Potato Gratins

Yes, that’s potato gratins in the plural – not singular. I made these last weekend. Not only are they very cute in their individual ramekins, they are also elegantly and cleverly portioned. This ensures that you will be less likely to find yourself gobbling up half a baking dish of gratinéed potatoes or wrestling your child for the last crunchy cheesy corner stuck to the rim. Just saying. It happens.

Potato Gratins

A mandoline works best for thinly slicing the potatoes. Keep the skins on for extra nutrients and texture to balance out all of the cheesy goodness. Makes 8.

Unsalted butter
2 cups full-fat sour cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds small white, Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold potatoes, washed, very thinly sliced – no more than 1/8 inch thick
8 ounces grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter 8 3/4-cup ramekins. Whisk sour cream, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper together in a bowl. Arrange 2 layers of potatoes overlapping in ramekins. Top with a heaping teaspoon of sour cream, spreading to cover the potatoes. Sprinkle with cheese. Repeat layering process, occasionally sprinkling with additional salt and pepper, until ramekins are full, gently pressing down on each layer. Finish with a layer of sour cream and grated cheeese. Arrange ramekins on a baking tray. Bake until potatoes are tender and top is brown and bubbling, about 1 hour. (If top browns before potatoes are fully cooked, lightly cover with foil to prevent burning.) Serve hot.

Tips and Treats for a Holiday Cheese Basket

Tips and Treats for a Holiday Cheese Basket



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I made this cheese basket for a ghoulish gathering of friends last weekend. Cheeseboards and baskets are fun to make and with a little thought and creativity can easily take center stage at a buffet table. I never tire of arranging and decorating them, using the season and holidays as inspiration. For this Halloween-inspired cheese basket I picked autumnal decorations with a creepy twist. I created a border of spiky, frizzy greens with dark, purplish leaves and black, woody garnishes. The cheese selection was equally ghoulish: ash-rubbed cheese, a moldy blue, stinky and runny cheese and orange pockmarked cheese. The crisps and crackers were dark, rough and seeded, weaving through the cheese like wood in the forest.

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All of the garnishes and decorations are edible and include:
Mustard greens, chicory, purple kale, frisée, miniature red pears, black radishes, burdock root, gourds and baby pumpkins, black olives, pumpkins seeds, dried currants and cranberries.

Crisps and snacks were chosen for color, shape and texture:
Corn nuts, black sesame rice crackers, cranberry hazelnut crisps,  crisp flatbread, and chunks of dense fig and almond cake.

Black slate created the background and lined the basket interior, provided a sturdy surface to cut the cheese while various wooden and black vessels contained wayward runny cheese and little nibbles.

Not only did the cheeseboard look good, it featured a thoughtful selection of cheese that ranged from soft and mild to strong and aged. When you gather a selection, try to balance it in strength, texture, flavor. As a starting point I often include a blue cheese, a creamy white-molded cheese such as camembert, a goat cheese and a hard alpine cow or sheep milk cheese.

Cheese pictured in this basket includes (clockwise from top center):

1.  Cowgirl Creamery Sir Francis Drake washed rind cheese with currants
2.  Sharp white Cheddar with a Purple Rind – selected for color
3.  Aged Gouda Saenkanter – an orange, sharp, nutty Dutch cows milk cheese
4.  Adante Dairy “Nocturne” cows milk cheese with gray mold and ash
5.  Seal Bay Triple Cream – mild, oozing and runny
6.  Gorgonzola Mountain – crumbly and streaked with blue
7.  Petit Brebiousse – a French ewe’s milk cheese with an orange rind

So have fun – enjoy all of the fabulous cheese and remember to save some for the guests. Bon appétit!

Cauliflower au Gratin

Cauliflower au Gratin

Who can’t resist a Cauliflower Gratin? Perfect as a side dish or vegetarian course, these golden gratins are bubbling with cheesy goodness. I found yellow cauliflower at the market and mixed it with white cauliflower in this recipe. Don’t just experiment with color. Get creative with other veggies, such as  broccoli florets, chunks of celeriac or diced rutabaga for variety and flavor. So long as there’s lots of gratinéed cheese and bechamel, this gratin is a winner.

