Having spent three days ill in bed, putting three potatoes into the oven felt like quite an achievement. As did the scent that filled the flat with a kind of “husky well being”, even though I felt far from it. You have to marvel at the transformation of baked potatoes, and with so little effort: from cool hardness to edible, a chewy jacket and soft insides.
Every time baked potatoes are cut open with a puff of steam, a discussion takes place in our house: that of olive oil versus butter, as if we were defending our own garden. My partner Vincenzo is for olive oil, the deep-green elixir that we buy from a Sicilian friend called Pina in tin cans the size of a toddler, our biggest expense and kitchen fuel. I am not saying he is wrong. I am right, though, in believing that, when it comes to a baked potato, a slice of butter mashed into the already buttery flesh is best. Salt and pepper on top. I can measure my life in baked potatoes and still eat them in exactly the way I did as a child, the ritualistic mashing and scooping motion, the extra butter slid into the empty skin, the final pinch to close it, like a taco.
Recovering appetites are cautious and specific, and the following day it is potatoes again: patate al latte e burro, a northern-Italian dish in which three dependable ingredients work some magic together in a sort of stove-top dauphinoise. There is something tender about the whole process here: the purity of colour, the nurturing associations, the way the milk is assimilated by the other ingredients like a kid gulping a glassful (although I was never that kid). Milk rounds the edges of whatever it is cooking, be that rice, pasta, fish or potatoes, leaving just enough creamy sauce to feel like a luxury. Always on the lookout for similarities, I appreciate the way both English and Italian recipes pair nutmeg with such dishes, its simultaneously spiced and fresh flavour cutting through the lactic sensibleness like a naughty joke. The porcini are my addition.
The recipe: soak 20 g dried porcini in 150 ml warm water for 20 minutes, then drain, saving the liquid. Peel 800 g potatoes – ideally more waxy than floury, not too large and evenly sized – then slice into 5 mm-thick rounds. Peel and cut two sweet white onions or a bunch of spring onions. In a deep frying pan over a medium flame, warm three tablespoons of olive oil, add the onion and a tiny pinch of salt, stir and cook for a few minutes. Cover the onion with a layer of potatoes, then the porcini, then another layer of potatoes. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper and nutmeg, then cover with whole milk and some of the porcini soaking liquid and bring to a steady simmer for 15 minutes. Dot with 40 g butter in nuggets, then lower the heat and cook until the potatoes are tender and bathed in a creamy sauce; keep an eye because, towards the end, that sauce evaporates with disconcerting speed.
Scatter with chopped parsley, and not just for colour: its bright, grassy flavour is welcome, too. Let the pan sit for a few minutes before serving with a crisp salad or smoked fish, grilled bacon or a fried egg, or both: a combination that proves – to steal a line from food writer Niki Segnit – you don’t need to be an oligarch to eat like a king.