thinly slicing means different things for different vegetables and to different people. Deciding how thick or thin to cut the garlic, onions, and potatoes would definitely affect the outcome of this dish. How thin to cut the garlic and onions were the easier decisions. Considering coins in England are sized differently than the ones here in the US, the ‘coin cut’ reference for the potatoes wasn’t as exact as I wanted it to be. I landed a cut somewhere between 1/8″ and a 1/4″, leaning more toward the 1/8″ cut size. The use of a mandolin to slice the vegetables uniformly would have made cutting easier and faster, however, I decided it was ‘a work on my knife cutting skills kind of day’. The same person who made me aware of Nigel Slater is the same person who influenced my decision to buy a Shun knife. On the days I had to use bandages when using this knife, I am less than grateful for being made aware of this amazing, ‘you absolutely need to pay attention’ when cutting knife. 
The sliced onions are sautéed in the extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter until soft and golden, but not to the point of caramelization. The onions will continue to take on more flavor and color when cooked with the potatoes, garlic and fresh thyme.

After adding the potatoes, garlic, thyme, kosher salt and black pepper to the cooked onions, the heat is turned down to a simmer and the pan covered with a tightly fitting lid. The mixture will continue to cook for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and lightly golden. Gently stirring the mixture every 10 minutes will help ensure even cooking and color.

Taleggio is a creamy, sweet yet slightly acidic, perfect for melting Italian cow’s milk cheese. Some describe it as being aromatic with an aftertaste of truffle. In less than culinary acceptable descriptive terms, I will just say it is insanely delicious. And melted over the slow-fried potatoes and caramelized onions tossed with freshly chopped time, it is nothing short of pure sinfulness. The kind of dish you put on your last meal wish list.
Thinly (here we go again) slices of the Taleggio cheese are placed randomly over the top of the cooked potatoes and onions. Covering the pan with the lid, the cheese melts perfectly in approximately 2-3 minutes. The aroma of these Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio is intoxicating. 
The Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio can either be a side dish or a main dish. As a main dish it can be served with a poached egg over for breakfast or with a salad for lunch or dinner. As a side dish it would pair well with a roasted chicken or grilled steak. 
If serving as a side dish, Nigel Slater believes this recipe should be enough for four people. And I agree with him. But don’t plan on having any leftovers. Which means if you are having a dinner party for six or more, you will need to make the necessary adjustments in ingredient amounts, cooking time and possibly pan size.
With potatoes and onions available year round, this is a four season, four star dish. The Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio take the potato-cheese combination to a completely different level of gastronomy. This might be the highest praise one can give to a relatively inexpensive, simple in preparation, delivering a great depth of flavor, and capable of sending you into a state of bliss dish. If there is any guilt to be had with regard to this redefined version of cheesey potatoes, it will come only if you don’t say ‘seconds please’. Once your family and friends taste them, they won’t secretly wish for you to make them. They will just flat out request them.

Slow-Fried Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Thyme and Taleggio (inspired by the Nigel Slater recipe shared in his cookbook Real Food, 1998 edition)

1 3/4 pounds (500 g) Yukon Gold potatoes or waxy potatoes (approximately 3 large), thinly sliced (do not peel)
1 medium-to-large sized yellow onion, thinly sliced (recommend a Spanish, Vidalia, or organic yellow onion)
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 1/2 Tablespoons (50 g) unsalted butter
2-3 cloves of garlic, very thinly sliced
A generous Tablespoon of freshly chopped thyme
generous 1/3 pound (100-110 g) Taleggio or Fontina cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1. In a 9-10 inch shallow, heavy bottomed skillet (one having a lid), heat the extra-virgin olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook until they are soft and golden in color. (approximately 10-15 minutes).
2. Add sliced potatoes, sliced garlic, kosher salt, black pepper and thyme. Toss to ensure the potatoes are well coated in the oil/butter mixture and the herbs.
3. Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover pan and cook for 40-50 minutes (or until the potatoes are soft and golden. Gently stir mixture every 10 minutes to ensure even cooking as well as to prevent the onions from burning.
4. Slice taleggio cheese thinly and lay randomly over the cooked potatoes and onions. Place lid on pan and cook over low heat for an additional 2-3 minutes or until the cheese has begun to melt.
5. Sprinkle with additional chopped thyme and a pinch of kosher salt. Serve immediately.
Notes: (1) I used one of my Staub pans in the making of this recipe and it cooked the onions and potatoes to perfection, (2) It will serve 2 as a generous main course or up to 4 as a side dish. If serving for a larger gathering, make adjustments in ingredients and pan size as necessary, (3) They reheat beautifully in the oven or microwave if wanting to serve for breakfast topped with a poached egg.

Iconic and conflicting historical images from Annapolis. The Maryland State House.
The Thurgood Marshall Memorial.
Statue of Roger Brooke Taney.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge

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