By Jan Roberts-Dominguez
With Thanksgiving a little over a week away, most of us are still fleshing out the menu.
Plus, there are all of the December events to think of.
Either way, a vegetable gratin is something to keep in mind. For one thing, a gratin can usually be prepared earlier, then baked just before serving. No fuss, no last-minute mussing with delicate vegetable concoctions.
Besides, anyone who’s experienced a gratin becomes an instant fan, in large part because of the intensely flavored, crunchy top.
“Gratin” literally means crust in French. Most often, the crust is formed by a top layering of cheese, breadcrumbs or a combination of both that has browned during the baking process.
That prized golden brown crusty coating that forms atop a casserole of macaroni and cheese, for example, is about as gratin as you can get. But its cause is pure chemistry.
French scientist L.C. Maillard was the first to describe the browning phenomena in 1912.
Ever since, it’s referred to as “Maillard browning” and refers to a complex reaction that takes place between certain sugars and proteins when heat is applied.
But in a nutshell, richer flavor ensues — as does rude behavior among diners angling for an extra spoonful of that fabulous coating atop your broccoli gratin. Everything from baked goods to fried foods and roasts benefit from Maillard browning.
You’ll find that recipes for vegetable gratins cover a wide range of preparations. Vegetables that render a large amount of water such as spinach and other leaf vegetables, may be gratineed without much extra liquid, if any. However, vegetables with less moisture need additional liquid.
One traditional method is to spread a bottom layer of milk-soaked stale bread in the bottom of your baking dish. Spread the vegetables over this, then top with more of the bread and milk mixture. The lower layer of bread provides a steamy environment for the vegetables to cook without drying out, while the upper bread dries and browns to a delectable topping.
Cream, cheese, or cream/cheese/egg combinations are additional ways to maintain a moist interior and still produce that lovely golden top.
So without further ado, here are a few of my favorites. They’ll hold quite nicely once they’re removed from the oven.
David Martin, former executive chef of Portland’s In Good Taste Cooking School developed this wonderful dish. Caramelized onions, sweet butternut squash and nutty Gruyere make this a divinely rich and savory side dish (or even entree).
Butternut squash and Yukon gold gratin with gruyere cheese
2tablespoons unsalted butter
4cups thinly sliced onions (about 1 pound)
1 1/4pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 1/4pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2cups fresh bread crumbs made from sourdough bread
8ounces shredded Gruyere cheese (about 2 cups, packed)
1 1/2tablespoons chopped sage
Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a large, heavy skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until onions are deeply caramelized, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lay alternating layers of squash and potatoes in prepared baking dish. Layer onions on top. Mix half-and-half, salt and pepper, and pour over onions. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 90 minutes.
Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix bread crumbs, cheese, and sage. Sprinkle over gratin. Bake uncovered until top is golden brown and crisp, about 30 minutes.
Recipe from “The Oregonian Cookbook — Best recipes from FOODday,” edited by Katherine Miller.
Spicy mushroom and feta cheese gratin
1pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
2tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2tablespoons butter (if avoiding butter, substitute 2 additional tablespoons olive oil)
1tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (more to taste)
About 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
2tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and white pepper to taste
8ounces traditional feta cheese, drained and crumbled
8ounces shredded extra-sharp Cheddar (I use Tillamook)
1/3cup grated Parmesan cheese
2cups half &half
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of white pepper
In a very large skillet, saute the mushrooms in the olive oil over medium-high heat until the mushrooms have released their liquid, then continue cooking until the liquid has reduced and the mushrooms are getting very golden brown, shaking and stirring them so that they all get evenly cooked.
Drizzle on the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco and continue stirring, scraping, and sauteeing until the Worcestershire sauce has been reduced and the mushrooms are even more golden. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue to saute and stir until the vinegar has reduced and the mushrooms are very brown. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Spread the sauteed mushrooms over the bottom of an 11-by-17-inch baking pan. This will only make a shallow layer. Sprinkle on the feta cheese, shredded Cheddar, and Parmesan. With your fingers, toss some of the mushrooms with the cheese, so portions of the cheeses are snuggled down within and beneath the mushroom layer.
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt and pepper. Ladle enough of this custard mixture over the mushrooms &cheese so that it evenly covers them, with pieces of mushroom and cheese poking out the top (in other words, don’t completely cover the mushrooms with the custard — you may have some custard left over).
You may prepare the gratin up to this point and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Bake the mixture in a 400 degree oven until the top is golden and the custard tests firm when pressed with your finger, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven.
For an upscaled presentation, consider the garnishing suggestion at the end of the recipe. Or cook it in your prettiest casserole dish or copper pan.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Spinach and rice gratin with sun-dried tomatoes
1cup double strength chicken broth (such as Campbell’s), undiluted
1/2cup medium grain rice
3tablespoons olive oil (preferably drained from sundried tomatoes)
1cup chopped yellow onion
1/3cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (about 15 dried tomatoes)
2(10 ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, with the liquid squeezed out
1/2cup sour cream
3/4teaspoon salt, or to taste
2cups shredded Swiss cheese
Tomato/basil garnish (optional)
In small medium saucepan, bring chicken broth and rice to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes; remove from heat (rice will still be slightly firm and a little “soupy”). Scrape the mixture into a large mixing bowl and set aside.
In skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute until onion is soft and transparent, about 15 minutes. Scrape the onions and oil into the bowl with the rice, add chopped tomatoes and spinach and mix well.
In small bowl, combine sour cream, eggs, milk and salt. Blend well, then stir into the spinach mixture. Finally, stir in the shredded cheese, then scrape the mixture into a shallow, lightly greased 1 1/2 -quart casserole dish, or 11-by-17-inch baking pan. Gratin may be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several hours.
Bake in 400 degree oven until thoroughly cooked and lightly golden on top. Remove and serve. Yields 8 to 10 generous servings.
Gratin of broccoli with salami and onion topping
1 1/2pounds fresh broccoli, peeled and chopped to measure 6 cups
1 1/2cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
1 1/2cups chopped yellow onion
2tablespoons butter or margarine
2/3cup thinly sliced and chopped salami (3 ounces)
1/4cup dry bread crumbs
1/2cup light cream
Freshly ground black pepper
2tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Drop the broccoli into large pot of lightly salted water, and as soon as the water returns to a boil, remove from heat, drain quickly then plunge the broccoli into a big pot of cold to stop the cooking and set the color; drain well. Arrange the blanched broccoli in bottom of lightly oiled 11-by-17-inch shallow dish. Sprinkle with the shredded Mozzarella cheese; set aside.
Over medium heat, saute the onion in the butter or margarine until barely soft and transparent, about 10 minutes. Add salami and continue to saute for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle this mixture over the broccoli. Combine the light cream, egg, salt and black pepper and drizzle over the broccoli (note: This will not completely cover all of the vegetables, but will create occasional pockets of custard in the finished gratin.). Sprinkle the onion and salami mixture on top of the broccoli. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs with the Parmesan cheese and sprinkle over the top of the casserole. Gratin may be prepared to this point several hours ahead. Bake in 375 degree oven about 20 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. Brown under the broiler for a moment until the top is golden.
Yields 8 to 10 servings.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com.