About 10 years ago, my graduating culinary students gave me a a pot of hydrangeas. The gesture was a rare occurrence from community college students who have little money to spare. The “kids” had pooled their change for this gift. I enjoyed the plant indoors that summer. That autumn, I put the depleted plant on the compost heap.
The following spring, a weed sprouted at the edge of the compost. Each day, I’d remind myself to pull it, but somehow never got around to it. The weed spread out and started to bud. By mid July, the neglected buds flowered into big, gorgeous snowy-white hydrangeas. The size of the plant doubles every summer. Now it overlooks the entire east end of my deck. The lush flowers make breathtaking bouquets. By autumn, they dry out, taking on a dusty wine-and-sage hue, an invitation to cut them for winter wreaths.
The compost heap is no more: I protect this plant. I shield the roots from winter cold and snow, treat it to organic fertilizers and insect sprays. Like my students, it flourishes. You see, it was fortunate that I was a green thing back then. Seasoned instructors told me not to expect much from community college students. They’d work, they said, as prep cooks in mediocre restaurants, or find jobs in pizza and sandwich shops. Hard work, low pay. Stubbornly, I dreamed different dreams for them.
And they did not disappoint. Community college students don’t start out with much, but they are intelligent, hard working, resilient, with street sense needed to survive in a fast-paced industry. Today our graduates lead kitchens at country clubs and yacht clubs, work as line cooks at fine restaurants and the catering services of VIP boxes at major league ballparks. Some own their own restaurants or head up food service at institutions of higher education. If they work in a cafe or sandwich shop, they’re just scouting it before opening their own.
Recently, a friend invited me to lunch at her favorite place. Looking over the menu, I recognized the name of the executive chef printed there: one of my graduates. The following recipe, from one of my classes, was on the menu.
PLEATED POTATOES 6 to 12 servings
To enhance the flavor, add chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, or parsley, or a combination of all three to the cheese and bread crumb topping.
6 evenly sized baking potatoes, e.g. Idaho or russets
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated cheese, e.g. cheddar or parmesan
- Preheat oven to 425. Oil a hotel pan large enough to hold; set aside.
- Peel potatoes to approximately the same size. Slice them in half lengthwise. Then, slice crosswise, but do not slice through the potato. Instead line up chopsticks along the length of either side of the potato and use them as a guide to cut only 3/4 of the way through so that they hold together and look like pleats or an accordion.
- Place potatoes, sliced-side-up, in the dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, dot with butter.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven.
- Baste the potatoes with the melted butter (or add more melted butter). Sprinkle tops with bread crumbs and cheese. Test with the point of a knife for tenderness. Bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, as needed, until tender.