Savory gratins are a mainstay of the French kitchen and of mine. Crunchy and golden on top, creamy and rich inside, they come directly to the table straight from the oven in their beautiful dishes. Gratins are easy to make. Take a vegetable, say celery root, cauliflower, broccoli, or leeks for example, parcook a little – and sometimes not – cover with a béchamel or mornay sauce, sprinkle on some breadcrumbs and maybe some cheese, bake for 30 minutes or so and voila! If you like, add a little bacon, ham, or prosciutto, combine different vegetables together, like asparagus and fresh peas or fava beans and artichokes, the combinations for savory gratins are endless.
What Does Gratin Mean?
Classically, gratiner means to cook au gratin– that is, with a cheese and or bread crumb topping that forms a crust. Gratin has come to mean a dish cooked in this fashion, and has also come to mean the dish in which it is baked, which is shallow and classically oval, but it can also be round, square or rectangular, no more than one to one and half inches deep, with sloping sides.
The dishes themselves are another reason to make gratins because they are fun to collect. They come in a variety of colors, materials, and designs. They can be terra cotta, porcelain, or enameled cast iron. I have several ceramic and terra cotta ones that I have brought to home from France, as well as a small collection of cast-iron, enameled Le Crueset ones in different colors and sizes, ranging from service for two to ten.
I keep them all in plain sight on a restaurant rack in my kitchen where I can not only admire them, but where they are handy to use, all year long.
At the left is a salt cod gratin made with potatoes and leeks with a cheese, bread crumb and butter topping in a Le Crueset gratin dish.
La Vie Rustic Gratin Dishes – NEW
I’m happy to announce La Vie Rustic’s own gratin dishes, made by California ceramicist, cookbook author and culinary journalist, Elaine Corn. Her first ones for La Vie Rustic are a classic oval design. Forthcoming are rectangular ones, made by modeling a beloved Provençal dish of mine, broken and much-mended.
Elaine brings her deep knowledge of food and cooking to the creation of these very special gratin dishes, knowing what works in the oven as well as looks gorgeous on the table. Each dish is slightly different, just as every time I make the same gratin, it’s a little bit different, and that is part of the distinctive charm both of the dishes and of cooking.
I suspect we will sell out of these quickly, so do get your order in soon. At the moment supplies are limited, but Elaine promises to make more.
This is my new favorite leek gratin, make in Elaine’s handmade La Vie Rustic gratin dish. I just tossed it together and it is super easy and so good. Here, I’ve written down the basic instructions. The key, I think, is the cooking of the leeks first, bundled by string.
8 to 10 leeks, trimmed to fit your gratin dish, all the whites, and on half, some of the green as well.
2 tablespoons butter plus 1 teaspoon
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ to 2 cups whole milk or half and half
¼ teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.
Tie the leeks together in bundles of 3 or 4. Bring a pot of water large enough to hold the bundles to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and gently drop in the bundled leeks. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the leeks until they are slightly limp, but the greens are still bright, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove to a colander to drain. In a saucepan over medium high heat, melt the butter. When it is foaming, remove it from the heat and whisk in the flour. Drizzle in about 1 cup of the milk, slowly, whisking as you go.
Add the remaining teaspoon of salt, the pinch of pepper and return to the heat to thicken and for the flour taste to dissipate. Whisk from time to time to prevent lumps. This will take about 15 minutes. The sauce should be about the consistency of yogurt – not too thin, not too thick.
Butter the gratin dish with the remaining teaspoon of butter, then spread over it about ¼ cup of the sauce. Arrange the leeks in the dish in a single layer, alternating green ends with white ends. Spoon over them about ½ to ¾ cup of the sauce, but do not fully cover the leeks. Leave some exposed. Extra sauce can be refrigerated for another use.
Sprinkle the two cheeses over the leeks and bake until the sauce begins to bubble and the surface developed golden bits, about 15 minutes. If desired, place under a broiler to hasten the golden bits developing, but without over cooking.
Serve hot or warm.
Serves 3 to 4
Cauliflower Gratin with St. Marcellin Cheese
This is adapted from a French cookbook on gratins that I have since lost, but the memory of this particular dish stayed with me. St. Marcellin is a fresh cow’s milk cheese that comes in a round, terra cotta dish. I can’t describe how good it is melted atop cauliflower, as it here, and combined with caramelized onions and bacon. The fresh bay makes a difference but you can use dry bay if you don’t have fresh. Or, you can buy some fresh bay from La Vie Rustic.
1 head cauliflower, separated into large florets and steamed
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 onions, cut in thin slices
4 thick slices bacon, or pancetta lardons, cut into 1/2-inch wide pieces
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 fresh sweet bay leaves
2 St. Marcellin cheeses cut into 1/2 inch thick pieces
Preheat an oven to 350º F.
Grease a shallow baking dish with 1 teaspoon of the butter. Arrange the cauliflower florets in baking dish. Set aside.
In a frying pan over medium heat, sauté the onions and the bacon together until the onion is translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Put this mixture on top of the cauliflower, and tuck it in around them, along with the bay leaves. Top with the cheese and sprinkle with the thyme. Place in the oven and cook until the cheese has melted and has a golden tinge, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6