So here’s something that has changed the way I’ll make potatoes for the rest of my life. I’m a little ashamed to say that I’ve been eating these things here in Cow Head since 1999 and have never attempted them myself. Now it’s like I’ve wasted twelve years of crispy, buttery, fluffy potato goodness, so you know, I have some catching up to do. I owe it all to my dear friend and university roommate Sandy, who’s from Cow Head and, lucky for me, home for the summer with her brand new baby. I went to her place for Sunday dinner a while back and there was a pile of potato cakes on the table…an addition to Jiggs dinner I’d never seen until I started working in Cow Head years ago. I’ve asked both my nans (one from three hours south of here in Robinsons and one from Pound Cove in Bonavista North) about potato cakes and they both say they’ve never heard of them. Sandy says her mom (from forty minutes down the road in Rocky Harbour) never made them until she came to Cow Head and learned how from her mother-in-law. So I can only conclude they are a Cow Head specialty. There must be a Jiggs dinner potato equivalent somewhere in Newfoundland or Labrador, but for now I’ll just cross my fingers that no one in Cow Head is mortally offended but what I did to my first batch.
Before I go any further (because I know you’re reading this thinking, little red chicken, how did the common potato change your life that day?), I have to put this out there now. Mashed potatoes with flour. Sounds simple enough, but pat it down in a greased pan and bake it with few dollops of butter (or margarine, or bacon, or fatback) and then see what happens. Potato magic. That’s what happens.
Sandy’s potato cakes are excellent…she bakes them in a muffin tin (another Cow Head first for me) so what you end up with are little fluffy potato Yorkshire pudding cupcake-type things. Potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and cupcakes being a few of my favourite things, I knew I needed to have a crack at these, and it needed to happen soon. Like, the next day. I borrowed Sandy’s muffin tin, picked up a frozen chicken and a sack of spuds on the way home and thought about the best batch of mashed potatoes I’ve ever made. And now I knew how to make cupcakes out of them. Life would never be the same.
Monday. A sunny day getting ready to turn into a disaster. A crowd coming for a late supper with the warning that they were in for a pretty big experiment so an open mind and a bottle of wine were the prerequisites. I was roasting a chicken with garlic and vermouth gravy again, but the mashed potatoes this time around were getting a makeover.
I was going to go with roasted garlic and sour cream in the mash until Didi suggested berries. I looked at her like she’d had one too many Monday beers. “They do it at the Norseman. Put blueberries in their mashed potatoes.” The Norseman is in L’Anse aux Meadows and supposedly the best restaurant on the coast…I’ve never been but I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about it. I’d had just enough Monday beers to try anything and we had a bag of last year’s marshberries in the freezer so in that instant, the potato cake experiment got a little more dangerous. These things were going to be amazing. Or taste like shit. There would be no in between.
Our friend Adrian had given us the marshberries a couple of days earlier and Didi had used most of them to make a cottage pudding. They’re like partridgeberries Adrian says, but different. And harder to find. But their colour is similar, like little pink-red jewels, and they’re just as tart. I didn’t know how they would go over in the potato cakes without sugar to mellow them out a bit. I hoped the roasted garlic would do the job. Fingers crossed, dumped them in.
Here’s where we are so far. A dozen potatoes. Medium to largish size. Boiled and mashed with salt and pepper, butter, sour cream, and a head of roasted garlic. Butter, a good heaping tablespoon or more and the same for the sour cream. Maybe two tablespoons of sour cream. A couple of handfuls of frozen marshberries. However you make your regular mashed potatoes, go for it. Sandy had told me to put in enough flour to make it a little doughy, but not too doughy…I put in a third of a cup, maybe a little more. I knew the potatoes would bake on their own nicely so I figured less was more in this case. The berries went in at the last minute and still frozen, so their colour wouldn’t run into the potatoes. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I was really going for the aesthetic here. I figured if I told my guests I was putting berries in their potatoes, they had better look good. Greased the muffin tin, carefully put in the potato “batter”, shaped them into the cups with a little dollop of butter on each. They sure looked pretty so far.
The rest is a blur. Chicken, gravy, company, nothing ready, chicken overcooked, garlic burnt, gravy too vermouthy, would it actually get people maybe a little drunk? Was that a terribly bad thing to do? Potato cakes baking at 375 or so, maybe ten minutes, maybe fifteen. It may have been more like twenty.
Week 25…perfect. The berries in my freezer now have a loving home forever. Berries or no, take your favourite mashed potato recipe, throw in some flour, grease up a pan or a muffin tin and make these cakes. No one will be disappointed. Unless you don’t make a double batch. There’s a potato promise.