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Seasonal Pantry: How to make Evelyn Cheatham's potato tart

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In the winter of 1996, I was working on my ninth book, “California Home Cooking.” There was a recipe I wanted to include, one served at the little café on Mendocino Avenue near College called Tweet’s, which had closed. Finding it became my mission for a time.

I had become friends with the owner — Evelyn Cheatham, who passed away in Santa Rosa late last week — during the café’s tenure but had lost touch. After a few phones calls, I had a number for an ashram/retreat center in upstate New York where, I was told, I would find her. I called and after being transferred a number of times, I heard her familiar voice and laugh.

“I can’t believe you found me!” she exclaimed.

She had gone there for a year of service, which involved feeding, if memory serves me right, 10,000 people three meals a day. The place was so big that it had three professional kitchens and bus service that connected them. She ended up staying for three years.

She talked me through the recipe, the book was published, and before long, Evelyn returned to Sonoma County.

Not long after her return, she launched, by request, a culinary training program at the county juvenile probation camp adjacent to Shone Farm. I visited several times, watching her work her unique brand of teaching with the young men in the camp’s program. I could see them blossom under her firm but loving guidance. Several said they thought they’d like a career in cooking or baking. I wrote a newspaper story about the program and had Evelyn and several of her students on my radio show, Mouthful (KRCB FM, 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays).

Not long after her return to the county, she began her tradition of preparing Christmas dinner for anyone who requested it. Friends donated all the ingredients and their time, with kids still in elementary school joining retirees and every age in between for three days of cooking.

Come Christmas morning, people arrived with plates of cookies. There were gifts, too, all beautifully wrapped. Cars were loaded, directions were given, and by 1 p.m. or so in the afternoon, every last dinner — more than 500, eventually — had been delivered. Portions were generous and could feed a family for a day or two, not just one meal. Single people received enough to invite a neighbor or two.

In a story that illustrates the remarkable spirit of this extraordinary woman perfectly, she was walking to her car one Christmas afternoon, holding a single meal, for herself. She was, of course, exhausted, but everyone had been fed and the kitchen had been cleaned. As she walked to her car, a man came running up to see if he was too late. He’d gotten some details wrong and thought he needed to pick up his own meal, so never signed up for delivery. She handed him hers and, I feel certain, gave him a big hug that warmed him for the rest of the day.

I think of Tweet’s often and laugh about how she probably couldn’t use the name — her childhood nickname — now, as people would assume it had something to do with Twitter. Of course, knowing Evelyn as I did, she may have done it anyway and just laughed about it.

The potato tart was my favorite dish at Tweet’s, but I also loved her sage scones, her black bean soup, and her poached eggs, the finest in the world. Everything she made was spot on and delicious. It was like eating in a great big home with a loving mama feeding you.

Evelyn Cheatham was, I believe, more than a chef, restaurateur, or teacher to all who knew her. To Lucas, my grandson who is now 18, she was his first crush, though he doesn’t remember. When he was about 5 months old, we took him to dinner and sat him on the table, in his car seat. Soon, he began to flirt with her, staring until she looked at him and then turning his head or hiding his eyes and giggling. It was as pure an expression of love as I have ever seen, anywhere. He didn’t stop until she drove away.

For me, Evelyn was my touchstone, someone who shared her wisdom casually and quickly and could snap me out of my deepest despair and anxiety with a story, shrewd advice, or a strong hug. A day with Evelyn in it was always better than a day without seeing her.

Her loss unfurls in front of me, like a bolt of fabric, glistening in the morning sun. She is irreplaceable.

_____

When you make the tart, it will rise fairly high above the edge of the pan. Don’t worry about it. As the potatoes and mushrooms cook, their water will evaporate and the whole thing will sink down into itself. You’ll notice that salt is added at several stages. This does not make the tart salty; instead, it allows the potatoes and mushrooms to blossom into their full flavor without any salt added at the table.

Tweet’s Potato Tart

Makes 6 to 8 servings

5-6 medium Yukon Gold or similar potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick

2 tablespoons local butter, melted

¼ cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

4 ounces (about 2 cups) thinly sliced white button mushrooms

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

2 cups (8 ounces) grated jack cheese

1 cup (from 1 large bunch) thinly sliced scallions, white and green parts

¼ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the sliced potatoes into a bowl, cover with cold water, and set aside.

Brush the inside of a 9- or 10-inch glass pie dish with the melted butter and scatter the bread crumbs evenly over the butter.

Drain the potatoes thoroughly and pat them dry with a clean tea towel.

Arrange about a third of the potatoes evenly on top of the crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the mushrooms on top, season with salt and pepper, and top with two-thirds of the cheese. Top with half the remaining potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and spread all but 2 tablespoons of scallions on top.

Set the remaining potatoes on top, arrange them so that they overlap slightly. Season again with salt and pepper.

Scatter the remaining cheese and scallions on top, pour the cream over everything, and season with just a tad more salt and pepper.

Cover the tart tightly with aluminum foil, set it on a sheet pan, set the sheet pan on the middle rack of the oven, and cook until the potatoes are completely tender, about 50 to 60 minutes.

Remove from the oven, uncover, and let rest 15 minutes.

Cut into wedges and enjoy hot.

_____

Most people seem to prefer sweet scones and that is what Evelyn Cheatham typically made, both at Tweet’s and at Worth Our Weight, her culinary apprenticeship program that she closed last year. Sometimes, though, she would make sage scones, my favorite. If you want something sweet with them, I recommend a good slathering of jalapeño jam.

Sage and Dry Jack Scones

Makes 8 to 10 scones

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

5 tablespoons local butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces, chilled

¾ cup half-and-half

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves

¾ cup grated dry jack or similar cheese

8-12 sage leaves

— Heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Set a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the butter, and, using your fingers or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour mixture so that it has the consistency of breadcrumbs.

Pour the half-and-half into the bowl with the beaten egg, add the minced sage, and mix thoroughly.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, pour the egg mixture into it, and mix quickly with a fork until a loose, soft dough forms. Do not overmix. Add the cheese and use your fingers to quickly incorporate it into the dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it very gently for just 30 seconds.

With the palm of your hand or a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a rectangle ¾ inch thick. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into 8 to 12 triangles. Brush the surface of each triangle with cream and gently press a sage leaf into the center of each scone. Brush with more cream as needed to keep the sage leaf in place.

Use a thin metal spatula to transfer the scones to the hot baking sheet. Bake until they are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, transfer to a cooling rack, and enjoy warm.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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