In the world of French bistro cooking there exist limitless versions of potato gratin, each boasting a devoted following. In other words, if every potato gratin in France was laid end to end from Lyon to Paris, you would still never get consensus among the nationals on which was the best in the country, let alone the world. While there is no way I can lay claim to having sampled them all (if I had, I’d probably look like a champion sumo wrestler by now – minus the muscle), I have most certainly made and tasted (half-Irish spud lover that I be) a goodly number in my day. With these (perhaps statistically shaky) qualifications, I present to you the potato gratin that has won the unqualified devotion of this (quite demanding) party of one, which is, I assure you, no minor achievement.
What makes Madame Cartet’s Potato Dauphinois so special is that it creates just the right balance between all the essential elements: potatoes, garlic, cream and cheese. Many gratins, while perfectly wonderful, seem to weigh in too heavily with one ingredient or another, most often in the proportions of cream and potatoes used. When she created this dish, Mme. Cartet appears to have been paying attention to the god in the details, as they say. There is just enough cream in her gratin to ever-so-delicately soak into the potatoes, leaving just a whisper of creamy tongue touch to hint of its contribution. There is just enough Gruyere to enhance, but not overpower the potatoes, and just enough garlic essence to entice the nostrils, nothing more. No one ingredient owns the dish; it is a communal Eden of flavors. Perfection. My one caveat is that you must take care not to overcook it; if you do, that wonderful balance between flavor and texture will be lost. Keep a careful eye on the oven from 30 minutes on to prevent this from happening. You want the cream to be absorbed, but not dried out, the potatoes cooked, but still holding their shape.
It is also incredibly simple to throw this gratin together, and it reheats beautifully. I frequently make enough for two meals for one person using one 8-ounce Russet potato and one of my 7” gratin dishes, so I can enjoy it two nights in a row. I frankly never get tired of it.
Important note: Never rinse the potatoes for the Dauphinois after your have sliced them; they need the starch in the potato to help thicken the gratin.
One last exhortation: every cook needs a potato gratin in his or her menu rotation. I have never met anyone who wasn’t nuts about it. And, it goes so beautifully with so many meat and fish entrées that its reputation for versatility is legend. What are you waiting for?
Serves 4 to 6
GRATIN DAUPHINOIS MADAME CARTET
1 garlic clove, cut in half
2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1 cup grated Swiss cheese (I use Gruyere)
1 cup crême fraîche (or heavy cream)
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Rub the inside of a 6-cup gratin dish with the cut side of the garlic clove. Rub until the gratin dish is well lubricated with the garlic
Layer half the potatoes in the bottom of the gratin dish. Spread half the crême fraîche over top. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the potatoes and season with salt.
Repeat the previous step with the remaining potatoes, crême fraîche, cheese, and salt.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
The following vegetable gratin, or tian, as they call it in Provence (its region of origin), is another traditional dish which, like potato gratin, arrives at the table in many different variations from one bistro to another. This one marries all the fabulous flavors of Provence, and fills the kitchen with irresistible aromas as it bakes. As with the potato gratin above, I also frequently scale this one down for my 7” gratin dish. It reheats extremely well, and, like so many of these vegetable mélanges, actually tastes better the second day. The recipe is a snap to make, and is a real blessing to have at the ready when summer’s luscious bounty hits the farm stands.
LAYERED VEGETABLE GRATIN
2 small onions, each weighing about 4 ounces
2 small eggplants, each weighing about 4 ounces
4 small zucchini, each weighing about 4 ounces
5 small tomatoes, each weighing about 3 ounces
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 tsp. fresh thyme
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 ° F.
Wash the vegetables, and peel the onion. Cut the vegetables into thin rounds.
Generously rub the bottom of a shallow 5-cup gratin dish with the garlic. Sprinkle with some of the thyme. Add the sliced onion in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt to taste and more of the thyme. Drizzle on some of the olive oil. Continue layering in this manner with the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, sprinkling each layer with salt, thyme and oil. Cover securely with aluminum foil. Bake until the vegetables are very soft and very tender, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.
My final offering is a classic stew from Provence that I have been making for more years than I can remember. I know, I know, it’s spring … but it won’t always be. When the fall weather brings a nip to the air and you start thinking about a nice roaring fire, you’ll be glad to have this in your files to try. Only Boeuf Bourguinon comes in ahead of this stew on my must-make cold-weather stew list. My recommendations don’t come a whole helluva lot higher than that.
So what’s so special? This is a stew created by Anne Willan, a great cookbook author who really knows her way around a French kitchen, and it’s evident the minute you read the ingredient list. Envision tasty chunks of chuck, browned and cooked with white wine, tomatoes and all the usual suspects in the aromatic category, until the meat is fork tender. Then, strips of sautéed red bell pepper and red wine are cooked together and get tossed into the beef mix to cook for a proper beef stew length of time. At the end, artichoke hearts and some Kalamata olives are thrown in for a brief warming, and voila! You have a beef stew you will never forget! But whatever you do, don’t forget to make some Stecca with which to sop up all that fabulous sauce!
PROVENÇAL BEEF STEW
French Regional Cooking
2 pounds beef stew meat (chuck is always my first choice)
2 T oil
1 ½ T flour
1 cup white wine or good white vermouth
1 cup beef broth
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 can (16 ounces) tomatoes
1 bay leaf
3 red bell peppers, sliced into strips
2 T flour
1 cup red wine
1 package frozen artichoke hearts
½ cup black olives, such as Kalamata
Brown meat in hot oil, sprinkle with flour and cook a few minutes. Add wine or vermouth and broth gradually, cover and simmer. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan sauté the onion and the garlic in half the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, season with thyme and bay leaf, and simmer. In a frying pan, heat remaining olive oil. Sauté red pepper strips, sprinkle with flour and cook 2 minutes. Add red wine slowly and stir till it thickens. Add this to tomato mixture. Cover loosely and cook for 30 minutes, then scrape into the pot with the meat. Cook together until the meat is tender, about 3 hours in all, adding the artichoke hearts and olives for the last five minutes.