Last week, some of the people in my downtown Southside condo building were trying to figure out who The Cook on the third floor is. Every place has one. Y’know, there’s The Cook in the office who brings homemade cookies to work (and bless their darlin’ hearts when they bring them on Mondays). Or The Cook in your congregation. And The Cook in the family who makes all the holiday feasts deliciously memorable.
“Don’t know who’s doing all the cooking, but the whole floor smells so good all the time!” my third-floor friends said.
I had a suspicion that The Cook on the third floor was a friendly young woman named Alexa. When we run into each other, we usually end up talking about food and food sites like Chow.com, and we keep promising each other that we’ll have dinner together. I saw Alexa Sunday, and told her people were raving about her cooking.
“Oh, it’s not me, it’s Jason!” she said. Jason’s her boyfriend. “He cooks everything. When it’s my turn to make dinner, we have cereal!”
Meet Jason—The Cook of the third floor.
Jason’s cooking is about comfort, simplicity, and quality. His favorite kitchen tool is his blue Le Creuset enameled cast iron dutch oven; his favorite television chef is Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, and right now he’s really into mid-20th century recipes, like the famous James Beard burger. “I started making Steak Diane recently,” he says. (Steak Diane is filet mignon with a pan sauce, and it’s flambéed with brandy at the table.) “It’s easier than people think, and it’s a spectacle. We’ve forgotten about these recipes.”
Jason says he learned to cook out of necessity as a latch-key kid–once, 8 or 9 and home alone, he took all the spices from the cabinet and thought if he mixed them together he would create something incredibly awesome tasting (not!). He watched Julia Child, Frugal Gourmet Jeff Smith, and other PBS cooking shows. (Julia, he says, taught him how to make an omelet. “She did it with sprezzatura, careful effortlessness,” he says.) For college, he left Alabama and went to San Francisco to study art–and says that’s where he started to evolve as a cook. “I didn’t have to cook for anyone, so I started to experiment. And there were such fresh vegetables, cheeses–every once in a while I got some illegal cheese (raw milk cheese) which was really good. Great bread, wine… and creme fraiche is such a weakness.”
After specializing in geometric abstract art, Jason moved back to Alabama, where he now cooks for Alexa. (And tortures everyone on the third floor.) For Jason, food is like art. “Food shouldn’t be pretentious. Like art, it should be enjoyed on a basic level.”
When I asked him for a recipe, he instantly thought of potatoes. “You can make anyone happy with good potatoes,” he says. His recipe is below. Time to get happy!
A note: I’m going to be away from Birmingham for the next few weeks, so two members of the Birmingham Foodie Book Club, Jason Horn and Tina Artman, will be guest blogging until I return early November 2010.
Flavor these mashed potatoes with one of two luscious oils: Either white truffle oil or a homemade infused herb oil. Jason really hadn’t thought about specific amounts until he sat down to write this out for me, which suggests that you can play with the cream, butter, oil, and seasoning you add. He also tastes as he cooks, so let your palate be your guide, too.
serves 6 generously
3 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup (or more) heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons white truffle oil or infused herb oil (recipe below)
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes until they’re done (you should be able to jab them to their centers easily with a fork or toothpick).
In a small saucepan, combine the cream, butter, and either the truffle oil or the herb oil. Heat the cream mixture over medium-low heat until the cream is scalded (basically, you heat it until right before it boils). Remove the cream mixture from the heat.
In a large bowl, mash the cooked potatoes with a fork or a potato masher.
Pour the cream mixture over the mashed potatoes and mix them together until smooth. Serve immediately.
Make this several hours ahead of time to let the flavors of the herbs infuse the oil.
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh marjoram
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
In a blender, combine all the ingredients, and purée until well-blended. Pour into a jar and let the oil and herbs infuse for several hours. Strain the oil before using for a less grainy texture in your finished potatoes; or, you can use it without straining it.