Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Lemony Roast Potatoes


We take for granted the lemon. Without thinking much of it restaurant kitchens strategically place a slice for no reason other than cheap looks. Waiters garnish someone's Pellegrino because that's what she's seen everyone else do.

Completely underrated my favorite fruit is. Yes, it is a fruit. Albeit an aromatic one that we use more as a condiment to enliven and invigorate a recipe or a food instead of biting into it whole and raw. But I cannot imagine my kitchen life without it.

A squeeze from the fresh fruit can elevate a dank lentil soup into a balanced, nourishing bowl. The kind of food that staves off winter chills but reminds you of the upcoming promises of sunshine. My Microplane grater I use mostly for grating cheese and also zest. Usually, I'll add both to a pasta that I've made too bosomy with cream. The whiff of delicate zest strands somehow makes my carbonara actually seem somewhat healthy.

I'm a fan of all things tart and sour. I've been known to go on Sour Patch Kids or sour rope binges at the movie theatres because that's the only place nowadays I can find the flat, ribbon like type instead of the shoelace strings. I love tart fruits - passion fruit, beguiling and flamboyant, pink grapefruits. But I have to have my lemon. It's sunshine incarnate, the friendliest way to stare at the sun. And the only way I know how to actually lick sunshine.

I'm not ashamed to say I put it in just about everything I cook. I consider a half juiced lemon, crusting away on the counter, or molding silently away in the fridge a felony. Throw away a lemon that's hardened because you used the zest in a tea cake, but forgot to squeeze the juice into some sub par tap water, and you've just committed second degree solecide. At the very least, skin-conscious people can rub the juicy pulp onto elbows for a quick "exfoliation" thanks to citric acid and other things you might find in an Aveda treatment.

In the winter, it's a salve, balancing out the cold and dark. And in spring, it's the harbinger of the flavors to come. Both the workhorse and the purebed that always elicits compliments, especially when it's cooked. Preserved lemons, salted and cured until the rind is soft and briny, are something more people should use and adore. Sliced and roasted with chicken until the schmaltz and acid are one -- the easiest gravy known in kitchendom.

When I found myself chicken-less, I threw the lemons into the roasting pan anyway. Only this time, there were large chunks of potatoes to keep them company. Roasted tender and fluffy, it's comfort food spiked with a smile. The greenery came about thanks to a friend and her amazing grow box whose abundance guarantees me a special delivery when the sun first starts to peak through. The lemon cooks to an oozing softness. The edges caramelize a bit, blunting the sharp acerbic character of the fresh stuff. Like going from Doris Day to Lauren Becall.

How appropriate then to marry the comfort of starch with this sunshine and the coming green of warmer times? I eat this alone, no meat necessary. But it's completely at home in the company of a spring roast chicken or the Easter roast lamb.


You can adjust the cooking temperature just by changing the size of the potato chunks. If you've got a leg of lamb in the oven for a few hours, it's worth it to have the potatoes in large chunks (I love cutting into them with a knife and fork as if they were a steak) transforming slowly but surely with the meat. But if you're in a hurry, a fine dice works just as well.

Serves 6 to 8

6 to 8 large potatoes, peeled and chopped (russets or the gargantuan Yukon golds I've seen at the market lately; figure one potato per person if you've got more folks to feed)  *   4 cloves of whole, unpeeled garlic   *   1 to 2 lemons, washed well and sliced thinly   *   4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil   *  fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, marjoram (optional)   *   3 big handfuls of washed spinach leaves   *   salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the potatoes, garlic, lemons into a large baking dish (glass and ceramic ones are ideal), in a single layer, if possible. If not, it's just an excuse to spy into the oven every so often to rotate the jumble with a fork. Drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat the pieces. Add the herbs. Place in the oven and let cook about 30 minutes (for larger chunks). Press on the spinach leaves and use a piece of foil to now cover the pan. You're steaming the spinach with the lemony juices. Return to the oven and cook another 10 to 15 minutes until spinach has completely wilted from the gentle aromatic steam and the potatoes are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper and serve with a spring roast chicken, a leg of lamb, or even with a hunk of your favorite stinky ceese.