Gratins: The ideal winter comfort food
Bean and Winter Squash Gratin. Illustrates GRATINS (category d), by Emily C. Horton, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)
Celery Root-Kale Gratin With Walnut Bread Crumbs. Illustrates GRATINS (category d), by Emily C. Horton, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)
Gratins are the ideal winter comfort food. Cauliflower-Pasta Gratin. Illustrates GRATINS (category d), by Emily C. Horton, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)
Savoy Cabbage and Farro Gratin With Fontina. Savoy cabbage, with its ruffled leaves, is especially nice here because of its pretty appearance and succulent texture. Illustrates GRATINS (category d), by Emily C. Horton, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey)
Plenty of oven-baked dishes are worth romanticizing about, especially during a bracingly cold winter. Their aromas and warmth can permeate an entire home, even one with old bones and scanty insulation, like mine. They seem to take care of themselves, at least in those final stages of cooking. And they promise warming, savory comfort for the table.
A gratin, though, can do even more. It emerges from the oven not only fragrant and bubbling hot but with a browned, crisp crust crowning the luxurious goodness underneath. What I’ve come to appreciate most is the gratin’s ability to make something special out of ordinary ingredients, on any ordinary night. Consider a casserole of meaty borlotti beans, their juices concentrated beneath a shaggy coat of bread crumbs, or a jumble of toasted farro and ruffly savoy cabbage, baked until the center is lacy with melted cheese and the top is chewy and crisp. These dishes come together like weeknight meals, but they’re dressed up just enough to taste like something more.
That in itself seems like nourishment.
But the gratin seems to suffer from an image problem: We view it largely as a side dish, a very special, rich one, most often built of potatoes. We imagine heavy cloaks of cream, cheese or bread crumbs, if not all three. In other words, the term “gratin” conjures up something delicious, but also something rather heavy, something you ought not eat a lot of, or very often. That is less an unfair portrayal than an incomplete one.
Perhaps the most revered is the gratin dauphinois, with its layer upon layer of thinly sliced potatoes, poured over with cream, seasoned and baked until a delicate golden crust forms over the sumptuous whole. It is a marvel of transformation that owes its delectability not just to cream, but also to the starch the potatoes exude as they bake.
Then there is the gratin savoyard, so named for its origins in the Alpine Savoie. It is occasionally made with cream but more often with beef broth, perhaps a saner, more balanced partner for the liberal gratings of cheese it employs.
Those dishes, the royalty of gratins, obscure the preparation’s potential for versatility. The only feature the gratin truly requires is a browned, crisp topping – and, to achieve it, a shallow enough baking dish with sufficient surface area.
The word itself translates as crust, originally derived from the French verb “gratter,” meaning to scratch or scrape. Depending on whom you ask, that action refers to either the actual grating or scraping of cheese or bread crumbs on top, or the onetime practice of scraping the crusty bits from the side and bottom of the baking dish back into the whole.
Regardless, it is the upper crust that makes the gratin so irresistible. (That explains the French idiomatic usage of the term “le gratin” to refer to a society’s or particular group’s elite.)
Beyond that qualification, the gratin is practically limitless, as flexible as pasta, or stew: You can convey any number of flavors with any number of ingredients, depending on what you have a taste for and what’s in your pantry.
“The gratin really is a blank canvas,” said Clotilde Dusoulier, author of The French Market Cookbook and the blog Chocolate & Zucchini. “You can use whatever scraps you have in the fridge and give them new life in a gratin.”
Dusoulier, who is French, grew up with the gratin. Her mother’s routine dish was of cauliflower, dressed in a bechamel sauce (a lighter, more workaday alternative to heavy cream) and finished with Comte cheese. She made another with pureed pumpkin as the base. In her own Paris kitchen, Dusoulier prepares gratins conventional and less so: a silky, burnished dauphinois she makes lighter by replacing much of the traditional cream with milk; quickly assembled weeknight dishes of spaghetti squash with mozzarella and bread crumbs, or macaroni with bechamel.
Journalist and cookbook author Susan Hermann Loomis, who teaches cooking classes at her school On Rue Tatin in Louviers, Normandy, favors versions made with cream and leans to potatoes, but she builds gratins with other vegetables, too: celery root with cauliflower, for instance, or a roots trifecta of celery root, potatoes and sunchoke.
South from Paris, gratins veer lighter, often taking the name “tian” for the flared, shallow dish in which they are baked. They often feature olive oil in lieu of cream, and many of the vegetables we associate with summer: tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplant.
Melding these regional approaches can sometimes yield the most compelling results. Wisps of potatoes cooked in broth and olive oil, for instance, or slices of eggplant baked in a custardy cream: These are unexpected but wholly satisfying alignments of flavor and textures; with a leafy salad and a loaf of bread, they are dinner. Heartier ingredients – legumes and grains, for instance – also have a place.
