We almost called these Easy-Cheesy-Peasy Potato Nests, but, while they’re not too difficult, we can’t really think of them as easy, either. More like moderate-Cheesy-Peasy Potato Nests, but that doesn’t really have that nice a ring, does it? This recipe came about as a way to use some potatoes that we had sitting in the cupboard. One of them was just starting to sprout, so it was time to use ’em.
The idea of turning the potatoes into small nests comes directly from the Cheese and Potato Nests we’d made before, but, this time, we tried to address their blandness by using a stronger cheese as a sauce to flavor the potatoes. And, we added peas, because peas are so tasty (they’re one of the few vegetables that are tolerable when commercially frozen).
So let’s get scratchin’ and put some dinner on the table!
Makes 8 nests.
Cheese is the real key here. Use one with a lot of flavor, to stand up to the baking. We happened to have a bit of five-year Cheddar that fit the bill. We went with heavy cream (organic so it wouldn’t contain seaweed) to add richness to the dish, but it would be fine with just milk, or half-and-half. And, while we used green onions (I’itoi onions, a local variety), ordinary yellow onions would be fine. Finally, while we would have preferred fresh peas, we do feel that frozen peas are one of the few vegetables that are an acceptable substitute for fresh.
Procedure in detail:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously grease about eight cups in muffin tins so that the potatoes won’t stick while they bake. Also, be aware that you might need to grease a few more or a few fewer cups, depending on the size of your potatoes. We greased twelve, but we had to skimp on potatoes for six of our cups.
Peel and grate potatoes. We like to peel and grate each potato at the same time, and, in this case we grated them directly into a bowl of water. The water serves two purposes: it helps leach out some of the potato starch, which we didn’t want in this dish, and it keeps the potatoes from oxidizing and turning brown. Let soak for about 15 minutes.
Make nests. Drain the potatoes, and press the potato shreds into the muffin tins to form little nests. With the soaking, the potatoes will seem as if they’re crisp and somewhat inflexible, but they’ll press into place.
Bake nests. Slide the nests into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, which is about the time you’ll need for the sauce filling.
Make roux. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. When melted and foamy, add onions and cook until tender. Sprinkle flour on top of the onions, and cook, stirring and scraping, until the flour is light brown, about 5 minutes.
Add milk, cream, and nutmeg. While stirring continuously, add the milk and cream in thirds, stirring until the roux is completely incorporated before the next addition. We do this by measuring out the milk and cream, grating the nutmeg on top, then pouring the mixture in a third at a time. Stir and cook until thickened and bubbly, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat for 1-2 minutes.
Add cheese. After the sauce has cooled a bit (this helps to keep the cheese sauce from separating, or breaking), stir in the cheese until smooth and creamy.
Add peas and season. Stir in the peas, taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.
Fill nests. Remove the nests from the oven and divide the cheese and pea sauce among the nests, filling them about 3/4 full. The sauce will settle into the potatoes as they cook.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the nests have browned and the sauce is bubbling.
Serve. Scoop out the nests and plate.
Using a very sharp Cheddar cheese really made these nests stand out from the hum-drum, and cheese and peas just seem to form a natural pairing in terms of flavor; hence, you often see cheese sauce poured on top of steamed peas. By baking these two together, we avoid adding to that last minute rush of finishing a sauce to top the peas. Instead, we can concentrate on the other tasks needed to finish dinner and still have the cheese sauce. Placing the peas and sauce in the potato cups prevents the sauce from running over the plate, and helps to round out this meal. Our only complaint was that the potato nests didn’t get as crispy as we’d wanted. So, for the lack of crisposity, they don’t quite get all the stars. We’ll say four, though, for the outstanding flavor.