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Whether baked or fried, roasted, or boiled, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. On its own, it is a humble thing, a lowly tuberous crop that can be had for mere pennies; one that has, at times, provided sustenance to the poorest of nations. But with some oil and heat, a sprinkling of salt, a healthy dollop of butter or sour cream, the potato is transformed into something ethereal. In my opinion, the supreme leader of this magical potato kingdom is the scalloped potato–officially know as the Gratin Dauphinois.
I will tell you what I love about the French. Only they have a word for the golden, crispy bits of food that get stuck around the edges of a baking dish. This word, gratin, comes from the verb gratter, which means “to scrape”. Gratinée is from the transitive verb form of the word for “crust”. It is a culinary technique in which ingredients are topped with breadcrumbs, butter, or grated cheese, then baked or broiled until a golden crust develops. As you can imagine from the name of my blog, I am a fiend for gratins.
Virtually anything edible can be made into a gratin, but potato gratinée is most common, particularly the Gratin Dauphinois. This dish is a specialty of the Dauphiné region of France. It involves layering thinly sliced potatoes with cream and sometimes egg in a buttered dish rubbed with garlic. A Gratin Savoyard, on the other hand, found in a neighboring region, is made without milk but beef broth.
A good Gratin Dauphinois should be crispy on the top and bottom and have a rich, cheesy taste, even without any cheese added. If you look closely at your gratin upon taking it out of the oven, you will notice the cream has turned into a curdled, cheese-like substance. You should not be alarmed when this happens. In fact, this is a most desirable trait in a gratin. As the potatoes absorb water from the liquid, you get a concentration of fat and protein, just as you would with fresh cheese curds.
I have made a great deal of gratins in my lifetime, following many different recipes many times over, and I can tell you that they never turn out the same. The thickness of the potato slices, the way they are layered, the depth and width of the dish you use and where you place it in the oven all influence your end result. Even the thickness of your cream can be of great influence. Starchy potatoes are a must.
There are countless recipes for Gratin Dauphinois, some of which ask you to boil the potatoes before baking them. I am not sure this method creates a superior gratin, so why bother? This recipe is from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is fast and easy and produces the kind of gratin that will have you picking those crispy, delectable bits off the baking dish.
Julia Child’s Gratin Dauphinois
2 pounds starchy potatoes
1/2 clove unpeeled garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
1 cup boiling milk or cream
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.
2) Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
3) Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.
4) Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.
5) Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last week know that I am cooking with Julia these days and that all of my posts will be focused on recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking–at least until the release of the long-anticipated movie Julie & Julia.
Now I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I own more cookbooks than I would want to count, have stacks and stacks of back issues of cooking magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders overflowing with recipes that I have printed off the Internet, MTAOFC was not a part of my library until a couple of months ago. I have other cookbooks by Julia, other books on French cooking. So why was I missing a classic that started a revolution in home cooking when it first came out in 1961?
I have no real answer except that it was always a book that seemed intimidating to me. Until my first trip to Paris, I had focused on Italian cooking, not French. I am also most attracted to cookbooks with glossy, mouth-watering pictures; Julia’s book with its illustrations and strange recipe layout would just make things more complicated than they needed to be, I reasoned. And wasn’t French cooking already too complicated? Who has the time to spent the whole day making puff pastry and wrapping it around a duck?
Which brings me back to Julie & Julia. Before it became a movie, it was a book; a memoir written by Julie Powell, who cooked her way through all 524 recipes in MTAOFC within the space of a year. There has been widespread criticism of Julie Powell in foodie circles for some of her opinions, her writing style and penchant for cursing, which is really too bad. Because when you come right down to it, what she did was an astonishing feat.
Many of the recipes in MTAOFC are complicated. They do take time. Very few people have the time or inclination to cook this way anymore. Putting together a dinner party from this cookbook can take a good couple of days from your life. Julie Powell did this on a daily basis–after coming home from a dead-end secretarial job.
Now this is not to say that every recipe is difficult. Once I started cooking from this book, I realized how accessible a lot of the recipes are. Julia Child walks you through everything in such detail that you cannot fail as long as you follow her instructions. Although I have not yet attempted an aspic or a Canard en Croûte, there are many recipes that don’t take a lot of time. In fact, I put a little dinner together for myself the other night that took no more than half an hour to make: Steak au Poivre, mushrooms in Medeira sauce, and Tomates à la Provençale. It was all so delicious that I wondered why I had waited so long to get this culinary masterpiece.
