Somewhere around the time when I was 18 years old, my friend’s mother decided that she was going to dispose of her Christmas tree by burning it in a bonfire. At the time, and to this day, this woman and her husband have welcomed anyone and everyone into their home. This first year the Christmas tree burning was thought of, their home acted as a kind of halfway house. The door was never locked, it was close to the high school and there was always something to eat, so when she decided to burn the Christmas tree, she had a ragtag group of teenagers that were more than happy to take the idea to the next level.
In the early years of “The Fire,” as it came to be known, trees were acquired all jumping into pickup trucks and driving down the road picking up discarded trees in the weeks following Christmas. No tree was left behind. Still had lights on it? No problem, forgotten strings of twinkle lights give the fire an extra pop. Twelve foot tree? Piece of cake! Hormones make teenagers practically superheroes, we’d pick it up. This continued until someone came up with the bright idea of calling public works, the people whose actual job it was to pick up the trees. Turns out, we had unknowingly been doing part of their job for years. Now, public works delivers the trees directly to the house, even calls before they are planning on doing a tree run. Some years there are hundreds of trees piled high in the back yard, just waiting to meet their fiery fate.
This year is the 12th year that the bonfire will be held and the same ragtag teenagers that were there for the first burning will be there for this one. The only difference is that we’re in our early 30’s now. Over the years, the cast of characters has grown to include extended friends and family, a pack of dogs that Caesar Milan would be jealous of, and even a old French man who speaks half in English, half in French and lights up like a kid every time a new tree goes up in flames. Yes, the fire is a sight to behold, over twenty feet high and hot enough to burn your eyebrows off
But really, the gathering is about getting together with amazing people, eating a ton of food and drinking some booze. This dish delivers exactly what the name promises: Potatoes covered in cheese. It’s a great potluck dish that can be doubled for larger groups.
- 5 medium-large red potatoes
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup milk
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 1 pound ham steak
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
- In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Wash and dice potatoes, leaving the skins on. Add to boiling water.
- While potatoes are cooking, cut ham steak into small cubes and fry in a medium skillet over medium heat until browned. Set aside. There is no need to worry about the temperature of the ham at this point since the steak is already pre-cooked and will be going in the oven shortly.
- When potatoes are fork-tender, drain and pour into an 8x8 baking dish. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low-medium heat. Once butter is melted, add flour, whisking quickly until incorporated. Mixture will resemble a pale brown paste. Slowly add milk, constantly whisking. Stir in garlic powder and pepper.
- Slowly add in cheddar cheese, whisking until cheese is fully melted. Remove from heat. Pour cheese sauce over potatoes and mix together using a large spoon. Sprinkle ham chunks over potato and cheese mixture and top with mozzarella slices.
- Cook in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Turn broiler on high and broil until cheese begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Watch closely while the broiler is on. Every oven is different and the cheese can burn quickly.