“Beans and pasta make a great gratin,” said Deborah Madison, chef and author most recently of Vegetable Literacy. “And the combination is good for people who aren’t too sure about eating beans, because they’re reassured by the pasta.”
And though none of my recipes include meat – I’m vegetarian – gratins are a great place to slip in shreds of leftovers, such as last night’s roast chicken. Bacon or sausage, too, can add punctuations of flavor.
The gratin is, in other words, open to interpretation, gracious, perhaps even a little charitable. It is not the speediest of dishes from start to finish – leave that to a quick pasta sauce – but low-maintenance relative to its rewards. Assembly can be leisurely; later, in the oven, saved from the cook’s poking and prodding and stirring and messing, the dish is left to gently transform itself while the rest of the meal is being prepared.
“I talk to my students a lot about making food relax,” said Loomis. In a gratin, she explained, ingredients are resting, exchanging flavors.
That pace can, and should, carry into serving. To wit: Never serve a gratin straight from the oven, no matter how tantalizing it looks. Apart from the obvious hazards to the roof of the mouth, most gratins benefit tremendously from a short rest, during which the juices redistribute and settle, yielding a more uniformly moist result.
Most gratins, additionally, lose very little by being made in advance. Some, Dusoulier said, are actually all the better for it, so long as any reheating happens in the oven and not the microwave. Depending on its constituents, a gratin might not require rewarming at all. A leftover gratin of zucchini and tomatoes, for example, is lovely at room temperature. Years ago, I picked up a tip from Madison to spread such remnants on grilled or toasted pieces of bread, and I’ve never looked back.
For the cook’s part, using an earthenware baking dish is a nice gesture (some would argue essential), not only because it distributes heat evenly and keeps the food warm but also because it doubles gracefully as a serving dish, which, as Madison points out, is one of the gratin’s most charming attributes. And you do want to bring the gratin to the table intact, its crust lovely and golden. Give it a chance to show off. It doesn’t ask for much.
Celery Root-Kale Gratin With Walnut Bread Crumbs
2 pounds celery root (celeriac), peeled and cut into 1/2-to-3/4-inch cubes
2 cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thinly from top to bottom
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons white wine or dry cider
Leaves from 1 bunch lacinato or curly kale, rinsed (but not dried) and torn into bite-size pieces
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread, crusts removed
1/3 cup walnut halves or pieces
Place the celery root pieces in a large saucepan; add enough of the broth to barely cover, reserving at least 1/4 cup of the broth from the original 2 cups. Cook over medium heat; once the liquid starts to bubble, cook for about 5 minutes or until the celery root is fork-tender. Turn off the heat.
Heat half of the oil in a heavy saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, stirring to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent, then stir in the garlic and thyme. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion is tender and starting to pick up color.
Stir in the wine or cider; cook for a minute or two.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the celery root to the onion mixture, stirring gently to incorporate. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and cook for a few minutes (over medium-low heat) to meld the flavors. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Discard the remaining broth used to cook the celery root, or reserve for another use.
Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into the same saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat; once the oil shimmers, add the kale and half of the reserved broth. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, stirring to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; partially cover and cook for 3 to 10 minutes until softened, depending on the toughness/type of the kale used. Stir occasionally; reduce the heat to low if the kale seems dry, or add the remaining reserved broth.
Transfer to the mixing bowl and season with the pepper and remaining salt.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a shallow 2-quart baking dish at hand.
Tear the bread into chunks, dropping them into a food processor as you work. Pulse to form coarse bread crumbs, then transfer to a separate bowl. Pulse the walnuts in the food processor briefly, just until coarsely chopped, then add to the bread crumbs. Drizzle the mix with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and toss gently to coat.
Spread the celery root-kale mixture in the baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with bread-crumb-walnut mixture. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the top is deep golden and the gratin is bubbling.
Wait for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 4 servings.
MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until warmed through; cover with aluminum foil if the topping starts to brown too much.
Savoy Cabbage and Farro Gratin With Fontina
1 cup semi-pearled farro (may substitute semi-pearled barley or rye berries)
pinch, plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 small or half a large savoy cabbage, cored (may substitute green or firm napa cabbage or lacinato kale)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
1 large shallot, minced
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon caraway seed, toasted (see note)
1 cup homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth
11/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
5 ounces fontina cheese, freshly grated or shredded (may substitute raclette cheese)
Toast half of the farro in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant, shaking the pan as needed to avoid scorching. Transfer to a medium saucepan; repeat with the remaining farro.
Cover the farro with water by a few inches and add the pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low; partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender yet still a bit chewy. Drain.
Coarsely chop the cabbage.
