Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dear Gunter Grass (1927 - ),

You have been in the news lately.

One of the reasons I am proud to study authors is because they often act as the conscience of their states. This, you have done. Last month you released a poem in protest of the German provision of a submarine to Israel, which could one day carry nuclear warheads. You wrote the poem despite the fact that, as a former German soldier in World War II, the charge of anti-Semitism was almost inevitable. But your issue was not with Israel in particular; it was with nuclear escalation in general. And your poem succeeded not only in stimulating debate on that issue, but also in drawing attention to poetry as a form of political discourse. My grandfather was a poet in that vein, so I appreciate the effort.

But this entry is not about your poem. This is a food blog, after all, and I imagine the food on submarines is nothing special. (Unless it's a yellow submarine, in which case I'd avoid the brownies.)

This entry references grass in more ways than one.
No, this entry is about The Tin Drum (1959) and its tasty tubers. I am a sucker for any novel which opens with a woman squatting over a fire, cooking and wearing too many skirts. In this case, the main character Oskar begins his story by recounting that of his grandmother. She is captivating to me largely because she has a very efficient laundry system, whereby she always wears four of her five skirts, in order of decreasing filthiness (while washing the fifth). Apart from the fact that she washes them, this is very similar to my pajama system.  She also meets the future father of her child when he is a fugitive, hiding from the authorities by resting under her skirts. (I don't relate to that bit so much.)

Problem is, he interrupts her potato-eating. Now here is my theory: I think potatoes are universal. You, Mr. Grass, are German, born in Poland. I am a Pakeha New Zealander, of Irish origins, but with a French name and Maori / Kiwi / American education. And Oskar's grandmother lives in Danzig. It doesn't matter where we come from, or what kind of food we have access to. We all love potatoes.

So when Oskar's grandfather interrupts Oskar's grandmother's potato-eating, it doesn't put me on his side. Especially because her experience, pre-skirt hiding, was this:

        She coaxed the first cooked potato out of the ashes with her hazel branch and pushed it away from the smouldering 
          mound to cool in the breeze. Then she spitted the charred and crusty tuber on a pointed stick and held it close to her 
          mouth; she had stopped whistling and instead pursed her cracked, wind-parched lips to blow the earth and ashes off 
          the potato skin.

These are potatoes off the land. Cooked in a real fire, with a spit, till they char. I got mine for $2.99 / kg from Countdown. That feels like cheating, somehow.

But that's the beauty of potatoes. Whether you eat them simply, straight from a fire, or cooked with fancy accoutrements in an urban oven, the comfort they provide is the same. So here we go, Mr. Grass, in honour of our diverse tuberific applications, a snobbified baked potato. Mahlzeit!

Deconstructed Baked Potato 

Serves 2
2 washed agria potatoes  
4 generous slices haloumi
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tomatoes
2 tsp olive oil
Oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 240C. Peel the potatoes, and reserve the peelings.  Smother each peeled potato in olive oil, and place on a baking tray. Cut each tomato into four thick slices, and arrange those on the baking tray as well. Place in the warmed oven.

Meanwhile, combine the paprika and sour cream. Place a dollop of pinkened cream on each plate. Top with half each of the chopped parsley.

Fry the haloumi in a wide, dry pan over medium-high heat, or place under a grill, until golden brown (about 4 minutes each side in a pan for me).

By this time, your tomato should be baked enough to be dry-ish and intensively flavoured (about 20 minutes). Remove the tomato slices and return the potatoes to the oven. Layer the haloumi and tomato slices on each plate, on top of the parsley.

Fill a pot with enough oil to shallow-fry, and get it reasonably hot but not smoking. Add the potato peelings and fry until crispy. Drain, and layer up on top of the tomato & haloumi slices.

Once the potatoes are baked and toasty (about an hour), rest those on top of the potato skins. Top with a dollop more of sour cream and some leftover parsley. Salt & serve.

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