The Magnificence that is Boxty

“Boxty in the griddle, boxty in the pan, if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get your man”.

This underscores the love my Emerald Isle kin feel for the mighty potato bread, boxty. I’m kind of surprised my Irish grandmother didn’t impart this bit of wisdom on me herself, though I am sure if she lived to see me to marrying age, she would have.

Ahhh, boxty. Yummm, boxty! And, for those of us without Irish relatives to sing us jingles reminding us about the precipitous nature of our own marriageability, just what in the heck is boxty, anyway?

A celebration of the humble potato and a product that is greater than the sum of its parts, boxty is a combination of both mashed and grated tater, combined into one glorious foodstuff. And by stuff, I mean stuff-it-in-yo-mouth. It can be savory, it can be sweet, it can be boiled like a dumpling, baked like a loaf or, most popularly, pan- or griddle-fried, like a pancake. Today, we’ll be frying the boxty in a pan. Boxty’s name is derived either from the Gaelic “arán bocht tí”, poor house bread, or “bácús”, bake house. I lean toward the former etymology, since this is clearly peasant food. While making my boxty for this blog, I thought, what if I were a housewife in pre-famine Ireland, reliant on potatoes, with a husband who ate, so say historians, up to 6kg (or, 13 pounds, for those not on the metric system) of potatoes a day? How do you look at a pile of leftovers, think about hungry mouths, and stretch the taters to tomorrow and not let precious food go to waste? By grating the fresh potatoes into the mashed, they become not only something different, but they also become portable. It’s significantly less trouble to wrap pancakes in wax paper and slip them in a lunch pail than it is a pile of mash. Boxty, from the perspective of frugality and ease, is a win/win. And it’s delicious. Win/win/win.

Side note: I realize the presence of white flour and eggs would drive boxty more toward an indulgence rather than a poverty-kitchen staple, but I’ve seen traditional recipes that call for no flour, or oat flour, and no eggs, with the starch from the potato wrung out and added back in as a binder. Once upon a lean time you could make boxty with water instead of milk. What I’m working with are more modern adaptations.

The best time to make boxty is when you’ve already got mashed potatoes on hand, and that’s where my recipe begins.

[Click here for a printable .pdf file of Irish Boxty]

If you need to boil and mash potatoes first, you’ll need about a cup of mash so boil accordingly, and don’t forget to season accordingly with salt and pepper. If you’ve never done this before, maybe mash a little rosemary in with your potatoes, since rosemary loves potatoes. It will make your boxty inherently savory, but once I started doing this I never looked back.

Grate fresh potatoes. I know, I know, there’s the argument between using floury vs. waxy potatoes. I understand the love for the softer nature of the Russet potato, but I generally prefer waxy Yukon golds. Use what you like, it’s your kitchen! Take your grated potatoes and put them in a lint-free kitchen towel (one that is smooth cotton, and not fluffy at all) and WRING THE HECKIN’ HECK out of them. There’s a lot of water trapped in a potato. Get rid of it so they receive flavors better and your batter doesn’t slime out.

Fun fact! That potato water can be saved in a bowl and allowed to sit. When it sits, the starch from the potatoes will fall to the bottom of the bowl, and that starch can be dried and used for laundry.

Combine your taters, and add in your eggs. You can beat the eggs lightly if you think that will help you combine them evenly. Whisk the dry ingredients together and add that to the potato-egg mix.

Once you’re here, stir in the milk. Boxty is often made with buttermilk, but you can use regular milk, or a vegan milk like almond or oat, as long as it’s not, for example, vanilla-flavored almond milk. If you don’t have buttermilk but want the tang you’d get from it, add about a half-teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to your milk. Remember to add the milk in increments, so you don’t thin out the batter. When you’re done, it’s time to start cooking.

Heat a pan and when it’s fairly hot, add the cooking oil of your choice (mine is almost always olive oil) and a big honkin’ tablespoon of boxty batter. How much is that?

This much.

I got three in a pan comfortably without crowding, and that’s what you want. You don’t want them too close in the pan, because food needs room, and that’s a common error that we all make in the kitchen. Flatten the boxty out in the pan and step away. Cook for about four minutes on each side. You can always peek to see if they’ve turned golden and beautiful, but you should look for dried sides on the cakes as a signal.

See? Personal space in the pan is respected, and boxty are golden and fluffy, just like they ought to be.

I think I got eight cakes out of this batch. One of the things my Irish grandmother used to say all the time is that my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and with boxty, that’s easy to do. As delicious as it is, you really know you’re eating something when it’s on your plate. If you take down more than two of these in one sitting…my hat is off to you.

So here are the results of our labors. Boxty, grilled asparagus, vegan sausage, and a green salad and homemade vinaigrette.

Notice the internal texture. It’s fluffy, but you can still get a little bit of textural play from the grated potatoes. If you make this thinner, you could use it as a burrito wrap. If you make it thicker…exercise moderation and just have one. I doubt my knowledge of boxty helped me find my husband, mostly because I’d not heard of it until we traveled to Ireland. Together. But we can equally enjoy the history and traditions from both sides of our family, that can be traced to this beautiful potato pancake.

Corn Tortillas for TACO TUESDAY!!!

Hey erryboddy! It’s TACO TUESDAY and that means we survived another Monday. It’s true; even during shutdown, when one day melds into another, I still don’t like Mondays. Thus, watching the back end of Monday toddle off into the sunset means we celebrate! With the noble taco and by default, the corn tortilla.

What is this delicious wrapper, this pliable disc of corny goodness that delivers tacoliciousness unto my plate? The tortilla, which literally means “little cake”, is an ancient food. Excavations have found that corn tortillas were already being made at least as far back as 3000 BCE, and may have been eaten thousands of years earlier. Once agriculture developed and the first villages formed, it didn’t take humans long to start working on corn tortillas and, by extension, tacos.

Corn was central to the Mesoamerican experience. Modern corn is a descendant of the plant teosinte, which can still be found in Mexico. Human interaction changed the crops from a plant with broad leaves but narrow tassels, that look more like modern wheat, into the large-cob, large kernel plants we know and love. If all of this seems rushed, it’s because I’m trying to cram about 7,000 years of agricultural history into a few short paragraphs. I recommend The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell for an in-depth and fascinating look at one of history’s most important crops.

Our Mesoamerican forbears figured out, in the corn-development process, that processing tough kernels in water treated with ground (slaked) lime–the rock, not the fruit–softened the tough outer hull of the corn and made it more edible. As an added bonus, this process, called nixtamalization, unlocks the niacin in the corn and helped those clever Aztecs to avoid the deficiency disease pellagra. Don’t Google images if you’re eating. Masa harina, the flour in tortillas, is ground from nixtamalized corn, and is noticeably finer and softer than standard corn meal. Which makes sense. They’ve had thousands and thousands of years to get it down.

Making tortillas is easy. Not open-a-bag-and-have-them-fall-in-your-lap easy, but still. Not hard. I’m not even going to do a special .pdf for the recipe; it’s that simple.

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt (optional)

This will make about 15-16 tortillas; if you want to dial it back a little just reduce the amount of ingredients but keep the ratio intact. 1.5 cups of masa to 1.25 cups water will give you about 12 tortillas. And so on. And you don’t even have to add salt. I just like it.

The first thing you need to do, natch, is mix your dough. Just combine all two or three of the things and stir together. Check the consistency of the tortilla dough; it should be nice and soft, kind of pinchable, but not sticky. Kind of like a sugar cookie.

Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. Divide the dough into roughly golf-ball-sized balls, and keep the dough you’re not tortillafying under the plastic so it doesn’t dry out while you work. Crumbly tortilla dough WILL NOT WORK.

If you have a tortilla press, lay a piece of plastic wrap (or a sandwich baggie, split) over the plates of your press, to prevent the tortilla from sticking to the press itself. If you don’t have a tortilla press you can flatten it down with your hands and then roll it with a pin until it’s nice and thin. When I lived in San Antonio I got to watch abuelas pat out tortillas with their hands–no rolling pin, no press. And they were perfect. I don’t have those skills, nor do I have an abuela. Luckily for me, I have a tortilla press.

Look at him go!

Take that beautiful, flat tortilla and put it down in the pan you’ve got ready, warming up over a medium heat, without oil. What, no cooking oil?

No, that will crisp your tortilla, and you’re not looking to fry your shells at all here. If you were making tostadas you’d be on point, but you want these to remain soft and pliable. Anyway. Into the pan!

