You’d think at this point in my life, having gone through a number of years, I’d be used to the way the seasons change. But somehow it surprises and delights me every year to see the leaves change and watch the first snow fall. I’m also shocked every single autumn by how short the days suddenly become. It gets dark so early now! Holy-moly! Nowadays, even though it’s easy to buy any food you want at any time of the year, I think it’s important and pleasurable to mark the shift in the seasons by changing cooking styles and ingredients. As the nights get darker and colder, I feel like it becomes imperative to make heartier, creamier dishes (I justify this (as if it needs justification) because I still bike commute everywhere in the cold and sleet!), which you don’t really feel like eating on warm summer evenings. In chatting about the quintessentially fall foods we eat on Thanksgiving, a friend told me that his mother had recently started making a gratin of mixed sweet and regular potatoes that was amazing. Now, I don’t think I’m going to add this to my Thanksgiving meal this year because I’m just too fond of having my sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes separately. But, I thought, it sounded too good not to try at least something of the sort for a regular supper.
I had never actually made a gratin before. But, having eaten them, I felt I had a pretty good guess as to what the necessary components are. That being: vegetables, a white sauce, and cheese. And given how the dish turned out, I’m inclined to believe that my guess was correct. Anyone who thinks it requires anything more is making it more complicated than necessary (sure this may take it to the next level, but I was quite happy with the level I achieved). So, the key to making a gratin is knowing how to make a white sauce. Once you can do that you can au gratin-ate just about anything you please (as long as you also know how to grate cheese, which doesn’t usually take any advanced training, unless you want to be able to grate without scraping your knuckles, which I think might be virtually impossible).
If you happen to be Norwegian, you’re familiar with white sauce because you eat it on fish balls – which sounds nasty, I know, but is actually delicious! If you’re French you call it béchamel and put it on similarly fancy sounding things. It’s also a central feature of many creamy pasta dishes or casseroles, so it’s worth learning how to do. The first trick to a white sauce is making a roux. All this requires is melting a couple of Tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan (small pot), then adding approximately the same number of Tablespoons, or a little more, of flour and stirring them into a thick paste. If you want to make a well-thickened sauce, then you want to add enough flour so that when you stir it in it comes together into one or two large mushy chunks (sorry I’m not using more appetizing language – I promise it will be good by the end). Let this cook over the heat for a minute then start whisking in your liquid bit-by-bit, whisking well to get all the clumps out. Keep adding the liquid until the sauce is thinned to a creamy soup consistency, usually 1-2 cups of liquid, then simmer for a few minutes to let the sauce thicken again. If it gets too thick, you can always just add a bit more liquid, so start on the lower side and add more as needed. Your choice of liquid will depend on how rich you want the sauce. If you’re kind of wimpy (no judgment, I swear!) you can use low/non-fat milk, or a mix of cream and some chicken broth. If you’re going for super rich, over the top, you’ll use a cup of cream or half and half, and then a little milk or broth to top it off. It also never hurts to add a splash of white wine or sherry if you have some around. Add some salt and a good dose of black pepper to taste. You can also add one of your preferred spices that work with creaminess, like a pinch of nutmeg, or a dash of thyme or sage.
For making a gratin, first chop or slice the vegetables you want to use into similarly sized pieces and lightly cook them either in the oven or by steaming them. I think most hardy vegetables would be good au gratin, for example any roots (carrots, parsnips, turnips, sweet or regular potatoes, rutabagas, etc.), zucchini or summer squash, winter squash, cauliflower or broccoli, even asparagus or leafies like kale and chard. Once they’re lightly cooked, put them in a baking pan or casserole dish – you can make them into nice layers if you’re ambitious, otherwise just throw them in and spread them out evenly into a thick layer – and heat the oven to 400?F. Grate about a cup of a cheese of your choice (parmesan tends to be a good choice, but you can also use other cheeses you like, like cheddar, Swiss/Gruyere, or maybe a soft goat cheese – don’t try to grate the goat cheese!). Make your white sauce, and once it’s ready, stir in about half the cheese. Then pour the sauce over the vegetables. Sprinkle the veggies with the rest of the cheese and bake for 20-30 minutes, until it’s all bubbly and fragrant. If you’re into bread crumbs on top of your gratins and casseroles, you could also stir a couple of Tablespoons of melted butter into a half cup of bread crumbs and sprinkle these over the top of the veggies before baking.
Here’s something a bit more like a recipe for you to follow, if you’d like. But, I’d encourage you to play around and use the combination of ingredients that you have around. For my weekly Sunday potluck, for example, I’m planning on trying a carrot and cheddar gratin (I have a massive bag of carrots lying about in my fridge). A gratin like this is hardy enough to be a main dish, served with some salad. Or you could use it as a side dish.
Maiden-voyage Mixed Root Vegetables Au Gratin:
- 4 parsnips, 2 turnips, and 2 sweet potatoes, peeled (well, at least mostly – at least take off the toughest least edible looking parts of the skin) and sliced into ¼ inch thick pieces
- 3-4 Tbs. butter
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 1/2 cups milk (or half and half if you want to get wild)
- salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of nutmeg
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese.
- Put the sliced vegetables in a 9X13” baking pan or casserole dish, cover, and bake at 350-375?F for about 40 minutes, until the veggies are tender but not totally cooked. Take out of the oven and turn the oven up to 400?F.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in the flour to make a roux (thick paste). Let this warm in the pan for a moment, then slowly stir in the milk, whisking the whole time to prevent lumpiness. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Let this heat until it begins to bubble, then stir in half your cheese and pour the sauce over the vegetables in the baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese.
- Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is melted and becoming golden. Serve to warm up a cold dark evening with creamy, cheesy cheer!