Editor’s Note: This is the 7th installment of Alan Lake’s Home Cookin’ series on home cooks- their stories and recipes. Read part one here for insight into what Home Cookin’ is all about.
It’s not like being a smoke eater was a childhood dream. Craig Brannan joined the fire department when he was 25. Prior to that he quite happily owned a landscaping company. On a visit to L.A., he met a fireman. They got to talking and it sparked his inner flame. In that instant, Craig decided to pursue firefighting as a career . . . after all, he liked the movie Backdraft.
Nearly 20 years later, Craig drives Fire Engine #25 for the City of Evanston, where he’s a Fire Apparatus Operator and Paramedic. Besides driving, his job is to put wet stuff on hot stuff by sending water as requested (there’s 500 gallons on the truck) and if need be, hook up to the fire hydrant.
“Not certain how they got the name–maybe you cook ‘em when somebody dies, for a wake or something, or maybe it’s that they’ll kill you by eating them? They’re very rich. Potatoes and cheese topped with those Durkee’s canned fried onions (of green bean casserole fame) or with stuffing mix. Whichever you prefer. It’s comfort food–cheesy, crunchy and really tasty. No way they’re good for ya.”
This is an adaptation of a couple recipes that Craig and his girlfriend Laura like, and so includes both shredded and mashed potatoes. Feel free to play around with it as well–maybe add some bacon and scallions or change the cheeses up. Or use fresh shredded potatoes and fry your own onions instead of the firemen’s favorite: frozen and canned.
Original or enhanced, here’s the tried and true:
1 lb. shredded hash browns (thawed if frozen)
1 lb. potatoes, peeled, quartered
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup onion, medium dice
1 pint sour cream, divided in half
4 oz cream cheese, softened
12 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 can Durkee’s fried onions
1 cup dry stuffing mix plus an additional 1/2 cup butter, melted*
*NOTE: If you use the stuffing mixture, melt an additional 1/2 cup butter and drizzle it over 1 cup of stuffing mixture to coat. Reserve.
(Craig originally told me he topped the casserole with a can of Durkee’s fried onions, but when I showed up to cook with him he used herb stuffing mix instead. He had some left over and didn’t want it to go to waste. It worked well, so, dealer’s choice.)
1. In a large bowl, add hash browns, onion, salt, pepper, 1/2 (8 oz) of the sour cream, and the cheddar cheese. Mix well, reserve.
2. Boil potatoes in salted water about 20 minutes (or until tender). Drain well and mix with 1/2 cup butter and cream cheese. Mash thoroughly.
3. Add remaining sour cream and whip until smooth and creamy. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add to reserved potato and cheese. Mix well.
5. Place in 9” x 13” casserole and spread until even.
“Guys love my red sauce, my Sunday Gravy. It gets cooked in the oven all day with neck bones, meatballs and Italian sausage. Some garlic bread and a salad and you’re good to go. The recipe comes from Frankie Traficanti, this old guy that owned a nursery I bought my trees from when I was landscaping. If you call central casting and ask for an 80-year-old Italian dude, they send Frankie. We became friends and would cook and drink Chianti together at his place.”
Frankie T’s Sunday Gravy
(Yields about a gallon and a half)
1-1/2 lbs. neck bones
1 lb. Italian sausage
Meatballs – Frankie T’s recipe to follow
Five 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
Three 6-oz. cans tomato paste
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 large bulb (not cloves) of garlic, chopped (approximately 6 oz.)
2 Tbs. dry basil, or 1 bunch fresh basil, roughly torn
1 Tbs. dry oregano, or 1/2 bunch fresh oregano, chopped
1 Tbs. salt
1 Tbs. black pepper
2 Tbs. sugar
1 cup Chianti*
Fresh grated parmesan for garnish
*This step is omitted at the firehouse, as wine is frowned upon, but at home . . . salute!
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Brown neck bones in large skillet with enough olive oil to coat pan. Reserve and repeat with Italian sausage and then, the meatballs.
3. Deglaze pan with Chianti, reduce by 1/2 and pour over reserved meats.
4. Sauté garlic in remaining oil over medium-high flame until golden brown, stirring throughout. Do not burn.
5. Add the tomato paste, basil and oregano and mix well. Reserve.
6. In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot, combine crushed tomatoes with reserved meats and their juices, mixing well. Bring to boil, remove from stovetop and place in oven for 3 hours, stirring often to prevent burning on the bottom of the stockpot.
7. Adjust seasonings as you see fit.
Frankie T’s Meatballs
(Recipe yields 20 golfball-size meatballs.)
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground beef
2 tsp. garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. black pepper
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
2 Tbs. flat leaf parsley, chopped, washed
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
1. Combine garlic, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Reserve.
2. Mix beef, pork, parsley, eggs and milk lightly by hand and combine with the above. Form into balls.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides and add to Sunday Gravy stockpot.