A Classic Potato Gratin With No Recipe

 

Have you ever had a friend who knows no strangers? The kind of genuine person to whom everyone in the room gravitates — someone who doesn’t have to work at meeting new people, because somehow it is coded into their DNA for others to like them?

For me a potato gratin is just such a friend. A friend who hangs out with all the cool entrees too: a mustard crusted beef tenderloin  taking a bath in a flavorful sauce or a perfectly roasted chicken with crackly brown skin are its best friends.

But, to its credit, a potato gratin knows enough to complement all the other dishes and, with the exception of a few rules, remains unfussy enough not to need a recipe and somehow is always perfectly put together for any holiday gathering.

How to Make Potato Gratin Without a Recipe

1. Peel your potatoes. For a 10-inch oval gratin pan, I like to use six to eight medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes — about 2 1/2 pounds. (Don’t worry: If you overdo it, you can snack on leftovers after step 6.)

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2. Slice the potatoes an 1/8-inch thick, ideally on a mandoline right into a heavy bottomed pot. Add a few minced cloves of garlic, about a teaspoon of salt, and roughly equal parts of water and milk to cover the potatoes.

Potato Gratin

3. Bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat and cook the potatoes till just tender but not falling apart, then drain. By cooking the potatoes most of the way through in flavorful liquid, you don’t have to worry about exact quantities of liquid and seasoning later on.

Potato Gratin

4. While the potatoes are cooling, grate approximately 2 1/2 cups of Gruyère or Comté cheese — they are traditional but expensive. Other cheese in the family would be gouda, fontina, or American Gruyère.

Potato Gratin

5. Get out an oval gratin, or any casserole, pie pan or dish you choose. Just take note: with a smaller circumference dish you have more creamy interior and less crunchy top and, obviously, the reverse is true for a larger gratin. Place around half the potatoes into the gratin (they don’t need to look pretty, yet). Season with salt and white pepper. Top with half the cheese and drizzle about 1/2 cup of cream over the top.

Potato Gratin

6. Starting with one slice of potato placed in the middle of the gratin, spiral the potatoes around until you reach the gratin edges. Make it look pretty — it makes a difference.

Potato Gratin

7. Top with the remaining cheese, then drizzle another 1/2 cup or so of cream over the top and around the edges so it gets to the bottom, too.

Potato Gratin

8. Bake at 425˚ F until brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Don’t overcook the gratin so it dries out. You want a little cream to remain on the bottom. Serve.

Potato Gratin

Potato Cake

Potato CakeWhat thrills me the most about potato cakes like this is the crispy top and creamy interior.  If you use good potatoes the flavor is unbeatable and if you are creative you can even layer the interior with things like roasted garlic, wilted onions, green onions or even chopped frozen broccoli that has been thawed and drained of excess moisture.

Yukon Golds
Yukon Golds

There are few products that I recommend, or in this case don’t recommend, and those are conventional potatoes and canned tomatoes.  I don’t like conventional potatoes because they spray them with an anti-sprouting spray which means they have a longer shelf life.  I don’t know if the spray is good for you or not but I want potatoes that aren’t far from the harvest because I want fresh potatoes.  They taste better and I know they do, it’s that simple.  Organic potatoes can’t lollygag around and therfore are generally fresh.

The two types of potato most readily available at most groceries that would work for this dish are Russet Burbanks(Idaho) or Yukon Golds.  Both brown up nicely and both create a creamy interior.

As for tomatoes, I don’t like canned tomatoes because the acid leaches out the chemical from the liner of the can.  I only by tomatoes in glass or those nifty carton type boxes.

Cost to make the potatoes:

  • one bag of organic russet potatoes $3.49 about 10 per bag or $1.75 
  • unsalted butter .10 cents
  • canola oil  and salt .10 cents

Total cost to make this dish: $1.95

Serves 4 as a side dish

5 good sized russet potatoes, scrubbed under cold water with a brush

1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon canola oil

kosher salt

white pepper if you have it

1. Smear the bottom of a 10 inch non-stick skillet with soften butter.  Make sure to spread it evenly across the bottom.  Drizzle the oil into the pan too.

2. Slice the potatoes into very thin slices, a 1/16 of an inch would be great but no more then an 1/8 inch.

3. Starting in the middle of the pan spiral the potatoes by fanning them.  They should overlap about half the potato before them, if that makes since or you should cover the potato before the one you are putting into the pan by half by the one you are putting into the pan.

4. Lightly season each layer of potato with a pinch of salt.  Once the first layer is down you can layer the rest of the potatoes into the pan without detail to fanning them.

5. Heat the oven to 350˚ F.  Place the pan over medium heat to begin browning the bottom layer.  This always takes longer then I expect. I also have a baking stone that has a permanent spot in my oven so I also know then the pan goes into the oven it will continue to brown the potatoes.

6.  Once the bottom is browned nicely cover the pan and slide it into the oven.  Bake until the potatoes in the middle are tender.  Depending on how many layers you created anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes.

7. Remove the pan from the oven with a oven mitt or towel.  Place a pizza tray or the bottom of a sheet tray across the top of the pan.  In one swift motion invert the pan and tray.  Place the tray into the oven and let the cake bake another 5 to 10 minutes to crisp the top.  Serve.

Hachis Parmentier

Hachis Parmentier

One of the things I like best about the French dish Hachis Pamentier is the looseness of the recipe.  Unlike Shepard’s Pie which connotates lamb as the central ingredient Hachis Parmentier quite often simply lists chopped meat and then leaves it to your discretion. So anything on hand, usually cooked, usually leftovers which is generally combined with Sauce Lyonnaise..  Then add potatoes, again, mashed, leftover bakers or boiled, pretty much anything you can crush with a fork.

