Gratins are perfect for winter

Special to The Washington PostFebruary 26, 2014 

Plenty of oven-baked dishes are worth romanticizing about, especially during a cold winter. Their aromas and warmth can permeate an entire home, even one with old bones and scanty insulation, like mine. They seem to take care of themselves, at least in those final stages of cooking. And they promise warming, savory comfort for the table.

A gratin, though, can do even more. It emerges from the oven not only fragrant and bubbling hot but with a browned, crisp crust crowning the luxurious goodness underneath. What I’ve come to appreciate most is the gratin’s ability to make something special out of ordinary ingredients, on any ordinary night. Consider a casserole of meaty borlotti beans, their juices concentrated beneath a shaggy coat of bread crumbs, or a jumble of toasted farro and ruffly savoy cabbage, baked until the center is lacy with melted cheese and the top is chewy and crisp. These dishes come together like weeknight meals, but they’re dressed up just enough to taste like something more.

That in itself seems like nourishment.

Perhaps the most revered is the gratin dauphinois, with its layer upon layer of thinly sliced potatoes, poured over with cream, seasoned and baked until a golden crust forms over the sumptuous whole. It is a marvel of transformation that owes its delectability not just to cream, but also to the starch the potatoes exude as they bake.

Then there is the gratin savoyard, so named for its origins in the Alpine Savoie. It is occasionally made with cream but more often with beef broth, perhaps a saner, more balanced partner for the liberal gratings of cheese it employs.

Those dishes, the royalty of gratins, obscure the preparation’s potential for versatility. The only feature the gratin truly requires is a browned, crisp topping — and, to achieve it, a shallow enough baking dish with sufficient surface area.

The word itself translates as crust, originally derived from the French verb “gratter,” meaning to scratch or scrape. Depending on whom you ask, that action refers to either the actual grating or scraping of cheese or bread crumbs on top, or the onetime practice of scraping the crusty bits from the side and bottom of the baking dish back into the whole.

Regardless, it is the upper crust that makes the gratin so irresistible. (That explains the French idiomatic usage of the term “le gratin” to refer to a society’s or particular group’s elite.)

Beyond that qualification, the gratin is practically limitless, as flexible as pasta, or stew: You can convey any number of flavors with any number of ingredients, depending on what you have a taste for and what’s in your pantry.

Bean and Winter Squash Gratin  •  1 cup dried borlotti (cranberry) beans (or tiger’s eye or any pinto-style bean)

 •  Fine sea salt

 •  1 bay leaf

 •  5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

 •  Water (optional)

 •  3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread (crusts removed)

 •  Flesh from 1 pound winter squash, such as kabocha, cut into 1-inch pieces

 •  1 medium yellow onion, cut into small dice

 •  2 large carrots, scrubbed and cut into small dice

 •  2 teaspoons dried thyme

 •  1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

 •  1 dried arbol chili pepper, seeded and crumbled (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)

 •  1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 •  1 clove garlic, cut in half (any green sprout removed)

Place the beans in a pot with water to cover by several inches; bring to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, cover the pot and let the beans soak for 1 hour. Alternatively, they can be left to soak in tepid water to cover by several inches for 8 to 12 hours.

Add to the beans and their soaking liquid a generous pinch of salt, the bay leaf and 1 tablespoon oil. Add water if necessary to keep the beans submerged by 2 to 3 inches. Cook over medium-high heat; once the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The beans might take longer than 1 hour to cook, depending on their freshness. Leave them in their soaking liquid while you finish preparing the rest of the gratin.

Tear the bread into chunks and place in a food processor; pulse into crumbs. Transfer to a bowl and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil, tossing to coat evenly.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the squash pieces with 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, turning once with a spatula after about 15 minutes, until lightly golden and tender.

Heat 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the oil in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and carrots, stirring to coat; cook until tender and just beginning to turn golden, about 7 minutes. Stir in thyme, fennel seed and dried arbol chili pepper; cook for 2 minutes, then gently fold in the squash just until incorporated.

Discard the bay leaf in the beans; drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and gently stir into the squash mixture. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and the black pepper.

