Potatoes Baked in their Jackets

I’m third generation American born: two parents in New York and three of four grandparents born in the greater NY area. It was my great grandparents then who came to “the next parish west” across the ocean. They left Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, in the period of diaspora that followed the potato famine. My Grandmother Josie ran away at sixteen to attend the Motormen’s Ball after her father forbid even. Even after she married the trolley conductor,  he never forgave her for picking that Dutchman. He refused to let her in his house again, even when she returned with his first grandchild, a boy.  So my Grandmother took what she had learned in her Irish tenement kitchen and added what her German mother-in-law was willing to share. But cooking wasn’t her first interest by any means. She preferred singing, dancing and playing the piano.

When I was growing up, my dad had steady work as a New York City fireman who had helped hold his mother and sisters  together during the depression. (His dad had died when he was just a toddler.) When Dick was home for supper, we ate meat and potatoes and often shared the table with relatives.  My mom roasted potatoes with onions and carrots in the winter and steamed them with butter and parsley in the spring.  She baked and mashed them to go with steaks and chops. I loved all varieties except my brother’s favorite,  the mashed, which we ate a lot. Richard was a picky eater and my mother was afraid he wouldn’t eat enough to grow up strong unless she gave him what he wanted.

When my mother was older, she began sharing stories from her childhood, or maybe that was when I started listening as I wasn’t so interested in the topic when I was little. She told me about how much she enjoyed visiting her grandmother’s house (the German mother-in-law) in Greenpoint, in her youth. She described going to that part of Brooklyn it going to the country because there was still farmland there. Where she grew up, in Astoria, had already given way to row houses, stores and factories back then. She remembered a chilly day when she and her older brother were left to visit and she was given permission to go out and explore with him.

In an open field near by, they watched boys toss potatoes into a open fire in field. (Guy Fawkes Day, close to Halloween, is a British Isles tradition with bonfires where potatoes in their jacket are cooked) They boys knocked the ashes off a potato that was done, pierced it with a stick to lift it up and handed the potato on a stick to her brother. He blew on it a lot, before offering her a share. She found the potato with its smoky warmth particularly delicious. She shared a picture of she and her brother in front of their grandmother’s house. That memory was sweet and clear, but it triggered another one, less so. In the depression, when these local lads had grown up, many were out of work and took to selling things on street corners. There were so many Irishmen with fire-baked potatoes in their jackets for sale, that the taters took on the nickname of Mickies.

After telling that story, I am inclined not to think about the Mickies more overstuffed American cousin, the fully-loaded baked potato but to appreciate the pleasure of a simple, straightforward oven baked potato with a crusty, crunchy, salty skin and a tender flesh that mashes to the touch of the fork and runs with rivulets of butter. Don’t even think of microwaving it! The taste and texture are entirely different.

Potatoes Baked in their Jackets

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A meal on its own from simpler days or a filling side

Ingredients

-2 russet potatoes

-kosher salt

-salted butter to taste

-optional green onions or chives

Directions

-Select even sized brown-skinned potatoes without green spots or sprouting eyes.

-Preheat oven to 375.

-Scrub the potatoes with a brush, rinse, pat off any dripping water but leave damp.

-Roll in coarse salt. You will get a crisp and crunchy crust to the potato.

-Prick deeply with the tines of fork (to keep the water turned to steam from exploding.) Bake for an hour, check by pressing with a potholder. If the potato gives to your touch, it’s ready to take out of the oven.

-Prick each potato deeply and closely, in a line along the top of the potato.  Disturbing as little of the salt crystals as possible, push in each side of the potato from below the line, splitting it open the long way.

-Place a pat of butter. If you have and like chopped chives or green onions, sprinkle them over the butter.

 

Advertisements

The Second Amendment, Who Knew?

I was sitting with friends from college days when the conversation turned serious. We had been eschewing all things political for a while to avoid overheated discussion, but gun control had raised its head once more and we wanted to refer to the second amendment but needed to know exactly what its wording was to argue any points about it.