Heat the oil in the same large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the shallot and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until translucent, stirring a few times. Add the cabbage, the 1/2 teaspoon salt, the pepper and the toasted caraway seed, stirring to incorporate.
Stir in 3 tablespoons of the broth; reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the cabbage has wilted yet remains moist and somewhat plump. Stir occasionally and add broth if the mixture seems dry. Remove from the heat and stir in the drained farro and thyme leaves.
Add 4 ounces of the cheese and toss gently to incorporate.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a little oil to grease a 2 1/2-to-3-quart baking dish.
Spread the cabbage mixture evenly in the baking dish, then pour 2/3 cup of the broth over it. Sprinkle with the remaining ounce of cheese. Bake for 25 for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted, the cabbage is browned in spots and the gratin is bubbling. Wait for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 4 servings .
MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until it is warmed through and sizzling.
NOTE: Toast the caraway seed in a small skillet over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until fragrant, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from the heat.
Bean and Winter Squash Gratin
1 cup dried borlotti (cranberry) beans (or tiger’s eye or any pinto-style bean)
fine sea salt
1 bay leaf
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread (crusts removed)
flesh from 1 pound winter squash, such as kabocha or Hubbard, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion, cut into small dice
2 large carrots, scrubbed and cut into small dice
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1 dried arbol chili pepper, seeded and crumbled (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, cut in half (any green sprout removed)
Place the beans in a pot with water to cover by several inches; bring to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, cover the pot and let the beans soak for 1 hour. Alternatively, they can be left to soak in tepid water to cover by several inches for 8 to 12 hours.
Add to the beans and their soaking liquid a generous pinch of salt, the bay leaf and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add water if necessary to keep the beans submerged by 2 to 3 inches. Cook over medium-high heat; once the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The beans might take longer than 1 hour to cook, depending on their freshness. Leave them in their soaking liquid while you finish preparing the rest of the gratin.
Tear the bread into chunks and place them in a food processor; pulse into crumbs. Transfer to a bowl and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil, tossing to coat evenly.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the squash pieces with 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, turning them once with a spatula after about 15 minutes, until lightly golden and tender.
Heat 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the oil in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots, stirring to coat; cook until tender and just beginning to turn golden, about 7 minutes. Stir in the thyme, fennel seed and dried arbol chili pepper; cook for 2 minutes, then gently fold in the squash just until incorporated.
Discard the bay leaf from the beans; drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and gently stir them into the squash mixture. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and the black pepper.
Rub the bottom and sides of a shallow 2-quart baking dish with the cut halves of garlic; discard the garlic or reserve it for another use.
Transfer the bean-squash mixture to the baking dish. Pour 3/4 to 1 cup of the reserved bean-cooking liquid evenly over the top of the dish, and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden. Wait for at least 15 minutes before serving.
MAKE AHEAD: The beans need to be boiled briefly, then soaked for 1 hour; or soak them for 8 to 12 hours. The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until warmed through; cover with aluminum foil if the topping starts to brown too much.
Using a bechamel in place of cream is a wonderful way to achieve a creamy, luscious result that isn’t overly rich. If you’d like something cheesier, you can stir an additional 1/4 to 1/2 cup of grated cheese - more Parmigiano-Reggiano or something different, such as Gruyere or fontina - into the finished bechamel.
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1 sprig rosemary
1 clove garlic, smashed or crushed
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for the pasta cooking water
1-pound head cauliflower
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more as needed
pinch ground mace (may substitute nutmeg)
12 ounces dried whole-wheat fusilli (may substitute other small-shaped pasta, or use farro pasta)
11/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (may substitute pecorino-Romano cheese)
Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand.
Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until bubbles begin to appear. Add the rosemary sprig and the garlic; remove from the heat to steep for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup, discarding the solids.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Separate/cut the cauliflower florets and core into bite-size pieces, then add to the boiling water; cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cauliflower is just tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cauliflower pieces to the baking dish, spreading them in a single layer. Reserve the cooking water in the pot; you’ll use it to cook the pasta.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Melt the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for several minutes to form a smooth roux. Gradually add the steeped milk, whisking until completely incorporated. Increase the heat to medium; once the mixture is barely bubbling, whisk for about 20 minutes to form a bechamel sauce thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season with the teaspoon of salt, the black pepper and mace. Turn off the heat.
About 10 minutes into the cooking of the sauce, return the large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Drain, then add to the baking dish with the cauliflower.
Whisk the bechamel to an even smoothness, if needed; pour evenly over the cauliflower and pasta, then fold gently to incorporate. Sprinkle evenly with cheese and with black pepper, if desired. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the gratin is bubbling, the cheese is melted and the exposed bits of pasta are browned.
Wait for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until warmed through.