Julia Child’s Steak au Poivre
Pepper Steak with Brandy Sauce
Serves 4-6 people
2 tablespons mixed or white peppercorns
2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock
1/3 cup cognac
3-4 tablespoons softened butter
1) Place the peppercorms in a mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.
2) Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crushed peppercorns into both sides of the meat. Cover with waxed paper. Let stand for at least half an hour; 2 or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.
3) Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove to a hot platter and season with salt.
4) For the sauce: pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter a half-tablespoon at a time.
I’ve never been one of those broccoli haters. In fact, during the winter I eat a lot of broccoli. I like to make it into soup, eat it steamed with a pat of butter and a squeeze of lemon, or chop it up into a quiche. I love most vegetables, but I’m short on imagination when it comes to preparing them.
That’s why when I found this recipe for fresh broccoli salad I had to make it immediately. I’d never thought you could do much with raw broccoli except chop it up and serve it as a crudite with dip. Now that I’ve been enlightened, the possibilities are endless. What makes the broccoli in this case so delightful is that it’s cut paper-thin on a mandoline. Now why hadn’t I thought of that?Especially since my mandoline has been my new best friend in recent months. The wispy slices look pretty and hold the dressing well. Used as a base for a summer salad, you could toss the broccoli with any number of vegetables and a simple vinaigrette. Adding some chopped herbs, toasted nuts, or even some salad greens like arugula are good options as well. Broccoli in the summer–who would have thought it?
This recipe is adapted from Alton Brown and is available on the Food Network website.
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 lemon, zested
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt
pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound broccoli, rinsed, trimmed, and sliced thinly on a mandoline
6 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, haved
3 ounces coarsely chopped toasted pecans or hazelnuts
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves
1) Whisk together the vinegar, zest, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, continuing to whisk constantly.
2) Add the broccoli and toss to coat. Cover and place in the fridge for 1 hour.
3) Stir in the tomatoes, hazelnuts and basil. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature or in the fridge for another 15 minutes before serving.
It may be cold and rainy in Vancouver, the temperatures no different than they were in January, yet spring has definitely sprung. Hay fever has left me with a red nose and itchy eyes. Last weekend I blew my nose into half a box of Kleenex in one afternoon.
But the surest sign was the asparagus. I was wandering through the aisles of my favourite local market the other day when I saw them, their color a bright and playful green punctuated with purple tips, the stalks no thicker than a reed. Now, asparagus isn’t hard to find. In fact, my market carries it year round. But it’s the hothouse kind of asparagus–often thick and stringy. Eating it is like chewing on a piece of bamboo.
This asparagus, I was sure, would be nothing like that. They had compact heads–not wrinkled or ruffled, and they were firm with just the right amount of bend, promising to be both tender and crisp.
I took the asparagus home, wondering how I would cook it, what I would eat it with. It didn’t seem to matter; I had already decided that the asparagus would be the star attraction on my dinner plate. As for preparing it, I decided on roasting. Roasting vegetables has become my favourite way of preparing them. I had always steamed my asparagus. I would dot it with butter or a dollop of mayonnaise and I was content with that–until I discovered roasting. Roasting is what I’d always done with potatoes and carrots, sometimes zucchini and eggplant. I had never thought of preparing green vegetables this way until I stumbled upon a recipe for roasted broccoli, which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.
I tossed the asparagus spears with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and put them in the oven for ten minutes. That was all. Sometimes it’s hard to think of what to do with vegetables, especially when you like them with a little pizazz. The balsamic here is perfect. The heat caramelizes the sugars and gives the asparagus a flavor that complements it nicely.
How to Roast Asparagus:
1) Wash the asparagus under cold running water. Do not soak. Rub the tips to make sure no grit is caught in them. Pat dry with a paper towel.
2) Place the asparagus on a cookie sheet and drizzle with 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Add salt and pepper. Combine by tossing the asparagus with your hands. Finish with some more salt–I like fleur de sel.
3) Bake 8-10 minutes, or until tender but not soggy.