AU GRATINS ARE GOLDEN
Like most people, I love gratins. They make a pretty presentation, the topping enhances the flavor and creates an interesting contrast in texture. Crispy, but not dry, it complements the softer body of the dish. There is a wide variety of gratins for every course, one might even say that French Onion Soup is a gratin, with its topping of bread and cheese but the true value of this category of dishes is in their convenience.
They are a menu planner‘s and cook’s dream because they can be prepared ahead of baking or partially baked and finished or transported and finished on site. This quality makes gratins the perfect dishes to consider with the holidays coming up, an answer to how to organize a communal Thanksgiving, a major holiday dinner or buffet supper or what to bring to a club pot-luck Christmas party. Last year, I wrote several posts on easily prepared and/or portable side dishes (11/3/16. 11/10/16, 12/15/16) and gratins deserve a place at the top of those lists.
The appeal of gratins has nothing to do with their easy fit into our current lifestyle. It goes back centuries and led to the naming of the recipe category. ”Gratin” in French means “crispy and slightly burnt”; “Au Gratin” means “with crumbs”. Centuries ago, when food was baked in iron pots in the embers of an open fireplace, it had to be inverted onto a platter to be served. Often the bottom had formed a crusty, browned layer which was considered a treat. With the development of closed ovens and serving ware that went from oven to table, inverting food was no longer needed. People missed the crusty ‘gratin’ but baking was more even and the layer had disappeared.
The solution was to create a topping layer to imitate it. Other cuisines hit on breadcrumbs but the French just had to improve on that by making it into a flavor element, naming it ‘Au Gratin’ and turning the recipes using it into a food category. The traditional ‘gratin’ is cheese and/or breadcrumbs. Butter, dotted or melted and drizzled over is an option. Crushed crackers, cereals, potato chips and cookies are permitted as well. However, these are all cooked items as opposed to the ‘crumb’ and ‘crisp’ toppings found on desserts, which are based on raw flour. They are not ‘gratins’.
Gratins can be made with most foods and added to many casseroles, as shown in the recipes below, but they are chiefly associated with recipes using cream sauces. The interesting thing is that when cooking gratins with starchy items like potatoes or pasta, there’s no need for a roux or added thickener. The gluten in those ingredients releases in cooking and thickens the sauce alone, making preparation a breeze.
So with the holidays ahead, or just for general meal planning, check out my past articles on side dishes in the Home Page panorama, there are still more listed in the Archives, and try some gratins. There’s a nice selection of recipes below to start you on the way. One is actually a low cost dinner and another great for leftover chicken. I’ll bet you’ll be glad you tried some!
Boursin Stuffed Mushrooms:
Serves about 4 From 500 -3 Ingredient Recipes by Robert and Carol Hildebrand
16 large mushroom caps
8 oz. Boursin cheese
1 cup Panko
Remove the mushroom stems, and wipe the caps. Stuff them with the cheese, then press the Panko on the tops, patting to cover completely. Place the mushrooms in a pan with ¼ cup water in the bottom and bake at 400 deg. 10-12 min. until they’re soft and the Panko is golden. Serve hot.
NOTE: Can be made several hours ahead and kept chilled. Bring to room temp before cooking.
Roasted Potato, Garlic and Leek Gratin:
2 lbs. russet potatoes-peeled and sliced
½ leek- sliced
1 Tbs. roasted garlic paste
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 ¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. grated nutmeg
2 Tbs. sour cream
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup grated Swiss cheese
Bring milk, salt, bay leaf, and nutmeg to a boil. Add vegetables and garlic, reduce to a simmer and cook 10-15 min. Remove solids to a 1 ½ quart shallow casserole dish with a slotted spoon. Discard bay leaf. Stir sour cream and mustard into milk mix, pour over potatoes and bake at 425 deg. for 10 min. Scatter cheese over top and bake an additional 15 min. until cheese is golden and bubbles. Serve hot.
Serves 6 This is one of the most famous gratin dishes. You will find it’s more compact than the Potatoes Au Gratin we’re used to. From Bay Books’ The Food of France
2 ¼ lb. floury potatoes
2 garlic cloves crushed
½ cup grated Swiss cheese-divided. 2 Tbs. in reserve for topping
1 ¼ cups half and half
½ cup heavy cream
Thinly slice the potatoes with a mandolin or knife. Place 1 layer in a well-buttered 9”X 6”baking dish, sprinkle with some nutmeg, garlic and cheese. Repeat layers ending with potatoes. Pour liquid over and top with reserved cheese. Bake in a preheated 350 deg. oven until potatoes are cooked and liquid is completely absorbed. If top browns too quickly, cover with foil. Allow to stand 10 min. before slicing to serve.
