For dinner last night, to accompany a simple poached salmon, I made a classic potato gratin. This one turned out a lot better than the gratin I attempted at Thanksgiving, and it didn’t take nearly as long to cook. Here’s what I learned about making a good gratin.
A gratin is generally a vegetable dish that is characterized by its browned crust of cheese or cheese mixed with breadcrumbs. Gratins are typically baked in a shallow dish and served in its baking dish. While usually made with vegetables, macaroni and cheese is also a type of gratin. Seafood is often cooked this way, as well.
A gratin requires three ingredients: one or two vegetables; a cooking liquid; and a grated hard cheese. Within those parameters, there really is a lot of leeway. The classic gratin is potatoes, cream and gruyere, but you can get quite creative.
First, the vegetables. As I said, potatoes are classic, and that’s what I used last night, but I also layered in slivered kale and collard greens that melded nicely with the sauce. The most important thing about the vegetables is to slice them thinly so that they will cook quickly. Choose enough vegetables to make two layers — no more than two! — in a shallow gratin or casserole dish. Any more layers than that and the gratin will take too long to cook.
The liquid can be heavy cream for a very rich gratin, but you can also lighten it with substitutions such as half cream and half milk; stock or half stock and half wine; bechamel sauce; or even tomato sauce. You’ll need about 1 cup. Unless you’re using cream, bring the liquid to a simmer beforehand to cut the cooking time.
Finally, the cheese — any hard grating cheese will do. I used Irish cheddar, and it was delicious. The classic choice is gruyere or emmenthal. Parmesan is another good choice. How much cheese you use is up to you. For a more cheesy gratin, you might put ¼-½ cup grated between each layer. For a lighter dish, add just enough cheese on top — combined with breadcrumbs, if you like — to get the browned, chewy crust that makes a gratin a gratin.
Here’s how to assemble the gratin:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bring 1 cup of cooking liquid to a simmer.
- Toss the thinly sliced vegetables with olive oil and slivered garlic.
- Arrange the vegetables in two layers in a gratin dish or shallow casserole dish, seasoning each layer and sprinkling grated cheese between the layers, if you like.
- Finish with a final layer of cheese, mixed with breadcrumbs, if desired.
- Pour enough liquid over so that all but the topmost layer is covered. When you press down on the top layer, the liquid should ooze up but not cover the top layer.
- Bake until the vegetables are tender, the cheese is melted and browned, and the liquid is almost fully absorbed. This takes about 1 hour for potatoes, less for quicker-cooking vegetables.
- If the top isn’t browned enough, turn on the broiler for a few minutes to finish cooking.
- Serve in the baking dish.
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