Some people like to start with the meat, the bird, the main event, whatever it is, but I like to plan around potatoes. Maybe a giant pot of mash loosened up with hot cream? Or maybe a couple of trays’ worth of roasted potatoes? That's how I found my way to Elias Cairo's Laser Potatoes, one of my new favorite ways to feed a crowd.
Cairo, the man behind the Portland (Ore.) salumi empire, has a new cookbook by the same name, Olympia Provisions, packed with recipes for sausages and pâtés. But it’s the three-ingredient potato recipe that sent me to the kitchen.
It’s not quite a gratin Dauphinois, a finer layer of potato held together with cream and cheese, and it’s not as fussy as pommes Anna, which involves careful layering and browning. There’s no garlicky cream, no cheese, just massive amounts of potatoes and onion glued together with butter and baked in the oven until you can’t pull their flavors apart. The layers are tender and sweet, squashed together after baking, but the outside is crisp. It’s so simple that it goes with anything.
Sure, it’s the kind of recipe that’s inviting you to mess with it—add some chopped herbs when you mix the onion with the potato, put a layer of cheese on the top and broil it, replace the butter with some other fat you’re into these days. But the thing is you don’t have to. It’s wonderful just the way it is.
It begins with slicing. A lot of slicing. You won’t remember a time when you weren’t slicing potatoes.
The dish is called Laser Potatoes after a cook's joke about what he used to cut the vegetables so finely. Don't worry, a mandoline will make your slicing fast and even (although you could get through it more slowly with a knife). The sliced onion is cooked in butter until completely translucent, seasoned with salt and pepper, and mixed with the sliced potato. And there you have it: Tip the lot into a pan and bake until tender.
Well, you nearly have it.
Part of the beauty of the recipe is in the compression of the potatoes and onion after the whole thing is baked. It sounds like an unnecessary restaurant trick—when it’s golden all over, and smelling as sweet as it is, it certainly seems ready to eat—but letting it cool and pressing down on the top will get rid of any gaps between the potatoes, vastly improving the texture and structure of the thing.
In fact, you’re encouraged to make it a day ahead and let it rest in the fridge. Yes, it really does taste even better the next day.
Adapted from Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo, Meredith Erickson
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups finely sliced onions
5 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Add the butter and onions to a large pot and slowly sweat the onions until they’re tender and translucent, without any browning. While the onions are sweating, slice the potatoes to about 1 to 2 mm thick into large bowl. Add the potatoes to the onions and mix until all the potatoes are coated with the butter and onions. Lightly pepper the mixture and add salt until you can just taste the saltiness over the sweetness of the onion.
- Line the bottom of a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or heavy bottomed baking dish with parchment paper and place the potatoes so it’s heaping full. Once full, cut another piece of parchment to cover the top, wrap the whole with aluminum foil, and bake on a sheet tray for 1¾ to 2 hours, uncovering for the last 10 minutes. It’s ready when you can pierce the potatoes through with a skewer and feel no resistance.
- Remove pan from oven and let cool at room temperature for about 45 minutes, then gently press down on top of the potatoes until the top is flat. Cool in the refrigerator to meld the flavors for 5 or 6 hours. Overnight works best.
- When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. If cutting into individual pieces: With a knife or spatula, carefully cut around the edges of the pan between the pan and the parchment to loosen the potatoes and invert onto a cutting board or large plate. Trim any dark or ragged edges and cut into 12 slices. Bake on a sheet pan until golden brown and hot, about 10 minutes. If serving family style: Heat in pan for 20 minutes, or until piping hot, and slice at table.
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