Alongside soups and stews, gratins are a must for fall and winter. The rain has yet to turn to snow, but there's already a bit of chill in the air, prompting us to raid our cookbooks for seasonal recipes to warm up the kitchen with.
For some reason, gratins were a mystery to me when I was younger. I remember trying to make one by pouring milk over sliced potatoes and baking it for what seemed like an eternity. The potatoes weren't cut thin enough, or weren't parboiled, or something, and what resulted was a disaster. Crunchy milk-soaked potatoes was simply not what I was hoping for. It wasn't even worth eating. And let's not talk about my vegan years, with Vitasoy and, uh, nutritional yeast. Never could understand why somebody didn't at least try to devise a more appetizing name for that stuff.
As with most soups and stews, gratins are not a quick meal to be whipped up and set down on the table after 10 minutes. The crust needs to be properly golden and well-formed, the flavours underneath need to melt together, creating a cohesive whole. Every bite should flow into the next, with no jarring textures or flavours.
We used David Tanis's recipe from the latest Saveur magazine (no. 88). It was phenomenal. His instructions for Béchamel sauce were the best we've ever come across, clear and precise. We made it exactly as he recommended, with lots of nutmeg (freshly grated), and it turned out perfectly, the most delicious Béchamel ever. We were also mightily impressed by the effects of blanching the chard stalks. When all was said and done, the leaves and the stalks were each so distinctive that it tasted as though we had two vegetables mingling with the cheese and sauce, not one. Try it with Swiss chard, like we did, or experiment with fennel, kale, rapini, Belgian endive, or Brussels sprouts. I have a feeling nearly any winter green would work well with this recipe.
Swiss Chard Gratin
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes
1/4 cup flour
1 stick butter, melted
2 cups milk
3/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Wash the chard and separate the stalks from the leaves. Slice the stalks into 1/4" by 3" pieces. Parboil in salted water with a bay leaf for 5 minutes, drain and set aside.
Slice the greens into thin ribbons. Wilt the greens in olive oil and garlic, working in batches if necessary. Add salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste. Set aside.
In a saucepan, stir the flour into the melted butter and place over medium heat. Stir constantly for 3 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and whisk in the milk, a few tablespoons at a time. When it has turned into a smooth paste, add the salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Cook, whisking constantly, until it has the consistency of a thick milk shake. Strain into a bowl.
Butter a baking dish and spread the greens over the bottom. Add the stalks, then the sauce. Add a bit more nutmeg, then the parmagiano-reggiano. Add a few pats of butter on top of the cheese and bake for 25 minutes, until a nice golden crust has formed.
Serve the gratin hot with wine and a nice salad. You won't believe just how good this dish is. Throw in some fish (trout, say) and rice, like we did, and you'll be in heaven.