In my book anything Lyonnaise is good and more likely great.  The reality, though,  of most classic French sauces is,  who has demi-glace on hand and who is going to make it for this dish?   Not many home cooks do, nor should they.  So if you take the base ingredients of the sauce minus the demi-glace you have a vinegar based dressing.  In other words something to cut into the richness of the meat and potatoes and a simple balsamic dressing does this just fine.

The reason I chose salmon for this version is it doesn’t need to be cooked before hand.  You can put it right into the ring molds raw to be cooked in the oven.  Salmon has enough natural collagen that it will bind on its own, no mayonnaise, no egg, no nothing.

What I have tried to do here, and I think with great success, is make a family style dish into something worthy of a fancy sit down dinner and even the main course to a dinner party.  You can make the individual servings ahead of time (hint: my ring molds are water chestnut cans with both ends removed, cheap and simple) by putting the molds onto a parchment lined sheet tray, then layering them with the ingredients, covering them and storing them in the fridge.

On the other hand, you needn’t invite anyone for dinner to make this dish it is just as delicious for two as ten and if you want family style just chuck the whole ring mold idea and use a large gratin.

Serves 4

1 pound salmon, skin removed and cubed into 1/4 inch chunks

1/2 cup celery, finely minced

1 teaspoon capers, minced

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, finely zested

1 teaspoon dill, minced

1 teaspoon chives, minced

1/2 cup comte or Gruyère cheese, grated

3 potatoes, sliced into 1/8 inch or thinner rounds

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

water

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

a handful of arugula leaves, rinsed and dried

1/2 teaspoon Dijon

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Place the potatoes, garlic and milk into a medium size pot.  Add enough water to cover the potatoes by an inch.  Add a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Place the pot over medium heat and slowly bring it to a boil.  Cook the potatoes until just tender, being especially careful not to cook them to mush but if you do don’t get you undies in a bundle they will still cook and taste the same.  Drain the potatoes.

2. If you plan to cook the dish now heat the oven to 375˚ F.

3. Place the salmon, celery, capers, lemon zest, dill and chives into a mixing bowl.  Add 3/4 teaspoon of salt and some fresh ground white pepper and mix the salmon being sure to incorporate all the ingredients and evenly distribute them throughout.

4. Place a piece of parchment paper onto a sheet tray.  Place four ring molds onto the tray.  Lightly butter the interior walls of the molds and then divide the salmon mixture into four equal portions and pat firmly/gently it into the molds.

5. Taste a potato testing for salt content.  Take the potato slices and fan them into the top of each mold making two to three layers.  If the potatoes were salty enough when you tasted them then don’t season them anymore but if the need it season each layer with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Top with a little cheese and a spritz of olive oil.  Bake in the heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

6. While the salmon is baking combine the mustard and balsamic adding a pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper.  Then add the oil and mix to combine.

7. When the salmon is done remove it from the oven.  Using a spatula and a dry towel remove each mold to a plate placing it in the center.  Using a paring knife run it around the edges to loosen the salmon.  Gently hold down on the potatoes with a spoon  as you lift the mold.

8. Toss the arugula with the dressing and top each hachis parmentier with a bit of greens.  Serve with a crisp fruity white wine.

The Hayseed

The sleek, shiny, deep-red locomotive, its coupling rods churning and drivers slipping, trying to get traction, billows out black smoke from its stack as if getting up the nerve to leave the station.

It’s a beautiful train with a long line of passenger cars trailing behind. Each car is bursting with people who, dressed in their best, are buzzing in quiet anticipation, waiting for their adventure to begin. A collective sigh goes up at the first jolt of forward motion, and a surge of no-turning-back-now adrenaline triggers manic conversations about new destinations.

Somehow, old things always look new when you see them from a different angle, and traveling by rail, rather than the usual streets and highways, is definitely different. The passengers move from one side of the car to the other, looking out the windows at their familiar city, chattering excitedly about things they’ve seen a thousand times.

The train moves beyond the edge of town as the late afternoon sun turns the sprawling farm fields golden. Not too far from the track, a farmer stops his work and looks up at the train. He leans an elbow on his pitchfork, puts his other hand on his hip, and casually crosses his ankles, as if he wants to drink it all in. Many of the passengers wave as they pass by, marveling at the farmer as if they’ve never seen a man in a field. The farmer smiles and waves back a few times. He knows most of these folks are looking at him like he’s missing out, or just some hayseed.

Truth be told, he used to travel, a lot. He’s also plenty smart, but, anymore, he couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. Not that he’s bitter–no, he’s content, happy just to stand in his field and watch a train full of people looking for the next big thing pass him by and not remotely feel like he’s missing out. Some people might wonder if he’s made a deal with the devil, but he knows different.

Before the train’s even out of sight, he turns and starts walking up the fence row to the house. His wife will have dinner about ready. The long shadows from the fence posts stretch across the ground. He carries the pitchfork over his shoulder and, this time, instead of counting the posts (since he knows there are twenty-five from here to the house), he counts the steps in between them. He likes this comfortable, predictable game.

When he gets to the barn, he goes inside, hangs the pitchfork in its place, takes a look at the veal calves, then heads for the house, passing the garden full of late-fall greens.

He smells it as soon as he opens the mud-room door–the unmistakable goodness of one of his favorite dishes: deviled veal tongue with braised mustard greens and potatoes. The smell alone is nourishing. It’s a dish that not only tastes God-damn good, but you can feel it healing your soul with every bite. He looks at his beautiful wife, hears the kids giggling in the other room, and smiles, glad that he has no other destination.

click here for the deviled veal tongue recipe