My father was not a patient man, which is fairly remarkable considering the nature of his work; he was a farmer and a carpenter. He was particularly not patient with people and did not suffer fools or children (including my sister Rae and me) gladly. There were a few things he learned to be patient about though; and one of those was fried potatoes.
He loved frying raw potatoes; adding a little salt, pepper, raw onion slices and butter. Shortly after my parents were married, in 1946, after a seven-year engagement that lasted all through WWII, they moved into an old house in the country in north central North Dakota. Since they were both in their thirties, they had both lived independently and had their own cookware, dishes, kitchen routines, and all the rest. My parents were both excellent cooks, my Mother sticking more to tried and true recipes and my Father being more adventurous, loving the foods he grew up with; one of them fried potatoes.
In their newly-combined kitchen they each contributed cast iron skillets, well-used and just perfect for one person—a little small for two. One winter evening, my Father started to make some fried potatoes and was doing quite well with them. They need careful attention and frequent turning and just the right amount of butter to avoid being greasy, or burnt, or raw in the center, or overdone and mushy—they need patience and attention. Somehow my Father’s attention strayed and the skillet full of potatoes started to burn. By the time he got to them the bottom layer had blackened to the point of smoking and were stuck to the bottom of the pan.
In a fit of impatience, he grabbed a potholder and took the skillet, which was my mother’s, walked over to the kitchen door, opened it on an icy blast of North Dakota January night and heaved the skillet, potholder, spatula and all into the snowbank by the back door. There it sat until my Mother retrieved it the next morning, emptied it, then took the skillet out by the machine shed and tossed it onto the pile of scrap iron, the sort of scrap iron that every farm had by the machine shed.
After a breakfast table discussion and a new skillet purchase (big enough for two or three people) my Father began to learn patience in the making of fried potatoes and by the time Rae and I were old enough to appreciate such sophisticated fare he made the best fried potatoes I have had in my life. Better than I make right now. They were just crispy on the outside and soft but not mushy on the inside, with just the right amounts of salt, pepper and caramelized onion, and just enough butter so they wouldn’t stick to the big old black cast-iron skillet—yet they were never greasy.
One of my memories of my Father is of him standing at the stove one December afternoon in his gray sweater, wearing his winter house slippers (not the thin summer ones), making fried potatoes in the big old black cast-iron skillet he had bought for his new wife almost fifty years ago–the late afternoon winter sun filtering through the kitchen window and mingling with the rising steam from the skillet, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the sounds of our voices, the soft sizzling from the pan, and the heavenly scent of fried potatoes filling the kitchen as the sun slowly set.
I never use raw potatoes for my home fries. I guess I still haven’t learned to be patient—at least not with potatoes. If you like, a few fresh herbs make a great addition near the end of the frying. Basil, thyme, savory, parsley or tarragon are all excellent. A little Parmesan cheese on each serving is good, also. I usually go with just salt and pepper and think of my father…
3 or 4 medium red potatoes, scrubbed clean, eyes and spots removed 1 small mild yellow onion, and cut into thin rings and separated
freshly ground black pepper
Boil the potatoes whole in their peelings until a fork can just be inserted into the flesh of each potato. Drain immediately and allow the potatoes to cool to room temperature (about 60-70 minutes). Cut each potato into quarters and then each quarter section into thick slices. Place about two Tablespoons of butter into a large heavy cast iron or non-stick skillet over medium low heat. When the butter has melted, add all the potatoes and the onion at one time. Toss in the hot butter until well coated, then add salt and pepper to taste. Turn the potatoes constantly, adding just enough butter to keep the potatoes from sticking to the pan. Right before you decide they are done to the crispiness that you love add more salt and pepper (if desired); give them another toss or two and place them in a big bowl in the center of the table. Don’t forget the ketchup…
Serves 2 – 3