By Scott Banks
Planet Food Guy
When I was cooking in tent camps, gratin potatoes arrived freeze dried in an oversized milk carton by a brand called Trio. They tasted pretty dang good when you realized that a ride to the nearest restaurant was a 150-mile helicopter flight. The saving grace of these potatoes was that they had cheese, or “cheese product” in them. Granted, the cheese was of a color not often found in nature, but they had sharp, salty taste that improved the lot of them. Stack them next to baked ham and you had something.
I grew up with a milky version — which means I probably didn’t eat them, being such a picky eater. A good batch of gratin takes a heavy cream and we didn’t have that in our refrigerator. In fact, our milk was a mixture of whole milk and Carnation powdered milk, a trick to stretch a dollar on a minister’s salary.
So I reluctantly came back to gratin potatoes — baby steps. Reading through a cooking magazine, I skimmed over a short article that described a different technique to make gratin potatoes and that got me interested. It sped up the cooking time; putting them in the realm of a weeknight meal you could slide in the oven after work and still have time to watch Game of Thrones without using the DVR.
The technique called to immerse the sliced potatoes in heavy cream heating in a saucepan. The starch from the potatoes begins to thicken the cream right away. As it thickens you transfer the potatoes and cream to a gratin dish, or whatever you’re using. They are already halfway cooked, so 30 minutes at 350 degrees and you’re done.
I use my mandoline that turns slicing potatoes into fast fun. However, if you aren’t careful, it can turn your fun into a trip to the stitch doctor. The blades are sharp as Don Rickles’ tongue so use the “food safety handle.” The mandoline guarantees uniform potato slices that cook evenly. And they are fast. That said, a knife or food processor works, too.
Besides cream, the most popular additions are thyme, garlic and a pinch or two of nutmeg. I crumble blue cheese into the cream before I add the potatoes. Gruyere adds a nutty flavor and meltability (That’s a word in my kitchen). Parmesan grated over the top, bubbles to a brown crust. For those who don’t like the taste of dirty socks they associate with blue cheese, cheddar works just fine and probably is closer to the original dish. My last batch I used Cambazola, that touts a triple-cream creaminess I can’t argue with.
Yukon gold potatoes are the spud of choice because they hold up well, russets are another good pick. If you have ham or bacon, you can add that too. For color, roasted red pepper slices would be a good addition as would chopped parsley. Once out of the oven I let them sit for at least 10 minutes. They cool off enough that you don’t burn your mouth and the cream thickens even more.
Leftover gratin potatoes have a place at my breakfast table. If I were to open a restaurant, for breakfast I would serve last night’s gratin potatoes sautéed in a tablespoon of bacon grease (What? You don’t have bacon grease in your fridge?). I’d finish it with a poached egg on top. Stab that egg and the unctuous yolk coats the potatoes and cream and cheese like a cheap suit. Taste it once and you’re hooked for life.
It’s barbecue season and I would match gratin potatoes with ribs, chicken and best of all, steak. I’ve even baked gratins in the barbecue. That way I don’t heat up the kitchen with my oven on a hot day.
This recipe is how I like my gratin. It uses half-and-half, but I don’t see why you couldn’t use cream. Try it out.