With cellphones at hand, this was easy to answer. The second Amendment says “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed¹.” That’s how it’s worded, but what does it mean?  Legal scholars argue about the exact relations between the first half, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” and the second half, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  I don’t expect to shed new light on that issue. But in doing some homework on the history of the second amendment, I myself didn’t have a good picture of the “militia” that the founders had in mind.

The American colonial experience had created distrust of power among many of our founding fathers. Originally, colonists were often tempted to settle in the new world by promises of tax exemption for a time.  But as time past and the British themselves bore most of the high cost of the French and Indian War, they began to levy taxes, first on imports into the colonies and then directly on the colonists. The Stamp Act of 1765 taxed paper colonists used. This included newspapers, and every legal and commercial document they wrote. When colonists resisted paying tax for the stamp that would allow them to use their documents, they were pursued by British customs inspectors who held writs of assistance granted to them by Parliament. The writs allowed them to enter colonists’ homes and search through all their belongings looking for contraband, even when the agents had no evidence at all that unstamped materials were in their possession.

After the Revolutionary War, the Federalists focused on the responsibilities of the states and their citizens in creating and maintaining  their own government. But the anti-Federalists feared granting the new American government too much power and at the beginning of 1879 only 11 states had signed on to be part of the new union. The Federalists realized that they needed to reassure the anti-Federalists. Therefore in 1789, they agreed to a proposal amending the new government’s constitution by spelling out what became the Bill of Rights.

The second of the ten amendments, ratified by ¾ of the state legislatures, includes the word militia. “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  A standing army is a corps of professional soldiers. States in the union would not have standing armies, but they would be authorized to call upon militias.  A militia is an army of citizens that can be convened to respond to emergencies.  After the crisis is resolved, the men (only able-bodied, adult males in that time) returned to their ordinary lives and professions.

But who today knows that at the time of the Bill of Rights, state militias (like colonial militias before them) wasn’t expected to arrive  at a central location, an armory, where government weapons were stored? Instead they were expected to arrive at their local assembly points with their weapons and ammunition, which they kept in their homes, in hand. The picture above shows members of the New York State militia. Here is the language the New York legislature used to authorize the militia of 1786.

“Every male able bodied citizen shall enroll in …(his local company, and) every Citizen so enrolled and notified shall, within three Months provide himself, at his own Expense, with a good Musket or Firelock, a sufficient Bayonet and Belt, a Pouch with a Box therein to contain not less than Twenty-four Cartridges suited to the Bore of his Musket or Firelock, each Cartridge containing a proper Quantity of Powder and Ball, two spare Flints, a Blanket and Knapsack; . . .²”

(1) https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript

(2) quotation from 307 US versus Miller 1939 https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/307/174/case.html

Bitter Greens

In search of a winter meal that’s quick and nutritions ?  We’re eating fewer cold salads this time of year, but still need the nutrient value of greens. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts fit the bill, but are dense and take time to cook.  Arugula, also called rocket, is another brassica and is quick and delicious cooked. So you may want to add it to your winter shopping list too. All three of these vegetables are members of the Brassica family and their complex taste includes a bitter note.

This bitterness comes from toxins that plants employs to discourage predators. Bitterness forewarns us of potential poisoning. We humans have what amounts to a single type of taste receptor for sweetness, but something like fifty different varieties of taste receptors to detect bitter tastes.  Poisoning is serious business after all!

In an interesting irony, however, the molecules that create bitter flavor include antioxidants, which have helpful properties in their mix. They appear to fight off inflection, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  So there is reason ancient herbalists had recipes for “bitter greens” in their healing files and that we have a resurgence of interest in eating them today.

