I wish there was a way to tally friendship in the kitchen. How many recipes were inspired throughout history by friends or for friends? How many meals were shared in convivial collaboration between one cook and another? How many dishes were dissected? Techniques taught? Secrets traded? How many hours were spent by friends, with friends, for friends tasting, touching, and talking about food?
I bet the number is in the billions. A billion hours. A billion recipes. A billion friends. I bet it is a safe assumption to say that friendship in the kitchen has been a major influence on the culinary world since the caveman days when everybody cooked, and then subsequently ate, together, around an open fire. Aside from health, friendship must surely be the foundation of food. The building block of life.
This weekend we are featuring a recipe that is friend friendly. It was created by two best pals – James Beard and Helen Evans Brown in 1955 and highlights the diverse possibilities of the outdoor grill. On the menu today, it’s Savoy Potatoes, a tipple topple stack of thinly sliced potatoes tucked between layers of cheese and dotted with herbs and butter. The recipe was part of the Frills for the Grill chapter from Helen and James’ Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery.
Frills for the grill indeed. The fun of this recipe, aside from its delectable composition and fancy presentation, is that it can be made entirely out of doors from start to finish. All you need is a prep table, a cutting board, a cast iron pan, a cheese grater, a bowl and a sharp knife. Grab a friend or two to help prepare everything, and the joy begins.
Of all the vegetables to be cooked on the grill, the noble potato oftentimes gets left behind. Understandably so. They are dense and big and take a long time to cook if left whole. If they do make it to the wire racks, most recipes are not that imaginative. There’s the baked potato wrapped in tin foil, the quartered potato steamed in paper, and the mini oval-shaped potatoes par-boiled and skewered for kebabs. But this recipe presents a whole new way to look at serving potatoes hot off the grill with an elegant twist.
Presentation-wise Savoy Potatoes is lovely, with thin layers of stacked slices browned by butter and melted cheese. Caramelization leaves the potatoes on the bottom layer crispy and golden while the top layer is tender like a casserole. Most similar to Scalloped Potatoes (a.k.a. Potatoes Gratin) minus the cream, it has a hearty consistency and flavorful yet subtle depth thanks to the two cheeses and the herbs. This recipe can be made in one large round cast iron pan or many mini cast irons, depending on your preference and your available pan options. Either way, it will be delicious.
When James and Helen finally got together to create a cookbook, it was a long-time dream come true. Both were busy, well-respected cooks and authors in their own right. Helen on the West Coast, and James on the East Coast.
Supportive and encouraging of each other’s work, they each had their own unique way with food and writing, which meant there was no room for competition between them, just a sense of mutual respect, camaraderie and curiosity regarding the culinary industry they both loved.
Enamored with each other as most best friends are, their relationship was strictly platonic (Helen was married and James was gay) but they showered each other with affection and attention every chance they got. For years, they maintained an epistolary relationship where letters flew between coasts at a rapid-fire pace. In these letters, Helen and James exchanged recipes, cooking questions, industry gossip, travel adventures, menus, food samples, diets, and stories surrounding what they ate and with whom. A consistent topic of the letters were ideas bounced around about projects they could collaborate on together… a restaurant in the Hamptons, a snack shop in New York City, a kitchen store filled with books and antiques, a magazine for gourmands, a cooking school, a newspaper column. Time, distance, and scheduling made many of these ideas difficult to undertake when it came to reality, but of all the possibilities they dreamed up, a cookbook turned out to be the one idea that took shape. To their mutual excitement, in May of 1955, The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery was published by Doubleday & Company.
Helen and James’ mission for the book was to cover recipes that included all methods of outdoor cooking equipment in one place. Grills, campfires, hibachis, spit-roasts, cooking on a boat, cooking from a trailer, cooking at the beach, along with defined roles for men and women in the art of creating a jovial outdoor dining experience. Helen and James suggested that women be in charge of menu planning, market shopping, and presentation, while the guys were in charge of the actual cooking. Helen called it a night off for the ladies (grab a cocktail and a lounge chair, she suggested) while James referred to the actual task of grilling as a man’s sport and the ultimate culinary proving ground. Both viewpoints may seem a bit boxed in today, but in the 1950s when almost every homecooked family meal in households across the country was made indoors by women, this idea of getting guys involved in the meal-making process was both novel and exciting. Cookbooks began springing up on shelves across the country about this adventurous way to prepare a meal.
Gender roles aside, Savoy Potatoes is best prepared by two people, if not more. There are herbs to gather from the garden, potatoes to chop, cheese to grate, and the grill to tend to, so multiple hands are encouraged not only for practicality but for fun too.
Note: We used a charcoal grill for this recipe. Cooking times and temps may vary if you are using a gas grill.
1/4 cup butter
6 medium potatoes
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 handful of fresh thyme, chopped (optional)
Butter cast iron skillet(s) generously to prevent the potatoes from sticking during the cooking process. Combine the two cheeses together into a medium-sized bowl. Leaving the skins on, thinly slice the potatoes into rounds. Arrange a layer of potatoes inside the bottom of the buttered pan, then add a layer of cheese. Season with salt and pepper and a dab of butter. Repeat the layers of potatoes, cheese, butter, and salt and pepper again. Top with a sprinkle of fresh thyme.
Cover skillet with foil and cook on the grill over medium heat (between 280-300 degrees) until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and the cheese is thoroughly melted (about 25-30 minutes).
Remove from the grill, let cool for a few minutes and then flip the potatoes over onto a plate and serve.
At this point, the potatoes should come out of the pan in one solid piece. You don’t have to flip the potatoes over before serving them. They look appetizing on both ends, but the bottom has such a nice golden brown color and a crispy texture, it makes for a delicious first-bite introduction to this vintage recipe. The slightly smoky flavor from the grill mingles with the nuttiness of the cheese and the soft potatoes in the most tasty and aromatic of ways.
Helen and James recommended that Savoy Potatoes be served with roast beef, grilled fish, or poultry. During the hot days of summer, we liked it best as a vegetarian dinner served alongside a simple garden salad and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. In the cooler months when you crave something heartier, in addition to James and Helen’s suggestions we would recommend adding a fried egg on top and a sprinkle of chopped bacon, ham, or pancetta. A drizzle of maple syrup would add another level of interesting flavor.
Like good friends, this is a relaxed recipe. Not hard to make, it’s very accommodating when it comes to your own cooking creativity. Play around with different cheeses, and different toppings, or make it the foundation of a build-your-own-food bar and invite your friends to add their own custom toppings. Sour cream, chives, dill, smoked salmon, a variety of spices, sauteed spinach and onions, diced peppers and tomatoes, hot sauce… there are so many options that would pair equally as well with this dish.
When I asked my sister, who is one of James Beard’s biggest fans and one of my favorite people to exchange recipes with, what she liked most about his style of cooking, she shared that it was all about his universal love of food and friendship. “He felt that people could be unified through the experience of a meal no matter their country or culture.” In other words, he recognized food as the foundation of friendship. Cheers to that! Hope this recipe instigates an impromptu dinner party with your friends and family and that you love the whole experience of making it just as much as we did.
Cheers to James and Helen for this gorgeous recipe and the friendship that made it. I hope it inspires many more. If you’d like to learn more about these two culinary icons and their impact on American cooking, stop by the shop and peruse the cookbook shelf.