By Sarah Khanna
When I was in the 6th grade, a beautiful girl, blond and bright-eyed, walked into class midday to unknowingly capture the hearts of boys that we had marked as our own for the future. There was not a girl in class that did not feel the sting, an abrupt glitch in our hearts.
She, with her fair and delicate skin, had come to teach us about jealousy, about lust and most unexpectedly, about Swedish food. Hawk-eyed and sidelined, the rest of us chomped down on simple sandwiches made by our tired moms as she sat alone on cold steps with a gaggle of young men in the making, waiting to make a move.
Slowly, she lifted her carefully packaged sandwich along with a box of sliced tart apples from her red bag, unwrapping it to reveal two layers of white bread shielding the contents unknown to us, the brooding young ladies’ corner. My curiosity peaked.
While the little ladies surrounding me continued to rip her apart with their collective hunting strategies, I scrutinized from afar the corners of her sandwich, in part getting acquainted with my supposed enemy and, in reality, because I had always secretly judged people by what they eat.
After days of having given her the cold shoulder, I made my way past the boys and over to the cold steps I never liked sitting on. “Want an apple slice?” I asked.
“I have apples too! What kind, green or red?” she chirped, opening doors for my guilt of trying to hate her to multiply. “I also have a cheese and cloudberry jam sandwich! Maybe we can trade halves?” she urged on, trying like the new girl she was to be my friend, to leave an imprint on me.
Cloudberries! I could not think of a prettier name for food and it was then that my mind switched on to cuisines unknown to me, away from the Middle Eastern-Indian influence dominating my surroundings. Later in my life, I read about cloudberries, made into jams and liqueurs, to discover that they are more tart than sweet; they often over-ripen to become creamy like a sweetened yogurt. I turned pages to envision sticky fruit soups, served hot and cold and of reindeer meat, pickled herring and the famous smorgasbord, the classic Swedish buffet spread.
I can only wish to have a palate so accepting of such foreign flavors.
Since it’s unlikely that I’ll find cloudberries to make jam with in Cairo, I decided to make hasselback potatoes, the baked potato of Sweden, crispy on the outside and fork-tender in the center, served aside a veal roast, as I think back to the short-term friend I had, who moved away before sealing friendships for life, who taught us about the grown-up world of food and men.
4 medium-sized potatoes
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons of olive oil
20 grams of butter, melted
A few strands of saffron
Salt and pepper to season
For the oil:
Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Add the sliced garlic and saffron then season. Allow to bubble for 2 minutes then turn off the heat and set aside leaving the flavors to come together.
For the potatoes:
Begin by moving your oven rack to the middle and preheating to 190 degrees Celsius. Prepare a large bowl of cold water and set aside. Wash your potatoes well before slicing. One potato at a time, make sure they don’t roll over when placed on a flat surface. If they roll, cut a very thin slice lengthwise at the bottom to allow it to remain flat. Begin slicing the potatoes 3 to 4 mm apart never allowing your knife to slice through the potato disconnecting the slices. If necessary, lay down chopsticks or wooden spoons parallel to each other and use them as guides to know where to stop cutting. When you finish one potato, immediately drop it in the reserved bowl of cold water and continue with the rest. This will stop discoloration from occurring and will drain additional starch that may not allow the slices to fan out.
Place the potatoes in a greased shallow baking pan after drying one at a time. Brush the potatoes with the melted butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil then season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake the potatoes until just tender. This should take 35 minutes. Once tender, remove the foil and bake until tender for 10 more minutes. Turn your grill on after baking and grill for an additional 5 minutes. Once removed from the oven, drizzle with saffron garlic oil and serve.