Super-traditional chefs (I’m looking at you, Rick Bayless) will tell you to have a second pan cooking at a hotter temperature so when you go to flip this beautiful tortilla, it will create a bit of a puff, which is a nice idea. If you don’t have the energy or resources to run a second burner or pan, just flip in the very same pan.

Though I do claim sole access to the George-please-flip-that-tortilla method. Stack your finished tortillas, cover them with a lint-free kitchen towel, and let them steam together while you cook your entire batch. This will help keep them soft for dinner.

And of course, the moment of truth comes through in the eating. What’s the biggest dilemma about tacos? That they fall apart? Crack down the middle? That they’re delicious but can be a total pain? That they’re hardly a hand-held food when they always split?

Well get a load of this.

Look at that. A little crisped around the edges. Totally bendy. Successfully holding my fillings in place, and sorry/not sorry, cilantro haters. Did I mention that it tasted better, and more fresh, than anything I’ve gotten in the stores for the last…all of my life? But wait, wait, check it out. This is just at the beginning of my dinner. What about a few bites in, what then? Can these tortillas withstand the combined force of teeth and hot food and wet food soaking into it?

Yep.

Also, the filling is a chorizo-flavored seitan (or “fauxrizo”, as I like to call it), so it’s still meaty and delicious AND vegetarian. Vegan, if you don’t put cheese in your tacos, but I will *always* put cheese in my tacos unless circumstances do not permit.

So yes, get thee to a grocery store and pick up a bag of masa harina. And pour some water. Really, that’s all you need for delicious, homemade tortillas. And then you can get all sniffy and be like, “Of COURSE I made it myself.” And don’t wait for Tuesday to make this. As far as I’m concerned, every day is Taco Tuesday; you just need to carry that in your heart.

Feta-Honey Griddle Bread

I have often had the idea, when thinking of the ancients, that their food was, you know. Meh. Probably kind of boring, the equivalent of eating a bowl of wallpaper paste with some weak beer. And I know that’s not true, logically. They figured out how to cure olives! (Which is no small feat, I tell you.) They invented wine! They ate cheese! Since at least the 8th century B.C., cheeses like feta were in process, and some of that? Went into a griddle bread.

This recipe, for bread made of flour, honey, and feta cheese, rocked out with some oil in a hot pan, dates from about the second century B.C. I found a variation of this recipe that uses rice flour and feel free to go for it if you have gluten issues. I made my bread with regular AP flour.

Here’s what you need:

  • 4 oz. feta cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons of honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup flour (plus additional flour for rolling)
  • Oil for the griddle/frying pan

Here’s what you do:

Put cheese, honey, and salt in a mixing bowl and mash them all together. It takes a little work to smash down the feta, but perseverance does the trick.

Add the half-cup of flour and mix until a ragged dough starts to form. This won’t take very long. Turn it out onto your work surface, that you’ve already dusted with flour.

Knead, just for a few passes. It should come together pretty quickly and smooth out into a nice round ball. Bonus if you can get the dough to look like it’s smiling at you.

I can’t unsee it.

Wrap your dough in plastic and let it rest for twenty minutes. You can just leave it on the countertop; you don’t have to put in a proofing spot or the fridge or anything. Just let it sit.

After twenty minutes, unwrap the dough and cut it into twelve equal-ish chunks.

And roll them out into thin discs about 3 inches in diameter.

To cook, put them in a medium-hot pan with a little olive oil, and fry until golden and delicious. They should only take about a minute or so per side, so don’t go wandering off.

And there you have it.

The recipe that I worked off of suggested serving them warm with an additional drizzle of honey (which sounds amazing) or wrapped around something savory, like…roasted asparagus.

Bonus recipe: Roasted asparagus!

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Take one bunch asparagus and snap off the woody ends. Place the asparagus in a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and the seasoning of your choice; today, I used herbes de Provence. When the oven is ready put the asparagus in for 20 minutes. While it’s roasting, toss a handful of pine nuts (if you have them) into a dry pan and toast on your stovetop until they are golden-toasty and even more deliciously nutty, and then remove them from heat lest they start to burn. Which they will do, easily, so don’t walk away while they’re toasting. If you don’t have pine nuts that’s fine, your asparagus will be perfect anyway. And that’s it. When the 20 minutes are up, remove the asparagus from the oven, wrap a few stalks in a piece of feta-honey griddle bread, and enjoy.

OMG THAT’S HECKIN’ GOOD.