Fennel, Tomato and Garlic Gratin:
Serves 4. Another recipe from Bay Books
2 lb.4 oz. fennel bulb
1 large red onion halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/3 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves-crushed
1 lb. 2 oz. tomatoes-peeled and chopped
2 ¼ oz. fresh white bread(3-4 slices) made into crumbs in a processer =about 1-1 ½ cups
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 garlic clove crushed
2 tsp. lemon zest tsp. lemon zest
Peel tomatoes by dipping into boiling water for 10-20 sec., roughly chop. Cut fennel bulbs in half lengthwise and thinly slice with a mandolin or knife. Saute the onion in the oil until just softened, about 2-3 min. add garlic and cook 2 min. add funnel and cook 7 min. stirring frequently until soft and golden.
Add tomatoes and cook 5 min. or until tomatoes are soft. Pour mixture into a buttered 8 ½ inch square pan. Toss together all the gratin ingredients and scatter over the dish. Bake in a preheated 400 deg. oven until top is golden and crisp, about 15 min. Serve hot.
Chicken with Mushrooms in Cream Sauce:
2 chicken thighs-rinsed well and trimmed of fat
½ medium onion –sliced in half then quartered
4 mushroom caps about 1 ½ inch diameter each-quartered
3 oz. milk or half and half
½ tsp. chicken bouillon granules
½ tsp. dried sage
1 ½ Tbs. butter-divided
2 Tbs. white wine-optional
1 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup –or more-Panko
Cook the chicken in just enough water to cover until tender. Cool, skin, bone and separate in bite sized pieces; reserve broth. Saute vegetables in 1 Tbs. butter until onion is soft, about 3 min. using a slotted spoon, remove to plate with chicken. Measure 5 oz. of broth, add 3 oz. milk or cream, white wine, sage and bouillon to equal 1cup fluid. Melt reserved butter in the remaining butter in pan; bring to foam, remove from heat and add flour stirring to make a roux or paste.* Quickly add liquid and return to heat stirring constantly as it simmers until thickened, about 3 min. Remove from heat and correct seasonings. Fold in the meat and vegetables then pour into 1 casserole or 2 ramekins. Sprinkle with panko and cheese and bake at 360 deg. 20-25 min. until top is golden and sauce bubbles. Serve hot at once, or prepare ahead and bake before serving.
*For a lower fat rendition, replace the roux with 1 Tbs. cornstarch dissolved in the liquid and proceed to cook as directed above.
Gratin of Creamed Salmon or Other (Canned) Fish*:
Serves 4-6 From Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
1 ½ cups cooked canned fish—well drained, juice reserved
¼ cup minced onion
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. flour
1 cup milk
¼ cup white wine
4-6 Tbs. cream
¼ tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper
Optional add-ins-mushrooms, green pepper, hard boiled eggs
¼ cup grated Swiss cheese
1 Tbs. butter
Measure the milk, fish juice and wine to equal 1 ½ cups. If short add some of the cream or more milk. Brown the onions in the butter, then make a roux, following the directions above use the flour, milk, fish juice, wine and seasonings to make a thick sauce. Thin if desired with the cream. Fold in the fish and options, if using, and pour into a baking dish, preferably only 2 inches deep. Sprinkle with cheese and dot with the 1 Tbs. butter. Bake at 425 deg. for 15-20 min. until top is browned.
*NOTE: This is a great recipe for shellfish, mollusks and chunks of firm fish. In fact, Crab Au Gratin was very popular in the mid 20thCen. Simply replace the canned fish with an equal quantity of chosen seafood. Replace the fish liquid with cream from the stated quantity, and proceed as directed above.
Pears Au Gratin:
Serves 6 –Also from Julia Child’s book cited above
2 lb. pears- fresh or canned, peeled, cored and sliced 3/8 inch thick
¼ cup white wine OR mix of pear juice and wine
¼ cup apricot preserves or jam
½ cup cookie crumbs, preferably macaroons
1 Tbs. butter
1 baking dish 8 inches by 2 inches deep smeared with 2 Tbs. butter
Arrange the pears in a circular pattern in the baking dish. Beat the liquid and the preserves together, strain and pour over the pears. Sprinkle with the crumbs and dot with the butter. Bake on the middle rack in a preheated 400 deg. oven for 20-30 min. until top is golden. Serve hot, room temp or chilled.