gratin dauphinois (potatoes au gratin)

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One advantage of screwing up a recipe is that at least you know when you don’t screw it up. The first time I made this recipe, I thought I might have overcooked it. The second time, I knew I overcooked it.

I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue. I have two of his books and I’ve enjoyed them both. He claims to have made a gratin once a week for the past ten years and calls this one “so fantastically good that [he has] made it every day for the past few weeks.” I’m not capable of resisting that recommendation, regardless of the half stick of butter and 1½ cups of cream. (Yikes.)

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Steingarten developed his recipe to maximize the crispy parts, so the potatoes are placed in the baking pan in a single layer. Steingarten considers cheese in this type of gratin “a gross and pitiful imposture”, because the cream should reduce to a cheese-like flavor, so adding cheese is unnecessary. I have to do one more quote, because there’s no way I’ll be able to describe this as accurately and enticingly as Steingarten (which is why he is a professional and I am a blogger). “[The liquid] will coat the vegetable with an intensely flavorful concentrate…and the surface…is beautifully browned and crusty and delicious.”

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Steingarten also says “if your gratin is truly brilliant, the bottom will become golden and crisp as well.” My gratin was not, and has never been with this recipe, truly brilliant. I’m not sure why; my only theory is that I’m using Pyrex when cast iron would be a better choice. The only cast iron cook/bakeware I have is my Dutch oven, but maybe I’ll try baking this is an All-Clan stainless steel skillet next time to see if I can get the bottom crust to form.

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The recipe isn’t particularly difficult; it looks long due to Steingarten’s very detailed instructions. I typed out the recipe in Steingarten’s exact words because they have so much of his writing style in them, which I thought was worth keeping. However, there are aspects of the recipe that I change. A minor one is replacing the white pepper with black pepper, not only because I keep the black pepper on the counter and the white pepper requires some digging in the pantry, but because I think the flavor is better with the potatoes. Also, Steingarten calls for a pound and a half of potatoes, and says that “you will undoubtedly have some slices leftover.” With the pan size he calls for, I tend to have at least a third of the slices leftover. I’ve found that I should either increase the pan size or decrease the potatoes I slice.

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Steingarten is also careful to instruct that the potatoes should be removed from the oven before “the cream has broken down into clear, foamy butterfat”. Oops. Good advice. Otherwise you end up with a disgusting greasy mess that makes it all too obvious that there’s a dismaying amount of fat in the recipe.

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But, if you do it right, you have deliciously tender, creamy, crisp potatoes that don’t need cheese to taste cheesey or bread crumbs to be crispy. On the top. If you try the recipe and get a crispy bottom too, let me know!

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Gratin Dauphinois (from Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must’ve Been Something I Ate)

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
1 (scant) cup milk
1 large garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, about a dozen gratings
1½ pounds baking potatoes
1½ cups heavy cream

Special equipment: A large, low baking dish made of enameled iron, glass, or earthernware. The quantities in this recipe work out perfectly when baked in a dish measuring about 120 square inches on the inside bottom, where the slices of potato will lie. This translates into a rectangle 9-by-13 inches, or 10-by-12 inches; an 11-inch square; a 12-inch circle; or an oval 10-by-15 inches. An enameled iron baking dish is preferred – mine is made by Le Creuset – because it produces a delectable crust underneath the potatoes. A hand-sliced device, such as a traditional French stainless-steel mandoline or a much less expensive but excellent plastic Japanese-made device manufactures by Benriner.

Let the butter soften at room temperature for an hour or so. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425F.

Place the milk, garlic clove, pepper, salt, and nutmeg in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, liberally butter the bottom of the baking dish using about half the butter. Peel the potatoes, rinse them, and pat them dry. Then, slice them 1/8-inch thick, discarding the smallest slices. (This is easier with a slicing machine, inexpensive or elaborate. The quantities and cooking times given here work out best when the slices are even and close to 1/8 inch. Just keep adjusting your slicing machine until a little pile of eight slices measures an inch high.) Under no circumstances should you wash the potatoes after they have been sliced – the surface starch is absolutely indispensable.

Evenly arrange the potatoes in the buttered dish in one layer of overlapping slices. (Begin by laying out a row of slices along one narrow end of the baking dish, overlapping each one about a third of the way over the slice that came before. Repeat with a second row. Continue until the baking dish is neatly paved.) You will undoubtedly have some slices left over. Please do not try to cram them in.

Bring the milk to the boil again and pour it over the potatoes, removing the garlic. Cover the pan with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes, until most of the milk has been absorbed. Meanwhile, bring the cream to a boil, and remove from the heat. When the potatoes are ready, remove and discard the aluminum foil. Bring the cream back to the boil and pour it over the potatoes, dotting the surface with the remaining butter.

