A romatic vegetables suspended in a rich sauce, maybe a little melted cheese, all of it hidden under a crisp golden brown crust. Behold the glory that is the gratin.
One of the oldest dishes in the comfort food playbook, the gratin is a celebration of lush creaminess and crisp crust that is often based on the simplest of ingredients.
Its poster child, the gratin dauphinois, is made from nothing more than potatoes and cream. Sliced potatoes are layered with cream or milk in a shallow baking dish and baked until the filling is thickened and bubbly and the top of the dish is toasted to a rich brown.
That may be classic, but gratin isn’t a restrictive dish. Such goodness should never be limited.
Almost any food can be gratineed. Focus the gratin on one ingredient (say, asparagus or crab) for a simple side or appetizer dish, or pair ingredients, constructing the gratin to make a perfect one-dish meal. You could even build the gratin around pasta. (Baked macaroni and cheese, anyone?) Take your inspiration from what you might find in the market, or whatever leftovers might be in the fridge.
A versatile dish, the gratin can be refined or rustic, combining just a few ingredients or a complex harmony of flavors. But it’s simple at heart. Perhaps the only restriction is that the final dish have some sort of crust, whether it’s the filling itself that toasts in the oven, or a formal topping that is added, such as bread crumbs or cheese, or maybe nuts. Assemble the gratin in a wide, shallow ovenproof dish so there is enough surface area for the crust to form, and it’s easy going from there.
Not all gratins need an extended baking time before they’re ready. Sometimes a quick trip under the broiler is all that’s necessary.
When based on a sauce thickened with eggs, gratins take on a lighter overall texture, much more free-form in structure. They can be savory or sweet. Custard is a classic, or use a hollandaise or zabaglione. Spoon the sauce over the dish shortly before serving. A minute or two under the broiler is all these sauces need for color and a delicate crust — any more than that and the sauce could break. Mayonnaise can also work as a filling — flavor it with herbs, cheese or garlic. (Think of the scallop “dynamite” dish you might order in a sushi bar — also a kind of gratin, the mayonnaise flavored with fish roe and browned in a toaster oven.)
One trick with egg-based sauces is to lighten them with a little whipped cream. Not only does the whipped cream lighten the texture of the sauce, it also can help stabilize the sauce, lending more structure so it won’t break when it goes under the broiler.
Spoon the sauce over tender blanched vegetables or diced fresh fruit. Ladle it over lettuce or greens. In just a couple of minutes, the finished dish will be ready to serve.
A potato gratin owes its creaminess to the natural starch from the potatoes. Absent a main ingredient with a lot of starch, flour is a great choice as a thickener.
Start with a roux, then build the sauce with cream, broth or another liquid. The only trick with a flour-based sauce is that it will need time to cook so the raw flavor of the flour dissipates. This can be done on the stove or in the gratin dish.
Fully cooked, a flour-based filling has a wonderful depth of flavor, not necessarily “heavy” but certainly with a sense of substance. Counter that savory richness with bright notes to balance the dish: a little vinegar or lemon juice, maybe a bitter leafy green or vegetable, some chopped fresh herbs added toward the end of cooking.
Cheese can also work magic. Gruyere is the classic cheese for gratins, but other options work just as well. Melted into the sauce, a fresh goat cheese or sharp cheddar can brighten the overall dish with its light acidity. Or crumble bits of blue cheese into the dish as the gratin is assembled for baking.
Because they have such substance, flour-based gratins are perfect candidates for one-dish-meals. Combine a few ingredients to build the dish. Take grilled chicken or leftover steak, crumbled Italian sausage or shrimp and pair them with a vegetable or two before assembling. Then top the dish with a little grated cheese or coarse bread crumbs tossed in a little butter and bake away.
Perhaps the simplest gratin of all is made with little more than a dollop of fresh cheese or ricotta, or a fermented cream in the form of mascarpone, creme fraiche, sour cream and even yogurt.
As with the egg-based sauces, cheese and cream-based fillings will brown quickly under the broiler, taking no more than a minute or two. Watch carefully that the cheese does not overcook and separate. One good trick is to allow the cheese or cream to sit out at room temperature to warm slightly before using so it browns more quickly under the broiler, making it less likely the cheese will break down under extended heat. A little bit of a quick-thickening starch such as cornstarch can also stabilize the gratin.
Flavor the cheese with fresh herbs, maybe a touch of spice. Spoon it over caramelized onions and garlic for a layered dip. Spread it over chorizo and toasted bread crumbs as an appetizer, or gratinee chicken breasts or a grilled pork chop for the main course.
Or sweeten the cheese or cream with a touch of sugar, honey or maple syrup, and add a little lemon or orange zest. Bump up the flavor with a hint of liqueur. Dollop the cheese or cream over fresh-cut fruit or macerated berries and crumbled cookies.
Italian Sausage and Kale Gratin
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes; Servings: 6 to 8
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh mild Italian sausage, casings removed and meat crumbled
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 bunches (about 1 pound) kale, stemmed and torn into large pieces
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/3 cup flour
2 cups milk
8 ounces fresh goat cheese
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (such as a combination of parsley, oregano and basil)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large, heavy-bottom saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Stir in the sausage and cook until browned on all sides and cooked through, about 5 minutes.