Rub the bottom and sides of a shallow 2-quart baking dish with the cut halves of garlic; discard the garlic or reserve it for another use.

Transfer the bean-squash mixture to the baking dish. Pour 3/4 to 1 cup of the reserved bean-cooking liquid evenly over the top of the dish, and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden.

Nutrition information per serving: 420 calories, 15 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 420 mg sodium, 15 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar GRATIN recipes from C3

Celery Root-Kale Gratin with Walnut Bread Crumbs  •  2 pounds celery root (celeriac), peeled and cut into 1/2-to-3/4-inch cubes

 •  2 cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth

 •  1 teaspoon fine sea salt

 •  1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

 •  1 large onion, sliced thinly from top to bottom

 •  1 clove garlic, minced

 •  11/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

 •  2 tablespoons white wine or dry cider

 •  Leaves from 1 pound (1 bunch) lacinato or curly kale, rinsed (but not dried) and torn into bite-size pieces

 •  1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 •  3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread, crusts removed

 •  cup walnut pieces

Add celery root to large saucepan with all but 1/4 cup of broth (reserve). Bring to boil and cook 5 minutes, or until celery root is fork tender. Turn off heat.

Heat half the oil in a heavy saute pan over medium heat and cook onion with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat to medium-low, cook for 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and thyme. Cook 5-7 minutes or until onion begins to pick up color.

Stir in cider and cook for 1-2 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the celery root to the onion mixture, stirring gently to incorporate. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and cook for a few minutes (over medium-low heat). Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Discard remaining broth used to cook celery root, or reserve for another use.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into the same saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat; once the oil shimmers, add the kale and half of the reserved broth. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, stirring to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; partially cover and cook for 3 to 10 minutes until softened, depending on the toughness/type of the kale used. Stir occasionally; reduce the heat to low if the kale seems dry, or add the remaining reserved broth.

Transfer to mixing bowl and season with the pepper and remaining salt.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Tear the bread into chunks, dropping them into a food processor as you work. Pulse to form coarse bread crumbs, then transfer to a separate bowl. Pulse the walnuts in the food processor briefly, just until coarsely chopped, then add to the bread crumbs. Drizzle the mix with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and toss gently to coat.

Spread the celery root-kale mixture in a 2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with bread-crumb-walnut mixture. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the top is deep golden and the gratin is bubbling.

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories, 8 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar Savoy Cabbage and Farro Gratin with Fontina  •  1 cup semi-pearled farro (may substitute semi-pearled barley or rye berries)

 •  Pinch, plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

 •  1 small or 1/2 large savoy cabbage, cored (may substitute green or firm napa cabbage or lacinato kale)

 •  2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish

 •  1 large shallot, minced

 •  1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 •  3/4 teaspoon caraway seed, toasted (see note)

 •  1 cup homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth

 •  11/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

 •  5 ounces fontina cheese, freshly grated or shredded (may substitute raclette cheese)

Note: Toast the caraway seed in a small skillet over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until fragrant, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from the heat.

Toast half of the farro in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant, shaking the pan as needed to avoid scorching. Transfer to a medium saucepan; repeat with the remaining farro.

Cover the farro with water by a few inches and add the pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low; partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender yet still a bit chewy. Drain.

Coarsely chop the cabbage.

Heat the oil in the same large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the shallot and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until translucent, stirring a few times. Add the cabbage, the 1/2 teaspoon salt, the pepper and the toasted caraway seed, stirring to incorporate.

Stir in 3 tablespoons of the broth; reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the cabbage has wilted yet remains moist and somewhat plump. Stir occasionally and add broth if the mixture seems dry. Remove from the heat and stir in the drained farro and thyme leaves.

Add 4 ounces of the cheese and toss gently to incorporate.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a little oil to grease a 21/2-to-3-quart baking dish.

Spread the cabbage mixture evenly in the baking dish, then pour 2/3 cup of the broth over it. Sprinkle with the remaining ounce of cheese. Bake for 25 for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted, the cabbage is browned in spots and the gratin is bubbling.

Nutrition information per serving: 410 calories, 18 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Yield: Serves 4 Yield: Serves 4 Yield: Serves 4

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