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For some it might have been potato or green bean, but for me my gratin affinity began at an early age with macaroni and cheese. You know, the good old-fashioned kind with real cheddar and whole milk thickened with roux or egg yolks. The one that is baked until the correct ratio of crispy, crunchy top to creamy interior is achieved. It taught me early on in life just how fantastic a great food friendship is.
Then, as I came of age, somehow the gratin became any one-dish. It is tuna with the thin crispy onion rings baked on top or Chicken Divan with broccoli, cheddar, and crumbled Ritz crackers providing the crunch. There is the obligatory cottage pie, as done in the Midwest, topped with both cheddar and mozzarella, then browned. For a while, it was a multitude of eggy breakfast casseroles, all, of course, involving more cheddar.
It became neat, rectangular, and predictable. It served twelve. It was a 9x13 casserole world and I was living it.
I was fortunate. I got out. I went to college, I travelled, I ate.
With knowledge and experience came diversity. And we all know diversity makes the world a much better place. So I developed friendships with lasagna, cassoulet, moussaka, and the timballo, to name a few.
Through it all, and even though we didn’t see each other as much, the gratin remained my favorite.
What I realized is the gratin is the kick-ass cousin who went to college too. And when you reconnect at the family reunion you realize you hang with them because they are exciting, interesting, and you can rest assured that there is more depth to them than a spiky haircut and a couple of tattoos. You get each other in that way only family can.
I like the gratin's quirks. I like its fondness for juxtaposition. I know that, without pretense, Tournedos Rossini can snuggle in next to a celery root gratin as easily as can Irish bangers and, regardless of which side of the tracks it finds itself, the gratin brings comfort to the table, weight to the unbearable lightness of being.
The thing is, the gratin comes by these traits naturally. But I also know that the things that make it stand out -- the creamy interior and crunchy top -- don’t just happen, that the building of flavors takes effort, and that without a true friend's presence the gratin's popularity might wane.
But then that is what true friends do, you know, bring out the best in each other, and relish in each others' success.
• There are a few ways to achieve the creamy interior and crunchy top:
1) Cook the gratin covered, keeping the interior moist and creamy. Then, at the end of cooking, you remove the cover to let the top crisp and brown. i.e. scalloped potatoes.
2) Blanch the interior ingredients until tender then add them to the dish with cream, cheese or bread crumbs. i.e. mac 'n cheese.
3) Boil the ingredients till tender then mash, spread into a gratin, and top with cheese or breadcrumbs or both. i.e. celery root gratin.
• The right moisture content for the creamy interior is important. If you are using a mash, make sure it is moderately loose because as the gratin bakes the moisture will evaporate.
• By using a gratin pan you allow for a larger ratio of crunchy top. Also, because the pan is shallow it is much more likely that the interior will cook at the same rate as the top browns, so they both finish up at the same time.
• Don’t be afraid to brown the top under the broiler if needed -- just be careful and keep a close eye.
• When I make a gratin from a mash I like to leave it chunky for texture. I also like to use the tines of a fork to create a crosshatch pattern in the top before sprinkling on the cheese, again creating more crunch and caramelization.
• Juxtapositions work very well with gratins, like the Irish Bangers with Celery Root Gratin and Sauce Robert in the above photo. It's the unexpected rich man/poor man, brought together by the gratin.
Celery Root and Potato Gratin
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
3/4 cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon saffron, crushed
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup gruyere or comte cheese, grated
Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper