Getting Good With Gratins

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in: Cooking

There are certain types of dishes — frittatas and risottos, gratins and quiches — that you can make the same way, no matter what goes into them. I like to think of them as vehicles for produce, and the fact that you can make them by rote means that you never have to be anxious about what you’re going to have for dinner, provided that you have certain basic ingredients (eggs, rice, milk, cheese) in your refrigerator and pantry. The core ingredients are always the same; what changes is the produce that gives the dish its name and the way the produce is cooked and seasoned.

Vegetable gratins are a case in point. A vegetable gratin is simply a vegetable casserole, baked in the oven (preferably in an earthenware baking dish) until the top and sides are browned, or gratineed. The French word grater means to scrape (that’s where we get our word for grater), and if a gratin is properly baked, you will want to scrape the delicious browned bits off the sides of the dish and eat them.

I make two basic types of gratin. One is sort of like a vegetable quiche without a crust and without so much custard; mine are on the light side — 2 percent milk instead of cream, not an overwhelming amount of cheese. The other is Provencal, bound with rice and eggs. Provencal gratins are called tians after the earthenware dish in which they’re made. Whichever type I make, vegetables are the focus.

You would think that it would not be in the interest of a food writer to help people learn to cook without recipes. But one of my missions as a cookbook author and teacher of cooking is to do just that. If I can get my readers to be confident that they can make dinner with the ingredients they have at their disposal, then I’m succeeding.

 

Bound Gratins

I use the same formulas time and again for my gratins. Use this template, cook your vegetables, decide what kind of cheese you want to include, and make impromptu gratins with ease.

Provencal Template:

The vegetables of your choice, usually 1 to 2 pounds, cooked in olive oil with aromatics like onion, garlic and herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley), and seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper.

You’ll need:

2 to 3 large or extra large eggs, to taste
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup short-grain rice, cooked
½ to ¾ cup Gruyere cheese (2 to 3 ounces, to taste)
¼ cup breadcrumbs or a mixture of breadcrumbs and freshly grated Parmesan, and 1 or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for the top

 

Egg and Milk Template:

The vegetables of your choice, usually 1 to 2 pounds, cooked in olive oil with aromatics like onion, garlic and herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley), and seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper.

You’ll need:

3 eggs
½ to ¾ cup low-fat milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ to ¾ cup Gruyere cheese (2 to 3 ounces, to taste)

For either type of gratin, cook the vegetables and aromatics first. Most gratins can be baked in a 2-quart baking dish or gratin. I like to use earthenware or enameled cast iron. Oil the dish well with olive oil and preheat the oven; 375 F is a good temperature, though some cooks prefer higher heat, 400 F. Beat the eggs in a bowl. Beat in the milk if using, and about ½ teaspoon salt. Stir in the rice, if using, the vegetables and the cheese and combine thoroughly. Some gratins also include Parmesan. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and scrape out every last bit of filling with a rubber spatula. Provencal gratins are usually topped with breadcrumbs, or breadcrumbs and Parmesan, and drizzled with olive oil. Bake as directed.

 

Beet Greens Gratin With Roasted Red Peppers

Serves 6

When you go to the farmers market, always buy your beets with the greens on, and choose bunches for the look of their greens as much as for the beetroots. If you’re standing next to a customer who wants her greens cut off, ask the vendor for them so you can make this gratin.

Ingredients

3 generous bunches beet greens, about 1½ pounds
Salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium or large onion, chopped
2 plump garlic cloves, minced
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, rosemary, dill — use less of the stronger herbs like rosemary), or ½ teaspoon each dried thyme and crumbled dried rosemary
3 large eggs
½ cup low fat (2 percent) milk
3 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (¾ cup, tightly packed)
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
1 large or 2 small red peppers, roasted, peeled and cut into thin strips

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil a 2-quart baking dish or gratin with olive oil. Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you stem and wash the greens. Wash them in 2 changes of water, lifting them from the water so that the dirt stays behind. Fill a bowl with ice water.
  2. When the water comes to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt and the greens. Blanch the greens just until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or a skimmer, transfer the greens to the ice water. Let sit just until cool, a few minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water by taking up bunches of the greens, making a fist around them and squeezing. Chop coarsely and set aside.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet (preferably nonstick) over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender and just beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add ½ teaspoon salt and the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute, until fragrant, then stir in the greens. Stir together for a minute, just until the greens are well mixed with the onions and coated with oil. Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the herbs.
  4. Beat the eggs in a medium-size bowl. Add ½ teaspoon salt, freshly ground pepper to taste and the milk, and whisk together. Stir in the beet greens and Gruyere and combine well. Scrape into the baking dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. Arrange the red pepper strips over the top in a cross-hatch pattern and drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of oil. Place in the oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Serve hot, warm or room temperature. This is also good cold and makes a great lunch.

 

Zucchini Tian

Serves 6

This is a classic Provencal gratin, one of my favorite dishes from the region. It’s bound with rice and egg, it’s great cold or hot, and if you have more summer squash than you know what to do with, look no further.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 to 3 large garlic cloves, to taste, minced
2 pounds zucchini or other summer squash, cut in ½-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme
½ cup Arborio rice, cooked
3 eggs
3 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (¾ cup)
¼ cup breadcrumbs (fresh or dry)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil a 2-quart gratin dish.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, stir together for about 30 seconds, until it begins to smell fragrant, and stir in the squash. Cook, stirring often, until the squash is translucent but not mushy, 5 to 10 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper. Stir in the thyme and rice, and remove from the heat.
  3. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Beat in ½ teaspoon salt and the cheese. Stir in the zucchini mixture and combine well. Scrape into the gratin dish. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top. Drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and the gratin is sizzling. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Variation: I sometimes bake this in a bread pan, so that I can slice it like a pate. It will take longer to bake, about 1 hour.

 


Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”

Photo of beet green gratin by Martha Rose Shulman

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