Sunday, 13 November 2011

Gratin Dauphinois

Does any dish scream "French" more than the gratin dauphinois? It is one of those staples of French cuisine which brings to mind lovely bistro tables and accordion music. Rich and creamy potatoes covered in melted cheese; it doesn't get much better than that!

The recipe's name refers to the Dauphiné region in France, where this method for preparing potatoes originated. And as with any other so-called classics, there are about a million versions out there, varying with regions and personal taste. Of course, everyone is convicted that their version is the ultimate gratin dauphinois. I have tried a few, and I find that a balance of the creamy texture of the potatoes, strong taste of cheese and subtle seasoning is the goal one must aim for with this gratin. It is not meant to be the main course of a dinner, but a luxurious side-dish to a roasted or grilled meat (even if it will steal the spotlight if prepared properly), so it can't have an overwhelming taste. It must be just like Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face": easily overlooked at first sight, but fallen madly in love with after a small taste. Yes, I just compared the divine Audrey to a potato gratin. I am a monster.

My point is that it does require quite a bit of preparation, so you might not want to serve it as a side to another dish that is laborious to prepare (unless you spend your days at home cooking, lucky you!). A lamb-roast is amazing with gratin dauphinois, because of the taste, and because it pretty much takes care of itself in the oven and won't have you fussing with a bunch of pans. I also like to serve it with some marinated fish or chicken (or lamb chops!), cooked in the grilling pan. Less is more in your marinade here! A bit of lemon juice, a handful of tarragon and thyme and some olive oil. Period. Forget heavy and sweet marinades here; the gratin is rich enough. A lovely pepper steak is the ultimate low-maintenance protein to serve as a main course with your gratin. It is a week night, so that's what I did.

The gratin dauphinois below is my favorite, found in the pages of Patricia Wells' "Bistro Cooking"; the spice of nutmeg and the robustness of Gruyère make for a really amazing blend of tastes. And of course, I just love potatoes. The cream and milk give them a great texture; they all but melt in your mouth… Note that it's totally worth it to go to a fromagerie to buy real Gruyère. The Swiss cheese you get in supermarkets is not bad, but there is something about the strength of Gruyère that will take this dish to another level. I used one from Fribourg, Neuchatel for the gratin pictured below, and I got the bang for my bucks.

3 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 cups whole milk
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 bay leaves
Freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with the milk and 2 cups of water. Add the garlic, salt and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are tender, but not falling apart, about 7 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the potatoes in a large gratin dish. Sprinkle with the nutmeg, pepper, half the heavy cream and half the cheese. Cover with the remaining potatoes, and sprinkle again with nutmeg, pepper and add the remaining cream and cheese. Bake the gratin until crisp and golden on top, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.

Remember that as with most potato-dishes, this reheats like a charm, so grab the leftovers for your lunch the next day with a salad or a sandwich. To die for!

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