This is my friend J. He’s out of his comfort zone here, wearing an apron in a cooking class and brandishing a ricer. The kitchen is not his natural habitat, and yet here he’s making a dish of creamy potatoes flavored with mascarpone cheese and butter that will be the best-tasting thing produced from a Las Vegas-styled menu of steakhouse favorites.
My friend S (his wife) and my husband B are equally busy, as am I, trying to absorb the lessons taught last Saturday night at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi. We’ve each got a task, and instructor Mary Lee flits between students (14 in all) offering help and advice after a brief lecture on the recipes we’re making. Her southern drawl is distractingly rich, as if the pages of The Help have come to life before us (the movie was filmed here), but instead of talking about Minny’s chocolate pie, Mary Lee is describing how to sear steaks and spin egg yolks into a zabaglione flavored with horseradish. The atmosphere is fun and a little chaotic, and we all come away with new knowledge and full bellies.
Here’s what J made.
Pancetta Mashed Potatoes, adapted from a recipe provided by the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi, which credits the Las Vegas restaurant Carnevino as the source of a similar dish. © Viking Range Corporation
2 ounces pancetta or bacon (Viking’s recipe originally called for guanciale, which is Italian cured pork cheeks. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to come by in Greenwood, Mississippi, so the cooking school substituted pancetta.)
1 pound russet potatoes (about 2 medium), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for additional seasoning
About 4 cups cold water
1/3 cup half-and-half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Cook the pancetta or bacon in a medium sauté pan over medium heat until the meat is crisp. Remove from the pan, and place on paper towels to drain. Set aside.
Place the potatoes in a medium sauce pan with enough cold water to cover. Cover the pot, and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt, then reduce heat so that the water is at a rapid simmer. Test potatoes for doneness after 7 minutes for 1/2-inch dice or up to 20 minutes for larger potato pieces. Potatoes should be tender when pierced with tip of a small knife. (Take care not to overcook, which will cause the potatoes to disintegrate.)
Drain the liquid, reserving the potatoes in the sauce pan. Return the pan to the burner with the heat reduced to medium for a minute or two, shaking the pan periodically, so that any excess liquid evaporates. Press the potatoes through a ricer into a large mixing bowl. (If you don’t have a ricer, just dump the potatoes into the bowl and mash thoroughly.)
Heat the half-and-half and butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat until the butter has melted. Stir the hot liquid and room-temperature mascarpone cheese into the potatoes. Add a little more hot half-and-half if the mixture seems dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer to a serving dish.
Sprinkle top with crumbled pieces of the cooked pancetta or bacon, along with chopped parsley. Serve hot. Makes enough for 4.
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So I went to class on Saturday night, but I was schooled on Sunday morning.
I’m not a native southerner, although I’ve lived in the American south most of my life. (Whispering now, because this is tantamount to treason in these parts: I don’t like grits.) I don’t like grits! But I’m a willing student, and I keep trying tastes of the small list of foods I really don’t care for, in case some new iteration changes my mind. I’d be crazy as a june bug if I didn’t try the cheese grits on the breakfast buffet at The Alluvian Hotel in Mississippi. If a cook can’t make tasty grits in the middle of the Mississippi Delta at the manufacturing home of the Viking range, then it just can’t be done.
In the buffet line, holding a plate, I waited my turn as a young man scooped fried potatoes next to a heap of scrambled eggs on his own plate. Then he rolled back the lid to the chafing dish full of cheese grits and attempted to ladle some out. Layers and layers of grits had congealed upon the ladle so that all semblance of a scoop had disappeared under the sludge. As I watched, the man gamely mounded more on the utensil and attempted to affect an avalanche of sorts onto his plate, with gravity spurring a slow flow as he held the ladle upright and high. I was dismayed but undeterred as he returned the ladle to its resting place. Oh, saving grace: one of the kitchen staff approached to assess which serving dishes needed refilling, and I held up the ladle with its gluey mask of grits and cheese and asked her for a replacement. She gave me an appraising look, took the ladle, and whacked it hard three times against the stainless steel rim of the chafing dish without saying a word. Cheese grits slid in a solid mass back into the yellow depths of the chafer, and the ladle emerged winking silver, a mere few grits attached, its bowl visible again. The woman silently held the utensil out to me, her gaze level and polite, and I knew I’d been schooled. I accepted the ladle and the lesson with humility.
The cheese grits were delicious.
(Whispering again: I really hate sausage gravy on biscuits.)