Cauliflower Gratin
Serves 4

1 large head of cauliflower, broken into florets
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs, lightly toasted

Preheat oven to 375 F. (190 C.)  Butter a gratin dish or 4 individual ramekins.
Steam cauliflower until crisp tender. Transfer to a large bowl. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour, and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Cook, stirring, until bechamel thickens. Whisk in salt, mustard, pepper and nutmeg. Add half of the Gruyere cheese, whisking until smooth. Pour the bechamel over the cauliflower. Toss to thoroughly coat. Pour into the gratin dish. Combine remaining Gruyere cheese, Parmesan and panko in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the gratin. Bake until golden on top and bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Porcini Cheese Fondue

It perplexes me when the subject of cheese fondue comes up, and it’s often accompanied by a snide reference to the seventies. I find it sad that this quintessential alpine dish is relegated to a by-gone era evoking images of shag rugs, unfortunate hair and textured bell-bottoms. Certainly this was not intended when the rural inhabitants of Swiss and French mountainous villages devised a warming winter dish incorporating their local cheese and winter staples.

I may be biased. I was never a fan of the seventies, even when I lived in them. Conversely, I am a huge fan of Switzerland. After all, I lived there for 10 years following my stint at cooking school in Paris. My husband and I were married in Switzerland, and our children were born there. As a result, Switzerland holds a special place in our hearts and will always be considered home to our family.

The best way to a country’s soul is to experience its cuisine. As an expat in Geneva it was a delicious pleasure to embrace Swiss specialties, namely chocolate and cheese. We’ll leave the chocolate for another post. As for the cheese, we enjoyed it in all of its forms, and the Swiss tradition of melting it in deep pots with wine and spirits quickly became a favorite. When we eventually moved from Geneva to London, and then on to Copenhagen, I became more reliant on making my own version of fondue for wintry family dinners to satisfy our wistful cravings.

This recipe has been tweaked and fine-tuned over the years, influenced by taste and available ingredients. In addition to serving it with the usual bread, I like to pass around bowls of parboiled baby potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli florets for dipping.

Porcini Cheese Fondue

The extra ingredient in this cheese fondue is porcini mushrooms, which I highly recommend adding. They will simmer in the cheese imparting a rich umami flavor to the fondue. If you prefer a simple cheese fondue, omit the porcini. Serves 4.

3 tablespoons Calvados or Poire William brandy
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for serving
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 pound high quality alpine cheese such as Gruyère, Emmental, Comté. (I use 2/3 Gruyere and 1/3 Emmental), grated
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water until reconstituted, drained, squeezed dry and coarsely chopped
1 loaf peasant bread, cut in 3/4 inch cubes

Note: Have all of your ingredients ready before you begin. Once you start, the fondue will come together quickly, and during this time it must be constantly stirred. The fondue must not come to a boil during this time.

Combine Calvados, cornstarch, salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and nutmeg in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.
Add wine and garlic to a large heavy saucepan or fondue pot. Heat over medium heat until tiny bubbles form, giving the wine a fizzy appearance without bringing to a boil. Add cheese one handful at a time, stirring constantly until each handful is melted before adding the next – do not let the fondue boil.
Once cheese is added, continue stirring one minute – do not let the fondue boil.
Stir in cornstarch. Continue stirring until mixture thickens to fondue consistency. (I find that some cornstarch brands thicken more easily than others. If your fondue remains thin, add 1 more tablespoon cornstarch diluted with 2 tablespoons white wine.) If using porcini, stir the mushrooms into the cheese at this point. Remove from heat. Pour cheese into a warm fondue pot if necessary. Serve immediately.

Serve with extra ground pepper, bread and parboiled vegetables such as small potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli florets.

Root Vegetable Gratin

Root Vegetable Gratin

If you are searching for holiday side dishes, this root veggie gratin is a fresh alternative to a traditional potato gratin. Layers of rutabaga and sweet potato alternate with red potatoes in this colorfully striated dish flecked with sage.  The root vegetables lend an extra dimension to this rustic winter gratin with their sweet earthy flavor, while adding a more nutritious alternative to the simple potato.

Root Vegetable Gratin
Serves 6-8

16 ounces sour cream
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 medium red potatoes
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled
1 large rutabaga, peeled
6 ounces Gruyère cheese, finely grated

Preheat oven to 375 F. (190 C.) Butter a gratin dish.
Combine sour cream, garlic, sage, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a bowl and mix well. Thinly slice potatoes and rutabaga, preferably with a mandoline. Arrange 2 layers of red potatoes, overlapping, in bottom of gratin dish. Spread a thin layer of the sour cream over the potatoes. Sprinkle with a little Gruyere cheese. Cover with a double layer of sweet potatoes. Spread with a thin layer of sour cream and a sprinkling of Gruyere. Repeat with a layer of rutabaga. Repeat process until all of the vegetables have been incorporated. (There should be about 6 layers in all.) Thoroughly top gratin with remaining sour cream. Sprinkle a liberal amount of Gruyère over sour cream. Bake in oven until vegetables are tender and top of gratin is brown and bubbling, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. (Loosely cover gratin with buttered foil if browning too fast.) Serve garnished with fresh sage leaves.

