Diner Dinner

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So here we are again. We looked with hope toward the post-Labor Day, back-to-school season as the reset, the return to life as we knew it. Instead, with the Delta variant, things have settled back down to life as we’ve been knowing it. Like The Who song, meet the new boss, same as the old boss... Yes, despite feeling disappointment, I keep reminding myself of points of gratitude, which are many, and that being vaccinated I don’t have to worry too much, but…well, it does wear a body down. But I don’t have to tell you that. You probably have the same mood pendulum swings between plucky make-the-best-of-it mood to the vague disquiet that my brain is folding in on itself and I may never get all of my words back. Right? It’s not just me? And we here in California have big, ongoing anxiety about drought and fires. Can we all please say a collective prayer for the Giant Sequoias?

For perspective, I want to remember back to when it all was much more painfully grim. Last March, at the very beginning of the lock down – when I believed the videos circulating about the mortal dangers of the mail, and a good day entailed scoring a four-roll package of sub-par toilet paper for $11.99. It was around then that my plucky self decided that what our psyche’s needed was Diner Dinner.

I’m talking about a theme dinner night at home. Having an array of little themes help me meal plan. For this practice I took inspiration from the hilarious opening of Aardman’s The Pirates! – Band of Misfits movie where the Captain declares that the best thing about being a pirate is most certainly Ham Nite!

Book Review: 'The Making of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!'  | Animation World Network

So Diner Dinner night gave both cook and customer a break, even though it usually meant putting out two different meals. It was fun to offer limited, low-key choices, and will you want that with tortilla or potato chips? On one such night my daughter might have a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup while I’d have an entree Caesar or chef’s salad with leftover chicken or turkey. Or maybe we’d both have soup and half a turkey sandwich and chips. I guess you could look at it as lunch for dinner, but it really satisfied my soul for a type of comfort food/comfort cook meal I was missing.

Other existing theme nights in my repertoire, and I try not to overuse them, are Breakfast for Dinner, Taco Night and Snacky Dinner. All pretty self explanatory, but Snacky Dinner, by my standard, has to have at least two elements, usually three, and at least one hot appetizer.

Who doesn’t love a diner? The enormous menu; the mirror images of pie in a display case reflected on the wall; the better-than-average chance that Breakfast is served All Day and that there might be Greek food options. When you are tired of looking at what can be ordered as a side on a diner menu, then you are tired of life. There’s even the movie Diner, where kids hung out and did a lot of talking and like many a teen discovered who they were as they had to answer the question, “How do you want your eggs?”

On the East Coast I might judge a diner on its rice pudding. On the West Coast, by the quality of their potatoes, hash brown or otherwise. How about you? In any locale, I think it’s important that the diner menu offer a lot of solid standards.

At my house, a really “extra” Diner Dinner will feature home fried potatoes. Now it may seem terribly pedestrian to provide a recipe here for home fries. I’m not trying to insult anyone. But based on how many sub-par versions I’ve had served to me at Nor Cal restaurants that are charging more than 12 dollars for a plate of eggs (I’m looking at you, Mo’z Cafe on Geary) I feel that I may be providing the blueprint for a lost art. Some of the most popular San Francisco staples for a high-end breakfast (Sweet Maple) really ought to do a better job with their potatoes. It’s clear to me when I bite into a tough, undercooked potato wedge that the problem is that the kitchens are not bothering to parboil the potatoes first, and so the home fries are doomed to fail before they even hit the pan.

Even when I cook breakfast for dinner for just myself, if I’m making fried potatoes then I’m par-boiling the first. (Verified photo of one such occasion below. If you don’t have the energy for that, then tater tots make a great substitute. I cook tater tots in the toaster oven, set them to 25 minutes and then work backwards to assemble the other elements. A great tool for the fledgling short order cook.) When par-boiling, you’re just dropping peeled potatoes in boiling water for ten minutes before you slice them up and fry them in vegetable oil. Then your potato is going to be crispy on the outside and almost creamy on the inside. They will be good. Very good. And you can impress the young people in your life who have only ever had them the bad, rosemary-encrusted, citified way.

As Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food, (and I’m paraphrasing) French fried potatoes are not something a person should eat often, and going through the somewhat involved labor process of cooking them ourselves will help us appreciate it as the special treat it is. As a friend of my daughter’s pointed out, using a deep fryer is a very smelly and messy experience but there are so many fast food joints and, yes, diners, that have a deep fryer at the ready that we have collectively gotten pretty spoiled. So, by Michael Pollan’s standards, I feel like I can enjoy without guilt those home fries that I might make every other month or so.

I hope you are able to do the same. Thanks for listening to my rant!

Home Fried Potatoes

Ingredients

4 medium potatoes, red or yukon gold, peeled (about 1 to 1.5 pounds)

vegetable oil

salt to taste

seasoned salt (optional)

While peeling the potatoes, set water boiling in a 2 or 3-quart pot. Add salt to the water.

When the water is boiling, add the potatoes. Cook for ten minutes, then remove potatoes from water and let set on a cutting board to cool down.

Cut the potatoes into fairly uniform slices and wedges.

Heat a large (10-12″) fry pan or cast iron skillet for a couple of minutes before adding vegetable oil to the pan. This is a measurement that you eyeball. It’s more than a couple of tablespoons and probably less than a third of a cup. You don’t want the potato slices to be submerged in the oil. Oil should come roughly halfway up the sides of slices.

Add the potatoes to the fry pan with tongs, placing pieces so that they are not piled up or touching one another. The cut potatoes will be starchy and will want to stick to each other and the bottom of the pan, so move pieces a little bit after they’ve been cooking a minute or so to keep a coating of oil between them and the skillet.

Let the potatoes fry on medium heat for about seven or eight minutes before you turn them over. You can peek at them before that but there’s no need to hover and obsess. Do keep an eye on how hot or fast things seem to be cooking and turn down the heat if the potatoes slices are getting done too quickly.

Rustle up a lunch sack sized brown paper bag. (It may be best to do this before you get started, but it felt weird to put the bag in the ingredient list. I save them from take out places as long as they are unsullied.) Turn over the potatoes and redistribute them around the pan based on which pieces may be browning faster than others. Give them another six or seven minutes at the most.

If some pieces are done earlier, use the tongs to drop them in the paper bag. The bag will serve as the drainage vehicle, in lieu of a paper towel.

When you’ve transferred all the potato slices into the bag add more salt, and seasoned salt if using, then hold the bag closed and shake gently. Transfer the potatoes to a serving bowl when you are ready. They’ll stay hot in the bag for a bit if you want to keep them there while other elements of the meal are starting to come together.

Serve hot with your favorite diner-y condiments and accompaniments.