Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The amazing disappearing potatoes

I’ve been passionate about cooking for so long that I often forget that there was a time when I didn’t know how to boil an egg*.

I was making baked potatoes last night and it reminded me of the first time I tried this very simple culinary undertaking. It was in the 1980s and I was living in Woodstock in Cape Town. I was pregnant with my first child and experiencing all the mental aberrations of that state, including a brain utterly incapable of retaining even the simplest bit of information for more than a few seconds.

Feeling unusually domestic, I decided to whip myself up something for dinner rather than grabbing my customary salome** from the corner café. There were potatoes in the house, so I cranked the oven up to 180 degrees and chucked a couple in. Then I retired to the sofa with a book to wait for them to be ready.

About half an hour later, I heard what I took to be gunshots. This wasn’t an unusual sound for Woodstock in the ’80s, so I just hauled myself off the sofa and went around checking that all the doors and windows were locked, then returned to my book.

Another half hour later, I went to retrieve my potatoes from the oven, fully expecting to be able to tuck into a lovely hot meal. So I was a little surprised to find the oven empty.

I say ‘a little’ surprised because during my pregnancy I’d already done several amazingly stupid things, including throwing dirty clothes in the bin and carefully putting rubbish in the laundry basket, so I concluded that I’d only thought I’d put the potatoes into the oven but hadn’t actually done so.

So I resigned myself to another hour’s wait before I could eat, and chucked another couple of potatoes in.

This time, when the double salvo sounded, something about the timing – about half an hour after I’d put the potatoes in the oven – made me wonder if they were gunshots after all. That, and the fact that the noise seemed to be coming from the kitchen. I went and looked, and discovered that both the first and the second batch of potatoes had simply exploded in the oven, disintegrating so thoroughly that there was literally nothing left of them (if you don’t count the fine layer of half-cooked potato that coated the oven’s interior).

That’s how I learnt that, when you bake potatoes, you have to prick the skin before you put them in the oven.

* And I still can’t make a drinkable cup of tea or successfully cook any rice other than basmati.

** For non-South Africans who don’t know what a salome is, it’s a fabulously butter-rich, textured flatbread called a roti filled with a veggie or meat curry and rolled up into a lip-smacking feast. You can shop-buy rotis to make them, but it’s very easy to home-make them – as my friend Pieter and I recently discovered, when all I was required to contribute to a curry meal was the rotis, and I didn’t realise that the entire bloody country (including all the big grocery stores) actually does close down on Good Friday. So we were required to home-make them at short notice, and they were a thousand times more delicious than the prepackaged ones.

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