Cheddar and Garlic Smashed Potatoes

Garlicky Smashed Potatoes

(Do not read further if you are on a diet.)

These potatoes are wickedly good. Until now they have been linked to other recipes as an accompaniment on TasteFood, but it’s high time they get their own post. I have often found mashed potatoes bland in flavor and boring in texture, half-heartedly nibbling spoonful after spoonful in search of an extra something that’s missing.  These potatoes are my answer to this conundrum. These potatoes are chunky and rich, flecked with potato skin and onion, and finished with melted cheese on top. Cream cheese, sour cream and butter bind and elevate the potatoes, while garlic adds depth and oomph to the flavor. There are some members of our family who are lobbying to call this a main course, not a side dish. Need I say more?

Cheddar and Garlic Smashed Potatoes

Serves 6-8

3 lbs. Yukon gold potatoes
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sour cream
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 small yellow onion, grated, with juices
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F. (180 C.) Butter a 3 quart baking or gratin pan. Quarter potatoes. Place in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until tender; drain. Return potatoes to pot. Smash potatoes with a potato masher. Add cream cheese and continue to smash potatoes until cream cheese is incorporated. Add sour cream and butter and mix well to combine with a wooden spoon. Add onion and garlic. Stir in 1 cup Cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer potatoes to baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top. Bake until heated through and top is golden, about 30 minutes.

Fondue Season

fondue vignette

The rains have come, and I am excited.  This means that I can finally make a rainy day meal.  Big deal, you may say, if you are in blustery New England, or, say, drizzly London.  Well, in California where the event of rain can often warrant breaking news on television, when the calendar says November, yet the unfailing sunshine and blue skies imply al fresco, this transplanted 4-season girl gets positively giddy when the weather takes a turn to the gray.  Finally, my hankering for warm, comfort food is actually in sync with the precipitation and wind outdoors.

Tonight’s dinner will be a cheese fondue.  I know I am getting ahead of myself with such a wintry meal, but I am seizing the opportunity to make a family favorite.  Fondue is something I prepare with a great deal of nostalgia, as it takes me back to life in Switzerland where I lived for a number of years and developed an affinity to the Swiss approach to cheese.

Cheese Fondue

This recipe is my version of the traditional fondue. Serves 4-6.

2 cups white wine – typically a Swiss white wine, but you may have noticed that this is rarely exported. I substitute a Semillon or a Sauvignon Blanc.
1 garlic clove, minced
1 lb. grated alpine cheese such as Gruyère, Emmental, Appenzel, Comté – Of all ingredients this is most important. A Gruyère cheese that says “Made in Wisconsin” is absolutely not the same as a genuine Swiss or French alpine cheese, and I recommend you try a taste test to see. I prefer using a mixture of Gruyère and Emmental.
3 tblsp. Kirsch or Calvados – as I have moved around and at times found it hard to purchase Kirsch, I substitute Calvados with nice results.
3 tblsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf peasant or sourdough bread, cut in 1″ cubes

Note:  Have all your ingredients ready before you begin. Once you start, the fondue will come together quickly, and during this time it must be constantly stirred.

Combine kirsch, cornstarch and nutmeg in a small bowl, stirring to combine.
Add wine and garlic to a large heavy saucepan. Heat over medium heat until tiny bubbles begin to form giving wine a fizzy appearance, without bringing to a boil.
Add cheese one handful at a time, stirring constantly until each handful is melted before adding the next.
Once cheese is added, continue stirring 1 minute – do not allow mixture to boil.
Stir in cornstarch mixture. Continue stirring until mixture thickens to fondue consistency.
Remove from heat.  Pour cheese mixture into a pre-warmed fondue pot and serve immediately with freshly ground black pepper.

Tip:

Use bread cubes on fondue forks to stir the fondue in the pot at the table. Avoid letting the fondue boil in the fondue pot.
In addition to bread, try dipping parboiled broccoli and cauliflower florets, baby potatoes, carrots and apple chunks in the cheese.