So, I’m weaving the antioxidants of the brassica family into two quick and easy meals by recommending that you consider adding chopped arugula to eggs and bacon and stuffing grilled cheese with cooked greens.  Both recipes bring Vitamins C and D as a winter boost and ask you to consider the paradoxical nature of bitterness.


Green Eggs, No Ham

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A fast and easy breakfast of eggs and greens in winter


Ingredients

  • 1 egg
  • 1 wedge Laughing Cow spreadable Swiss with Garlic and Herbes
  • 1 slice bacon, natural, no nitrates, center cut
  • arugula, as much as you can hold in one fist
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • olive oil spray
  • 1/2 tsp. Italian herbs
  • pinch dried red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. Crazy Jane’s Salt and pepper (or your own salt and pepper)

Directions

  • Finely chop the arugula. I hold the bunch together with my left hand (finger tops bend in protectively) and thin slice with a chef’s knife. This is called a chiffonade.)
  • Heat a skillet at medium. Brown the bacon, turning once.
  • Chop the onion. Cut the cheese wedge into smaller pieces. Crack the eggs and sprinkle with the Italian herbs, red pepper and salt and pepper.
  • Remove cooked bacon to a paper towel. Drain the fat from the pan except for the lightest of coatings. Add the chopped onion. Reduce to low. Cover to sweat the onion (bring out its moisture.) Turn the onion with a spatula and top it with the chiffonade of arugula. Cover again.)
  • Add 1/2 Tbs. water to the egg and beat. Add the lumps of cheese and stir.
  • Take pan off heat. Reserve greens to cutting board. Spray pan with oil or add a little remaining bacon drippings.
  • Over medium heat add eggs and cheese to scramble. When about half scrambled, it thickens quickly, add the chopped greens over half the mixture and flip up the bottom to cover the greens. In the empty area of the pan, return the bacon to reheat.
  • Remove and plate when eggs are done to your taste.

 

Jump in….the Water’s Warm

My early teachers splashed cold water on original thinking.  There wasn’t room in their classes for a difference of opinion or even an honest struggle to understand what they were teaching or why.  Instead, all ideas were to be swallowed whole–as though they were self-evident–and then recapitulated on demand. This process made learning lose its wonder.

As I grew older, thankfully, the teachers used a different method. They introduced me to a  “conversation” that had been going on for generations. “The Great Conversation,” as they called this dialogue, reflected our search to understand what it means to be born human, to find–or create–a place for ourselves, to understand and utilize our environment and, if we are fortunate,  how to live our lives well and to contribute to a society that enhances not only our well being but also that of all of us and our planet.

Their ideas were not developed in a vacuum, but built on, and against, each other’s ideas, inspirations, remembrances and writings. This dialogue was not closed either.  Much prevailing wisdom was generations old, but much had changed in over time and dropped out as well. But I too could learn about and enter the dialogue.

There was an etiquette required to participation. To engage in dialogue implies an exchange, a going back and forth, the building of a relationship.  Newcomers can certainly put out their own thoughts and experiences, but they cannot make knowledgeable comments about those who came before unless they decipher and digest their ideas–particularly those arguments already widely and convincingly disseminated, before they can engage with them in a meaningful way.  Additionally– at least in the curated ring of classroom debate–serious discussion, probing, rejoinders, all require that positions be developed dispassionately, that is with logic, evidence and awareness of frame of reference, not with force of personality or power.
Great thinkers transform the world by helping us see and understand its deeper, sometimes hidden dimensions.  Aristotle said that philosophy–the love of wisdom–begins in “wonder.”  It also requires rising to challenges, defending or modifying positions in the face of new arguments, new evidence. We humans continue to wonder. We wonder why things work. We wonder whether things need to be as they are. We wonder what would they would be like if we did things differently.

I hope you find things on this site (and contribute them to it as well) that inspire perplexity and curiosity, that make you wonder about what you know and what you have yet to learn. I invite you to wade into the waters of discussion here,  without preconceived notions of what you might discover, feeling safe to explore, respond and share.