I think that gratins get a bad rap. I mean, if you’re ordering them in restaurants, swimming in layers of triple creams and crusted with four different varieties of cheese, they might even (most deliciously) deserve it. But after coming home from the farmers’ market in our new neighborhood (!) last weekend with potatoes and shiitakes and no real inkling of what I wanted to do with them, I turned to Alice Waters — her books are increasingly become my cooking bibles these days — and realized that something I’d never much associated with easy, light meals, a gratin, was exactly what was in order.
At its simplest, a gratin is sliced potatoes, a cup of whole milk (yes, milk though you’re welcome to gild the lily with half, full and double creams) and a few pats of butter on top. Adding a wee bit of a cheese between the layers goes surprisingly far — once it is all baked together, you’ll feel like you’re eating a macaroni-and-cheese level dish, minus that extra pound-and-a-half of cheese, not bad for four ingredient dish! — and if you season it well, you wonder why you don’t make them more often.
But there’s no reason to stop with potatoes. You could thinly slice any root vegetable or sauté any mushroom or green as an additional filling. We alternated layers with those shiitakes, sautéed lightly and ended up with the kind of deliciously crusted dish that makes us accuse each other of saving the biggest, best slices for ourselves.
[Note: This recipe got some much-needed fresh photos in 2020.]
Awesomely Simple Potato Gratin
Adapted from The Art of Simple Food
As I mentioned above, potato gratins are infinitely adaptable, so have fun with this recipe. We sautéed half a pound of thinly-sliced shiitakes with one small minced shallot until they were softened and spread the mixture between potato layers. And then we fought over the corner pieces, but that part is optional, and maybe even avoidable if your household is full of grownups.
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces, plus an additional pat for buttering gratin dish
4 large yellow potatoes* (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup milk, half-and-half or cream (if using something richer than milk, you can skip the butter)
2 ounces cheese, grated or crumbled (Parmesan or Gruyere are the classics, but that doesn’t mean that goat cheese, blue cheese or any of your favorites won’t work as well) [optional]
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9- by 12-inch gratin dish with the pat of butter. Slice the potatoes as thinly as you can (a mandoline works great for this) and arrange them in a layer, overlapping the edges slightly like shingles. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and freshly ground pepper and don’t be stingy — this is where the bulk of your flavor comes from and a third of the cheese before before repeating this process with your remaining potato slices. (If you are using a sauteed vegetable filling, this is where you’d want to add half of it.) Depending on how thinly sliced your potatoes are, you should end up with approximately three layers, with a third of the cheese between each layer. Reserve the last third of your cheese for later.
Carefully pour the milk over the potatoes. It should come up to the bottom of the top layer of potatoes; add more if this was not enough. Dot the top of the gratin with the three tablespoons of butter and bake it for 60 minutes. Halfway through the baking time, take the gratin dish out of the oven and gently press the potatoes flat with a spatula to keep the top moist, then return to the oven for the rest of the hour. After 1 hour, sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the gratin and bake for a final 15 minutes. The gratin is done when the potatoes are soft and the top is golden brown. For more color, you can run the gratin under your broiler.
More gratin ideas: Use duck fat instead of butter. Swap celery root, parsnips or turnip slices for half the potatoes. Add chopped herbs such as parsley, thyme, chives or chervil between the layers. Sauté mushrooms, sorrel, spinach or leeks, with or without a finely-chopped shallot, and layer them between the potato slices.
* Yukon Golds and other waxy, yellow-fleshed potatoes work best in gratins, keeping their texture without getting floury and falling apart as Russets do.