Add the wine and cook, scraping the flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the wine reduces and is mostly evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium.
Stir in the kale, one handful at a time. Cook the kale, stirring it in with the sausage, until it begins to wilt and turn a bright green. Continue adding kale by the handful until it is all added to the saute pan and is just wilted. Do not overcook the kale. Remove from heat and set the pan aside.
In a large saucepan, melt one-half cup (1 stick) butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to form a roux. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to get rid of any lumps. Bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
Crumble the goat cheese into the sauce and whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth, then stir in the sausage and kale. Remove from heat.
Spoon the mixture into a shallow, 2-quart gratin dish.
In a medium bowl, combine the Parmigiano-Reggiano, bread crumbs and minced fresh herbs. Pour over the 3 tablespoons melted butter and stir until the butter is evenly distributed to form the topping.
Sprinkle the topping evenly over the sausage and kale mixture.
Bake the gratin until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbly, about 30 minutes.
Cool slightly before serving.
Each of 8 servings: 494 calories, 14 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 40 grams fat, 21 grams saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 4 grams sugar, 600 mg sodium.
Baby Artichoke Gratin
Total time: 50 minutes; Servings: 8 to 10
4 pounds baby artichokes
1 lemon, divided, plus lemon wedges for garnish
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Trim the artichokes: Fill a bowl with a couple of quarts of cold water, and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Trim the artichokes one at a time, first snapping off the thick outside leaves, until you reach the tender, pale inner leaves. Trim the tip of the stem, but leave most of it attached to the base of the artichoke. With a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler, shave off the dark skin of the stem, exposing the tender core. Peel around the base of the artichoke too, removing the dark-green spots where the tough leaves were attached. Cut across the leaf tips, removing the top third of the artichoke. Slice the entire artichoke in half lengthwise, splitting the bulb and stem, and drop the pieces into the lemon water.
Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer. While the water is heating, season it well with a few tablespoons of salt. Juice the remaining half of the lemon. Set aside 1 tablespoon of the juice, and pour the remaining juice into the pot of water.
Drain the artichokes and place them in the simmering water. Simmer the artichokes until tender, 6 to 9 minutes. Drain well. Heat the broiler.
Make a garlic aioli: Using an immersion blender, combine the egg yolks, a pinch each of salt and white pepper, the tablespoon of water, the remaining tablespoon lemon juice and minced garlic cloves in a 2-cup measuring cup or in the tall beaker used for immersion blenders. Stand the immersion blender in the measuring cup, then slowly pour in the oils so they settle on top of the other ingredients. With the blender held against the bottom of the glass, pulse until the mixture begins to emulsify, which will happen almost immediately. Continue to pulse, turning the blender a bit, but keeping it pressed against the bottom of the container. Keep pulsing until most of the mayonnaise is emulsified, less than 1 minute, then slowly plunge the blender a bit to mix thoroughly. Taste the aioli and adjust the seasoning and flavoring with additional salt, pepper and lemon juice as desired. This makes about 1 cup aioli.
Alternatively, to make the aioli using a whisk: In a large bowl whisk together the yolks, a pinch each of salt and white pepper, the tablespoon of water, the remaining tablespoon lemon juice and the minced garlic cloves. Whisking continuously, add the oils in a very, very slow stream until the aioli thickens and all of the oil is incorporated. Taste the aioli and adjust the seasoning and flavoring with additional salt, pepper and lemon juice as desired.
Whip the cream: Beat the cream in a large, chilled bowl using a whisk, or in the bowl of a food processor, until whipped to firm peaks. This makes a generous cup of whipped cream.
In a large bowl using a spatula, gently fold the aioli into the whipped cream to make a mousseline sauce. Gently fold in the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Taste the mousseline sauce and adjust the flavorings and seasonings as desired.
Arrange the drained artichokes in a 11/2-quart shallow gratin dish and gently spoon over the mousseline. Place the gratin under the broiler just long enough to lightly brown the top of the sauce, 1 to 3 minutes depending on the broiler.
Remove from heat and serve.
Each of 10 servings: 348 calories, 3 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 34 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 1 gram sugar, 91 mg sodium.
Fresh Fruit Gratin
Total time: 25 minutes; Servings: 4
8 amaretti cookies, finely crumbled
4 generous cups diced fresh fruit, cut into bite-size pieces (small berries can be left whole)
1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon amaretto or citrus liqueur
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Heat the broiler and set a rack about 4 inches beneath the heating element.
Divide the crumbled amaretti among 4 individual gratin dishes or shallow ramekins. Divide the fruit evenly over the top, gently pressing the top of the fruit into an even layer.
In a large bowl, whisk together the mascarpone, honey, liqueur and cornstarch until evenly combined. Dollop the cheese mixture into the gratins, and spread with the back of a spoon or a spatula to spread the cheese and flatten it in an even layer over the fruit.
Place the gratin dishes under the broiler and cook just until the top of the gratins start to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cool on a rack for 5 minutes before serving.
Each serving: 404 calories, 6 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 28 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 71 mg cholesterol, 30 grams sugar, 36 mg sodium.