Even though I’ve been living on my own for the better part of a decade, I’ve only recently moved to a place with a real kitchen.1 A few months ago, I prepared a lot of this particular dish. It was maybe my second or third time doing it on my own and I had no recipe, only the strong memory of its ingredients, of its texture and flavor, of many afternoons and dinners with my siblings and my mom. I’m sure many people have similar childhood dishes in their minds.
So I ended up with more than could reasonably fit into my pan. I decided to cook it at a lower temperature than I’d like, so that I could stir the contents every now and then and it would all cook evenly. «No problem»—I thought—«I’ll just have to repeat dinner tomorrow». It turned out to be a good idea, except for the fact that that I didn’t have any container large enough for the leftovers.
As chance would have it, my good friend M (who moved two doors down the street) came to return a book she’d borrowed. I asked her if she wanted some of the "leftovers" of this dish, which she did. A few minutes later she went on her way with her own dinner. Nice! I didn’t waste, didn’t overeat and did something good for a friend.
A few days later she brings the dish in conversation:
–What is it? Where did you get it from?
–I used to eat it all the time when I was a kid
–What’s it called?
–«Papas de albañil»2
The funny thing, it’s nothing so special as to merit a particular name. The ingredients are very easy to find worldwide and only requires a stove, a pot and a pan. The name exists only because my Grand Aunts wanted to have a shorthand for it, decades before I was born.
My mom’s aunt was visiting her sister one day and the house where I would be raised was still being built. The two ladies went to see how things were going and arrived just in time for lunch.
The workers were sitting around a comal, each warming up their tortillas and eating from their respective lunchboxes. So far, nothing fundamentally different from pretty much any other worker crew anywhere in the world, at any time in history. But the visiting Grand aunt was getting hungry.
Here’s where my familial oral tradition fails me. Some say she just asked this particular worker if she could have a bite and he agreed. Some say she traded him for some food. Some say the incident happened after my other Grand aunt (the house’s owner) saw this guy coming every day eating the same thing and figured, either that’s very good or his wife doesn’t know how to cook anything else. Some say this worker taught her how to make this dish. These details are not important.
After this incident, however, my Grand aunts learned how to make this dish and would cook it throughout their lives. So, whenever they were planning the meals and groceries for the week, they decided to give this simple dish the name “Mason’s potatoes”, not as a culinary term, but as a shorthand/reminder of the incident (“potatoes as that one time with the guy, so don’t forget to buy this and that”).
It was odd for me to explain this to my friend. Not so much the story, but the general procedure, what with her being a good cook. I’ve outlined here a recipe of sorts, but this makes it look way more complicated than it is. Take these steps and adjust them to your taste.
A soft recipe
- 4 potatoes
- 2–3 tomatoes, about the same size as the potatoes
- 1 large-ish (white) onion
- serrano chillis
- Boil the potatoes,3 but do not cook them all the way. You should be able to pick one up with a fork with little effort and without it falling apart easily. Drain the potatoes and let them cool for a bit.
- Meanwhile, dice the onion and tomatoes. Put them in a well oiled pan at medium heat, season with salt. You’re looking to dry out the tomatoes a little, and to soften the onions a bit.
- Dice the potatoes as small as you can. Once the onion and tomatoes have dried a bit, add another bit of oil and reintroduce the potatoes. Reduce to low/medium heat.
- Stir everything together. As the potatoes finish cooking, mash them lightly. Season if needed.
- Quarter the chillis, add them to the mix. Optionally, you could have added them at the same time as the onions and tomatoes, but they will soften. Adding them late keeps a bit of crunch.
- As the whole concoction dries out, consider lowering the flame to low and leaving the potatoes still so that they can develop a slight crunchy char.
The resulting color should be lightly red. These should look exactly like potatoes, more or less “sprinkled” with tomato, onion and chile pieces here and there. The consistency should be slightly dry, not creamy like mashed potatoes.
Serve hot as a side dish. Serve them in tacos for a quick carbohydrate-rich lunch, like those workers did decades ago. (Re-)Heat some of it in a pan and mix it with beaten eggs for a great breakfast. Consider adding bacon, or ham. Experiment!
Share with those around you.
THE IRON NODER CHALLENGE XII: WE'LL RUST WHEN WE'RE DEAD
Previously I lived in a boarding house, which meant I didn’t have access to the kitchen. When I lived with my roommates we had a kitchen, but the whole gas piping was being renewed when we moved there, and it wasn’t operative for the few months I endured there.
Lately, I’ve been salting the boiling water and it seems to season the potatoes quite nicely!