Bake, uncovered, for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the potatoes have turned a golden brown, spotted with darker, crisp area. (Rotate the baking dish halfway through if the gratin is browning unevenly.) The underside of the gratin will also be brown and crispy in spots. But do not wait until most of the cream has broken down into clear, foamy butterfat. The potatoes should be dotted with thickened, clotted cream, especially between the slices.

Let the gratin settle for 10 minutes. (This will allow the excess butterfat to drain to the bottom of the dish.) Then eat immediately – taste and texture suffer with each passing minute. Cut into 6 or 8 rectangles with a blunt knife and serve each one with a thin, wide metal slotted spatula.

roasted carrots

Carrots, like bananas, make a perfect snack. They’re easy, they travel well, and they’re healthy. They make such a great snack, in fact, that I’ve eaten one almost every weekday for several years. Oh my gosh, I am so sick of the daily carrot.

And I work at home three days per week. So why am I eating raw carrots day in and day out, when I could have sweet, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside roasted carrots with just five minutes of effort?

I know they lose nutrients (and fiber? I’m not sure) when you cook them, but for me, it’s a compromise that I have to make. If I tried to force myself to eat them raw when that doesn’t sound at all appealing, it’s a pretty safe bet that I’d end up eating cookie dough instead.

Although I tend to eat carrots as a snack, this would make a great side dish for all kinds of meals. Roasting brings out the best in carrots.

Roasted Carrots (from Ina Garten)

Bridget note: There’s quite a bit of flexibility in this recipe. I use regular table salt and just enough oil to coat the carrots. I mix those ingredients right in the pan instead of dirtying another bowl. I tend to roast the carrots at a higher temperature, simply because I forget the right temperature and am too lazy to check the recipe. I always skip the fresh herbs at the end.

12 carrots, peeled
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill or parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

If the carrots are thick, cut them in half lengthwise; if not, leave whole. Slice the carrots diagonally in 1½-inch-thick slices. (The carrots will shrink while cooking so make the slices big.) Toss them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer to a sheet pan in 1 layer and roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until browned and tender.

Toss the carrots with minced dill or parsley, season to taste, and serve.

mashed potatoes with kale

This dish reminds me of one of the great things about my husband. As we sat down to eat roast chicken served with kale and mashed potatoes, never once did he ask “um…what’s the green stuff in the potatoes?” or even look sideways at it. And not because he’s being polite, but because he’s so extremely unpicky. And maybe he trusts me to serve him good food? (Or at least warn him with prolific whining if I don’t think the food will be good.)

And why should he worry? Kale has a great savory flavor that it goes perfectly with mashed potatoes, almost like gravy does. Plus there’s a pool of butter on top. You can’t go wrong with a pool of butter.

The recipe comes together relatively easily. The potatoes are peeled, diced and boiled just liked normal mashed potatoes. (Oh, except I’m anal about mashed potatoes, so I actually steam the potatoes instead of boil them. You should try it – they taste amazing, just like potatoes should, even without salt, because they don’t absorb water.) The kale is cooked separately, slowly braised with onion, which is a common cooking method for kale. After mashing, the two are combined, along with some milk that’s been steeped with carrot and bay.

I have to admit, I didn’t taste any evidence of the carrot or bay. Also, while it seems that pooling the butter in the potatoes is traditional for this dish, I think I would prefer it mixed in. For one thing, otherwise it’s like “whoa, that’s a pool of butter”, but also, I like how butter in mashed potatoes keeps them nice and moist. Come to think of it, if you go the pooling method, you should probably use salted butter, or add a pinch of salt to the butter while it’s melting. Then your butter will at least have some flavor, which mine really didn’t.

Still, though, this was great. Dave and I have decided that we both really like kale. I don’t think the original recipe is quite as kale-y as it looks here, because I wasn’t measuring closely, but either way, it tastes great. And what a healthy addition to standard mashed potatoes.

Mashed Potatoes with Kale (Bon Appetit May 1996, but really epicurious.com)

1 cup milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 small carrot, peeled, diced
1 large bay leaf
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bunch kale, rinsed, coarsely chopped (about 8 cups)
4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1. Combine milk, 2 tablespoons butter, carrot and bay leaf in medium saucepan; bring to simmer. Remove from heat; let steep while preparing kale and potatoes.

2. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until light brown, about 8 minutes. Add kale; cover and cook until tender, stirring often, about 25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain well. Return to same pot; mash with hand masher.

4. Add kale mixture to potatoes. Strain in enough milk to produce moist, fluffy potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Melt 5 tablespoons butter in small saucepan. Mound potatoes in large bowl. Using spoon, make well in top of potatoes. Pour butter into well. Serve hot.