From where I sit on the screened-in porch, rain washes over the muted colors of spring: yellow and brown ochre, burnt sienna, red umber, titanium white, and slate black. Skeletal trees with flushing buds block the stray cars that rush downhill in an early morning blur and dots of snow quiver between neighboring houses, as the days grow warmer. Around the scrubby flower stems next to the house, a blue-jay dives pokes the ground for stray seeds and bugs before and flying up to his perch on the weeping cherry tree.
As I take in the scene, I’m reminded of one of the times I stood in front of a Robert Motherwell (1915-1991, American painter and printmaker) painting. One with soft muted forms smeared wet and covered with dark shadows. If I were to squint my eyes right now, it might look something like this—minus the large black circles.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54 by Robert Motherwell, 1957-61. Oil on canvas, 70″ x 7′ 6 1/4″ (178 x 229 cm).
If you’re not familiar with Robert Motherwell, he was an abstract expressionist who was also part of the New York School. In 1940, Motherwell joined artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline in New York City. They along with the larger group of abstract expressionists sought to change the face of American painting. They employed experimental painting techniques that blurred the surface of realism found in the dominant American painting style. To find a deeper understanding of reality beneath the surface of painting and to express emotional truth and real feeling within it defined the movement.(1)
Speaking on his generation of artists, American painter Barnett Newman said they “felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce world war, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello…This was our moral crisis in relation to what we paint.” (Arnason, H.H. and Marla F. Prather. History of Modern Art, 4th Ed. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998).
In 1942, right after the United States entered into World War II, the major painting styles were still Social Realism and Regionalism (think Edward Hopper and Grant Wood). As the war brought about alienation and a loss of faith in old systems and forms of expression, artists began to explore diverse intellectual thought that included existentialism along with the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.(Arnason and Prather). While the abstract expressionists received harsh criticism for their experimental works of art, they persisted to uncover a new American art form.(2).
Reflecting on those early years in New York underground art scene, Motherwell said that “if the abstraction, the violence, the humanity was valid in Abstract Expressionism, then it cut out the ground from every other kind of painting.” It was this revolutionary sensibility that determined both his life and his art.(3).
Motherwell expressed major human themes in his works and while this potato-mushroom cake is unlikely to inspire an existential awakening, it does show the humble potato in a new light, and it also happens to make for a damn tasty Sunday dinner.
Potato-Mushroom Cake with Braised Chickpeas
Adapted from Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
Yield 6 to 8 servings, plus leftover chickpeas
For the chickpeas
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup vegetable stock (or more as needed)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup cooked chickpeas (either soaked and cooked or canned works)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the potato-mushroom cake
2 pounds of russet potatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound mixed mushrooms (such as porcini, shiitake, cremini, and white mushrooms), cleaned and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup finely chopped onions
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
To braise the chickpeas: Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and vegetable stock; cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until liquid almost evaporates. Clear a spot in the bottom of the skillet, add the tomato paste, and let it caramelize there for a minute or two, then stir it into the vegetables. Add the cooked chickpeas and bay leaf to the pan. Cover, reduce heat, and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding small amounts of vegetable stock, if needed. Stir in the salt, and turn off the heat.
To prepare the potato-mushroom cake: Wash the potatoes well and put them, whole and unpeeled, in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with 2 inches of water, bring to a steady boil, and cook the potatoes just until they are easily pierced with a fork or sharp knife—you don’t want them to get mushy or fall apart. Drain, cool, and peel the potatoes, then cut them crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rounds.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of butter in a large heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet (10-inch diameter or larger) over medium heat, and stir in the mushrooms. Season them with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring now and then, as liquid from the mushrooms is released and boils off. When the pan is dry and the mushrooms are browned and caramelized on the edges, take the skillet off the heat and scrape the mushrooms into a bowl.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter into the large skillet, set it over medium heat. Stir in the onions and cook until the onions soften, about 5 to 7 minutes, then add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute more. Lay all the potato slices in the pan; season with 1 teaspoon salt. With a wide spatula, turn the potato rounds over to coat them in oil and butter. Let them cook slowly take on color, turning them occasionally, until all the rounds are crispy golden, 8 minutes or so.
Scatter the mushrooms and grated cheese on the potatoes, and tumble to mix them in. Sprinkle on the chopped parsley and thyme and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and stir in gently. Spread the seasoned potatoes and mushrooms evenly in the skillet, and press down firmly, with the back of a spatula, binding the slices into one large pancake.
Cook the cake until brown and crispy on the underside, about 5 minutes—life the edge of the cake to check it. Cover the skillet with a big plate, and holding them together with hot pads, invert the skillet, dropping the potato cake onto the plate. Slide it back into the skillet and brown the second side, another 5 minutes. Slide the finished cake onto a cutting board. Serve warm; cut the potato cake into wedges and spoon the warm chickpeas onto the plate.