The Book: The New Spanish Table (2005)
I am no food historian, but I would wager that Brazo de Gitano de Patata (Potato Gypsy’s Arm) is a direct descendant of Peru’s ubiquitous, satisfying and incredibly versatile Causa Limeña. The latter—a sort of layered, cold potato terrine—begins with mashed yellow potatoes, an acid (lime juice), yellow ají chile paste and mayonnaise. From there it wanders from the basic to the whimsical, with the center layer varying from fish (which seems to be the most common, at least in my experience) to chicken salad, from cooked vegetables tossed in mayo to fried shrimp. Avocado often makes an appearance, occasionally meriting its own layer. And make no mistake: It is delicious.
Potatoes originated in Peru, so I am going to hypothesize that the Spanish carried the causa concept (which, if my cursory Internet research holds, is Incan) home, along with their ship-holds full of potatoes.
It was with pleasure, then, that I turned to Page 328 of The New Spanish Table. (Calm down, people—Page 327 was an aside about the food in Don Quixote, which triggered ugly flashbacks of an entire undergrad semester spent solely on EL Cid and Don Quixote. So I moved on. ) On 328, I found the recipe for what seemed to be a more complicated, though less spicy, causa, filled with all the things that make me think of summer in Spain. And it came with a literal twist: The brazo is filled and wound like a jelly roll, with a sort-of aioli spread on the outside.
Yes, mashed potatoes. Rolled. (We can discuss the aesthetic value of white mayo on fairly white potatoes later.)
Meanwhile, rolling is possible. I followed the recipe—well except for exactly measuring the filling: Spanish canned tuna, anchovies, olives, tomatoes, fresh parsley, roasted red peppers (in lieu of unavailable piquillos), all chopped. I eyeballed the amounts then scattered all over a rectangular schmear of mashed potatoes on lightly oiled wax paper. After a sprinkling of sherry vinegar and a healthy cracking of salt and pepper, I rolled.
Frankly, I was astounded that it worked. But like a willing sponge cake, the potatoes rotated into an odd take on bûche de noël. Once I had the log (and, yes, I was a little pleased with myself when it worked on the first try), I “frosted” it with a thin layer of mayonnaise (whipped with lemon juice, pressed garlic and olive oil). Then the recipe told me to “decorate with olive and roasted pepper slices.” Ummm, OK.
From there, the 15-inch concoction went into the fridge to firm up. Several hours later, when it was time to wield my brazo, I invited my neighbor (a trained chef) to taste.
“Kate—this is the weirdest thing you’ve ever served me. It looks like a Christmas explosion,” she says. But she gamely digs in. “I’d eat it again,” she admits, but added that I should’ve called the crew and said: “Everybody come over in your ugly Christmas sweater for dinner.” And, “I am going to dream of olive confetti.”
She did not walk home with a care package. A first.
[Note to self: Will the tragic unintended consequence of Three Cubed mean people will walk into my house for dinner with trepidation?]
Let’s face it: The shape and “decoration”—olives and slivers of roasted red peppers over faux aioli on a white log—are unexpected and not particularly pretty. The brain says,” Dessert! Wait—are those olives?”
There is no way to make this beautiful but, then again, it’s home cooking. It’s summer, outdoor food. (Unless my dad, who doesn’t believe mayonnaise should be let out of the fridge ever, much less in summer, is coming for the picnic . . . But I digress.)
Presentation can be fixed. However, the brazo also lacked sufficient filling to balance the bland potatoes, whose only enhancements were milk, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Still this recipe is not a throwaway. I would not have gravitated to it without our arbitrary project, but I see its potential. And I loved the rolling technique. Next time, though, I would double the fish and tomatoes in the filling, toss in some chopped onion for good measure and—in fine Incan and Peruvian style—goose the potatoes with something spicy, like ají chile, or at least an ingredient with a little color and character (Spanish paprika? Turmeric? Achiote oil?). And I would lose the scattering of stuff on top.
I can even see filling the center with ground beef or lamb (and other goodies), and quickly browning the log in the oven before serving, like a reverse shepherd’s pie.
So, a valuable exercise, with a few lessons learned and, hopefully, not ruinous to my reputation. Am already looking forward to the next challenge!