Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pan Haggerty

The refrigerator has little to offer and the homestead has no meat to speak of save for a few slightly old rashers of bacon languishing in the dairy drawer. Despite a bit of a slushy melt, the weather promises to be cold and dreary. I needed something warming, comforting and requiring few ingredients. The pantry provided a half dozen russet potatoes, and the wife recently purchased a veritable cinderblock of well-aged Canadian cheddar. This all pointed towards an old British classic, Pan Haggerty; the perfect fix.  This is one of my favourite kinds of comfort foods for which a heavy cast iron pan, reminiscent of campfire cooking, is plunked right down in the middle of the table and everyone just tucks in. Cast iron holds onto its heat incredibly well, so the pan itself radiates warmth like a miniature brazier where one can warm ones hands after a slog outside shovelling snow.  I was nearly tempted to drag the family to the backyard so we could really enjoy the rustic dynamic of this dish. Nearly.

The inspiration for this classic peasant dish actually came from a co-worker who had attended a live event featuring Lidia Bastianich over the weekend. The famous Italian-American chef was in Toronto for a cooking demo. One of the dishes Lidia demonstrated was frico; a classic cucina pauvre dish of potatoes, cheese and onions from the north of Italy. This got me thinking. England has its own version of this: Pan Haggerty, a specialty of the north which similarly  includes only three ingredients: typically potatoes, onions and cheddar. Cabbage is sometimes an option, but I went the other direction and added bacon. I also added a bunch of interesting herbage and gilded the top with panko. This criminal bastardization of the dish is likely punishable by drawing and quartering in Northumberland, but in my kitchen, such insolence is not only permitted, but encouraged.

This one-pan supper is best accompanied by a hearty green salad and spicy ketchup (see my recipe for spicy ketchup here). I eschewed my usual glass of wine and instead washed this fine supper down with a cold pint of ale - a fitting accompaniment. Whisky would also be a propos.

Pan Haggerty

4-6 good sized russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into quarter-inch slices
1 whole onion, sliced thinly
4 rashers of bacon
1/2 cup aged Canadian cheddar (at least one year old), grated
1 tbs of fresh thyme
6 fresh sage leaves
1/4 cup of panko or homemade bread crumb

Get your potatoes into some salted boiling water and cook them until they are just starting to go soft but not falling apart. Now very carefully, remove them and spread them out on a drying rack so they can dry off a bit. In the mean time, fry off the bacon in a heavy cast iron pan and then remove to drain on some kitchen towel. Once cool enough to handle, cut the bacon down into small pieces (think crumble). Then get you onions right into the bacon fat and cook them down so that they soften and start to become golden - say eight or nine minutes. Then remove them and set them aside. Now turn off the heat and let the pan cool a wee bit, but not completely. Now cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of the potato slices (careful, the pan is a bit hot, but doing it this way prevents stickage). They will be delicate because they've been par cooked, but don't worry if they crumble a bit, it will all work out in the end. Once the bottom of the pan is covered in potatoes, than sprinkle on half the onions, half the bacon, some of the cheese, some thyme and salt and pepper. Then over that, make another layer of the potatoes and on that, put the rest of the onions, the rest of the bacon and some more cheese (but leave some cheese behind for the top). Also toss on the rest of the thyme along with some more salt and pepper. Finally, cover the top with the rest of your potatoes to form a sort of lid. The amount of layers that you get really depends on how big your spuds are and the dimensions of the pan. It doesn't really matter in the end if you only get two layers or six - just adjust as you go. Anyway, once the layers are done, squash everything down a bit and smooth out the potatoes so that is starts to resemble a pie. Now on top, sprinkle the rest of the cheese and the bread crumbs. Drizzle a bit of oil over the bread crumbs and then place the sage leaves around the top. Get the pan into a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes, and then brown the top a bit with the broiler. Remove and using a trivet or some other implement to protect a surface, plunk the whole blessed pan in the middle of the table. Just remind the kids not to touch the pan, it is hot (my kids like to learn things the hard way). This goes well on its own with a nice salad (as we had it), but the English way is often to serve this with some proper Cumberland sausages. Either way, it is comfort food at its finest.

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