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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.
Perhaps you’ve been wondering when I was going to post a recipe for a gratin. My blog is still in its early days, but since I called it Gratinee, I figured it was time.
What does gratinee mean? Its just another word for au gratin, and was the more popular term at the turn of the last century. Both of these words refer to any dish that is topped with cheese or a coating of bread crumbs, then browned in the oven to form a crisp golden crust. Such dishes are usually a combination of potatoes, vegetables, seafood, or meats, bound with a sauce like bechamel. Potato gratins are my favourite because the starch from the potatoes combined with some milk or cream creates a nice little sauce on its own. Gratins are so easy to make and are the ultimate in comfort food. They can be sinfully rich or relatively healthy–with the use of low-fat milk instead of butter and cream.
Gratins are a little retro, I know. But tell me, who can resist a mac n’ cheese with a breadcrumb topping, hot and bubbling from the oven? Or scalloped potatoes, sliced paper thin and layered with dots of butter and Gruyere? I can’t.
The possibilities of gratins are endless, and I offer you this simple recipe for one of my favourite weeknight suppers.
Potato & Eggplant Gratinee
for the eggplant:
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
For the gratin:
1 pound potatoes (about 4 or 5)
2 1/2 cups half & half, or milk
3/4 cup Gruyere cheese
1/8 teaspoon herbs de provence
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs* or panko
1 teaspoon olive oil
1) Preheat oven to 400F. Slice the eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let drain on a rack or in a colander for half an hour to release the bitterness. Dry off with paper towel and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.
2) Bake eggplant for about 25 minutes, or until well-browned. Turn over and bake for another 10 minutes. In the meantime, peel the potatoes and slice very thinly–preferably on a mandoline.
3) Layer the potato slices, eggplant, and cheese in an ovenproof gratin or casserole dish, sprinkling each layer with the herbs, salt and pepper, and dotting with bits of the butter and garlic. Be sure to finish the top layer with cheese.
4) Heat the cream or milk and pour it over the potatoes. Make sure it comes about three-quarters of the way up the side of the dish, not more. You may need a little more or less liquid, depending on the size of your potatoes and how thinly you slice them.
5) Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the potatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until the top is brown and the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes.
* Homemade breadcrumbs are much better than the store-bought kind. I start with leftover bread from the bakery; its good if the bread is a little stale. I tear the bread into pieces and pulse in a food processor until it’s coursely chopped. As an alternative, you might want to use Panko, the Japanese style of breadcrumbs that are popular these days. They’re easily available and work really well in gratin dishes.