Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

A PASTORAL
(With photographs)

We’re heading into the dark season. Last winter was a particularly long, cold, brutal one, in this part of the world, and it’s hard not to feel a mounting anxiety as the days grow shorter. I think everybody feels a little twinge of melancholy this time of year. Even the impending holiday can make a person anxious.

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When you feel seasonally challenged, you should take a walk on the towpath by my house. Most of the green is gone, but there are a few vines and mossy trunks, and they stand out against a background of rich rusts and umbers and golds, a strange warm quiet beauty on a cold day. And after about a mile you’ll come to my favorite field in the world. You’ve just emerged from a tunnel of trees, and now the world opens up and you’re looking out onto a field stretching away under a bright sky, sloping down like a saucer into a line of trees and running down to a beautiful railway bridge that stretches over a creek.

Summer

Summer

Winter

Winter

The light under this bridge is always strangely glowing, even on grey days, perhaps with the memories of summer afternoons spent swimming in the creek.
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This morning when Clio and I scrambled out this way, we came upon a pine tree festooned with blue birds, like the prettiest Christmas tree you have ever seen.

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One of them sat a little distance from the others, on a branch above our heads, and looked down on us like he wanted to tell us something. I nearly cried. They were still there on our way back, but after we walked by they flew off together along the bed of the creek. There is no more hopeful sight on earth than a bluebird, particularly in winter!
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It fills you with a strange glow. Even these leafless plants we saw, with a strange light purple hue seemed oddly hopeful.
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I know I write about hope a lot, but it’s such a mysterious emotion. I’m always a little impatient when people say you can make good things happen just by thinking about it, that if you have a positive attitude the world will reward you with gifts, that if you stop worrying about not having enough money and just feel happy, you’ll suddenly have enough money. (Usually the people who tell you these things have plenty of money, or happen to be paying you poorly for your work.) And yet–it’s not the strange bright branches or the light under the bridge or even the rare and beautiful birds that make you hopeful, it’s something in you that responds to them. Which is an even more hopeful thought somehow. Who can explain it? Not me.

Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

Potatoes poached with lemon and bay leaves

I had a hankering for potatoes, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted them boiled and soft and comforting or broiled and crispy. Then I thought I’d try something new, and see if I could have the best of both worlds. I think they turned out really well. They’re mostly soft, not crispy, but they have a more interesting texture than plain boiled potatoes. Lemon and bay are lovely together, and go very nicely with the mild, pleasing flavor of potatoes.

Here’s Jimmy Smith with Greensleeves from the phenomenal Christmas Cooking album.

4 or 5 medium-sized potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
2 T olive oil
3 or 4 bay leaves
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
1 t rosemary
a few pats of butter
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 and choose a baking dish to snugly fit the potatoes, with sides high enough to reach over them.

Cut the potatoes in 1/8th inch slices, but don’t cut all the way through to the other side. So they’ll still be connected along the bottom edge. Arrange the potatoes in the baking dish, and drizzle over the olive oil. Distribute the bay leaves, lemon and rosemary and add 1/2 cup water. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake until the potatoes are soft, 45 minutes to an hour. Uncover and dot the top of the potatoes with butter and continue to bake until most of the liquid is absorbed and the potatoes are starting to brown a bit, about 20 minutes. You can add a splash of water if it seems to dry out too soon. Season with salt and plenty of pepper, and eat!

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