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

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Marcella’s Broccoli and Potato Soup

Each year I look forward to making this recipe with the first broccoli from the fall garden. I’ll make it several times from mid-autumn to early winter. It requires but a few humble ingredients which, when combined in the soup pot, are as satisfying as knowing you have an uncommitted hundred dollar bill in your pocket.

As with many soups of few ingredients, it requires attention to detail, your best technique, as well as quality ingredients. But if you are anything like me, you find as much enjoyment in the process as the reward.

fall vegetables

The process for me starts with chicken stock made from scratch. I use old hens from my flock each year to make my stock, but any bones would work great. From the carcasses I make a very richly flavored stock which I preserve by canning. I use the homemade canned stock for many soups throughout the cold months. I urge you, if you don’t already, to learn how to make good stock even if you don’t preserve it by canning.

The next step for me is in my garden. I walk the rows of heirloom broccoli looking for tight, almost purple in color, florets. I give them a delicate squeeze for firmness and if they make the grade I get out my pocket knife and cut the stalks. It doesn’t stop there: there are the firm, yellow-fleshed potatoes and the pungent basil leaves stripped from thick, late-summer stalks.

All the ingredients are laid out on the counter top. I have an urge to stick close to Marcella’s original recipe, I want her book close at hand and set it next to the cutting board. Even though I have made this recipe from memory I want to make it as Marcella has it written. I like to do this occasionally, to refresh my memory and taste.

I clean the vegetables. With the exception of the potatoes, I cut everything and collect up the ingredients setting them neatly on a sheet tray. Then I move them close to the soup pot so they are at hand.

I came late to Marcella’s books in my cooking, even then it took time for her to grow on me. She was a champion of home cooking and I was more interested in preparing fancy and complicated restaurant food. I never met her; even so I often call her Marcella as if I knew her. I bet lots of people do this.

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We did have a conversation once through social media. She called me out on a picture of a branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass. I had this fancy picture, a great photograph of the fish on a bed of greens with prosciutto and I posted it. I received lots of positive comments and likes. Then later that Saturday night Marcella asked me, “What are you doing to this poor fish?”

She may as well have rolled up a wet kitchen towel and snapped me on the ass. She called me out. What proceeded from the sting was a weekend-long exchange of messages, me going to the grocery to get another branzino and her teaching me how to simply poach the fish in aromatics and serve it with a simple aioli. Her recipe was by far the better.

What was important wasn’t that she taught me how to cook a branzino, or that she shared a recipe with me, but that she reeled me in. In one fell swoop she made me realize the importance of simple home cooking, that making restaurant food at home is silly, often wasteful and that great home cooking isn’t about chasing trends and being a foodie but more importantly how to cook wholesome good food for your family.

It might have taken culinary school to make me a chef but in a single Saturday night Marcella turned me into a home cook.

Marcella’s Broccoli and Potato Soup (adapted from Marcella Cucina)

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onion, julienned
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, medium dice
2 1/2 cups broccoli florets, no stems
3 1/2 cups stock, chicken or vegetable
6 smallish fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated

  1. In a 3 1/2-quart heavy-bottomed pot, combine the olive oil and half the butter. Place the pot over medium heat. Once the butter begins to melt, add the onions. Season them with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  2. Saute the onions until they become golden. Don’t rush this step and adjust the heat as necessary to keep them from browning too fast. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
  3. Add the potatoes. Stir them to coat with oil and let them sizzle away for a minute or two. Add the broccoli and do the same as you did with the potatoes. Add the stock.
  4. Bring the stock to a boil. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Go easy on the salt though because the Parmesan has lots and will act as seasoning as well.
  5. Simmer the soup until the broccoli and potatoes are tender. The broccoli is not going to remain vibrant green, but if it is good broccoli it won’t be olive drab either.
  6. Once the potatoes have cooked through, add the parmesan, the remaining butter, and the basil. Stir to combine and serve with more black pepper.

Smoked Herring Salad

Smoked Herring Salad

Why do so many people fear canned fish? I don’t mean tuna, it doesn’t even count. Was there some massive food poisoning event in the United States back in 1908 or something and the canned fish market never recovered or do we just have a lot of closet canned fish eaters in this country.

Canned fish is brilliant, don’t laugh, I am being totally serious. It is really tasty, it harmlessly sits in your pantry ready to be used and is as tasty as the day it was packed.

Maybe people don’t know how to use it or maybe when they were little their parents always told them they wouldn’t like it and so they never have. My guess is most people who say they don’t like it have never tried it or it has been served to them right out of the can bathed in some sort of funky sauce.

No, what I am talking about is fish packed in oil, be it, mackerel, herring or sardines, smoked and not smoked. The omega-3 dense bait fish, well not mackerel it is higher up the chain then the other two, but fish oil rich nonetheless.

It’s as if you have to go to Eastern Europe, Nordic countries or Russia for your recipes and I am good with that. These countries now what to do when it comes to canned fish. I trust them.

This recipe is of Dutch descent. Being the herring eaters they are you can count on them for good recipes.

Serves 4

1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dusseldorf mustard or Dijon

1 teaspoon whole grain mustard

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tin smoked herring or mackerel

2/3 cup celery, chopped

1 cup yukon gold potatoes, boiled and cubed

6 cornichons, chopped

2 to 3 beets, roasted, peeled and cubed

2 hard boiled eggs, shelled

a handful of peas, fresh or frozen

2 teaspoons chives, chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Combine the mayonnaise, mustards and vinegar in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine.

2. Add the celery, potato, cornichons, peas and herring. Smash the eggs into chunks and add them to the bowl. Stir to combine. The herring will break up into small pieces with some hunks much like if you were making tuna salad. If you want big hunks of herring then garnish the salad with it.

3. Divide among 4 plates and garnish with the beets and shallot rings. Garnishing with the beets keeps the salad from turning pink.

4. Serve