Saturday, October 23, 2010

Perfect Hash Browns

The classic American breakfast, eaten millions of times every morning in cafes and restaurants across the U.S., most often includes eggs, hash browns, and toast. The hash browns are the iffiest part of the meal. Just about any breakfast joint can turn out a decent version of eggs-over-easy, but good hash browns are another story.  Still, they are always worth ordering, because when hash browns are done right, they are fantastic: crispy brown on the outside, and soft and yielding on the inside – without being gooey.  The shreds of potato should retain their shape without being completely separate from each other – that is, you do not want a homogenous mass of smooshed potato, and you do not want matchstick potatoes – or worse yet, something that looks like a forkful of pale worms.  When you find a cafĂ© that makes proper hash browns, all is right with the world.
My early attempts to make hash browns at home were disasters.  After dozens of unsuccessful efforts, I came to the conclusion that restaurants used Secret Ingredients or Special Equipment or Advanced Techniques or Black Magic to achieve that crispy-creamy hash brown magic.  So I did what most sane people do when confronted with the unattainable.  I gave up.  I turned to grits, to oatmeal, to pancakes, to scrapple…
But what I really wanted with my eggs was some fantastic hash browns.  Sigh.
A couple of years ago I bought a cheap Japanese slicer and went crazy for a while slicing everything edible.  Also, my fingers.  I decided to take another run at the Holy Grail that is Perfect Hash Browns.
I am pleased to report that I have had some success.
Perfect Hash Browns (for one*)
What you need:
• A medium-size potato**
• A nonstick skillet (any size) with a cover
• 1 tablespoon butter
• Salt (to taste)
Excellent hash browns can be made from any potato variety, but for perfect hash browns, I recommend a mature russet.  In other words, a “baking" potato. 
Step One: Peel and shred the potato.  I use a Benriner slicer, but you could use a cheese grater, the shredding disk on a food processor, or a knife (tedious).  How fine or coarse the shred is up to you - there are many versions of "perfect." 
Whatever tool you choose (Secret Technique coming), shred the potato into a big bowl of water.  Stir it around a bit.  See how milky the water becomes?  That starchy stuff coming off the potato is (ahem) potato starch, and will turn your hash browns into a gluey mess if you let it. You can leave the potatoes in the water for a few seconds, or for hours. 
11111Pour the shredded, soaked potatoes into a strainer.  Rinse them under running water to get rid of most of the starch. Now (here comes the Black Magic) dump the wet shredded potatoes onto a clean dish towel, gather the corners of the towel together, and twist the towel to wring the water from the potatoes. Give it a good twist. Lots of water will come out.
Put a tablespoon or so of butter in your a nonstick skillet. (You could use a combination of butter and oil, but do not eliminate all the butter – that’s what gets you that nice hash brown color.)  Heat skillet.  When the butter has melted but is not yet brown, sprinkle the shredded, semi-dry potatoes into the pan. Spread them evenly. Neaten up the edges if you wish, but DO NOT press the potatoes down with the spatula – you want hash browns, not a potato hockey puck. Loose is good. Those air spaces allow the heat and steam from the pan to wend its way up through the shredded potato. Add salt. Sometimes I throw in a pinch of white pepper, but that’s just me.
Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover pan.  Let it cook for about eight minutes, then take a look.  If the potatoes are brown around the edges, they are ready to turn.  If they aren’t getting brown, turn up the heat a bit and give it a couple more minutes.  If the edges are black, you had the heat too high.  Start over.
Shake the pan to make sure the potatoes aren’t sticking, then flip.  You won’t need a spatula. Or maybe you will.
Cook for another five to ten minutes. Leave the skillet uncovered for this stage – you want the top of the hash browns to stay nice and crispy.
Slide onto a plate. Perfect!
Even better!
*To make hash browns for several people, use a bigger pan, but keep the depth of the potato layer about the same. Flipping can be tricky. Good luck.
**This basic technique also works with other vegetables: zucchini, sweet potato, winter squash, beets, parsnip, etc. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pumpkin Update

Just back from two days of library visits in Columbus, Ohio. The squirrels have been busy.

Columbus was great.  I got to spend hours with librarian (and soon-to-be-published novelist) Julie Scordato, visit six libraries, and eat ice cream at Jeni's.  As usual, I forgot to take any pictures.  Oh well.

While I was there, I did a video interview with Doug Dangler for Writers Talk.  You can view it here.

Or not!  I guess my interview isn't posted yet.  Check back in couple of weeks.  In the meantime, you can watch John Green's interview instead.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Halloween Horror

Yesterday there was a beautiful five pound pumpkin sitting proudly on our front steps.  Today?  The squirrels had a feast.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Duck Stamp!

The winner of the 2010 Federal Duck Stamp Contest has just been announced.  Two of my brothers entered this year – Bob and Jim.  Out of 236 entries, their paintings were numbers one and two.  Woo-hoo! 

First place went to Jim for his painting of a pair of white-fronted geese.

Second place went to Bob for his painting of a single white-fronted goose.

Third place?  To quote from the movie A Serious Man, “Who cares?”

My brothers are so amazing cool I can hardly stand it.  Mary isn’t home at the moment, so I’m going to go jump up and down with Rene and Jacques (the poodles) now.  Jacques knows something is going on – he’s giving me the stink eye.

Late-breaking news:  Jim finished in a tie with brother Bob after three rounds. Jim's entry won the tie-breaker.

Ten Reasons Why Not

There are a lot of writers - both published and unpublished - who want to write novels for teens, better known as "YA" novels. Having worked with several such writers, I've noticed that in many cases their motivations are often not exactly, shall we say, useful. Or realistic.
Herewith, the Ten Worst Reasons to Write a YA Novel:
1. For fame
2. For fortune
3. To tell teens how they should act
4. To tell teens what it was like when you were a kid
5. To gain the respect and admiration of your peers
6. To gain the respect and admiration of your children
7. Because you think it will be easier than writing an adult novel
8. Because you think it doesn't have to be as good as an adult novel
9. To relive your teenage years
10. To revise your teenage years
The best reasons? I'll leave that up to you.