Natural Ingredients Instead of “Natural Flavor”
Not everything I cook is Italian. Every once in awhile the French part of my heritage breaks through and demands attention. When it does, I fix it a nice dish of patates au gratin, or “potatoes au gratin.” Some people also call them “au gratin potatoes.” And because I'm as much of a stickler in French as I am in Italian, it should be noted that the correct pronunciation is not “aw GROT-in,” but rather “oh grah-TAHN,” and you kind of swallow the “n”.
“Gratin” is a classic French culinary technique that involves giving a dish a browned crust, usually by baking a preparation topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs, or butter in a shallow dish under an overhead grill (called a “salamander” in restaurant-speak) or a broiler.
Once upon a time, I, like most American cooks, used to rely on Betty Crocker for my “au gratin potatoes,” because they were quick and convenient. You had dehydrated potato slices and a packet of some mysterious dried cheesy substance in a box. There was also a packet of bread crumbs. Combine the first two ingredients with water and bake, then top it with the breadcrumbs to finish and, viola!, delicious, cheesy “au gratin potatoes.” All well and good, except here's the list of what you're getting in that box: Potatoes*, Corn Starch, Maltodextrin, Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Sea Salt, Onion*, Potassium Phosphate, Ricotta Cheese* (whey, milkfat, lactic acid, salt), Potassium Chloride, Cheddar Cheese* (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). Contains less than 0.5% of: Garlic*, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Monosodium Glutamate, Sodium Citrate, Lactic Acid, Calcium Lactate, Mono and Diglycerides, Nonfat Milk, Yeast Extract, Sodium Phosphate, Whey, Salt, Natural Flavor, Color (yellow lakes 5 & 6), Blue Cheese* (milk, salt, cheese cultures, enzymes), Silicon Dioxide (anticaking agent), Enzyme Modified Blue Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), Enzyme Modified Cheddar Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). Freshness Preserved by Sodium Bisulfite.*Dried
Thanks, Betty, but no thanks. I'm running a kitchen, not a chemistry lab. (Or a mortuary. Personally, I prefer to wait until after I'm dead before I get pumped full of preservatives.)
So I set about finding a way to make au gratin potatoes that weren't stuffed full of things I didn't want to stuff myself full of. And here's the way to do it.
6 medium potatoes, russet or Yukon gold, peeled and sliced to 1/8 inch thickness
2 tablespoons butter (plus extra for greasing)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (white, if possible)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
1 3/4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
pinch of paprika (optional)
Bread crumbs (optional)
The best way to achieve uniform 1/8-inch sliced potatoes is with a mandoline. Just be careful if you're not experienced in using one. USE THE GUARD or a cut-proof Kevlar glove while slicing. 1/8-inch slices of raw fingertip are very unappetizing. You can use a knife, but it's a slower, more tedious process.
Okay, here's what you do:
Heat your oven to 400°.
While the oven is preheating, grab a 2 qt saucepan and heat the butter and oil over medium heat until the butter is melted into the oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat.
Stir in the milk, cream, and cheddar cheese. Return to heat and bring to a low boil, stirring constantly. Simmer and stir for about 1 minute or until the sauce thickens.
Lightly grease a 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish with butter. Spread the sliced potatoes in layers. Pour the cheese sauce over the potatoes.
Cover with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered for an additional 20 minutes. Mix in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Top with bread crumbs and sprinkle with paprika, if desired, and continue baking an additional 10 or 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and bubbly. (You might want to flip the broiler on for the last couple of minutes to get a nice brown, bubbly top. Just watch it carefully; the broiler can take it from brown and bubbly to black and nasty very quickly.)
Yields 6 (1/2 cup) servings
It's not as easy as opening a box and dumping in some water, but the end result is even more delicious and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you used natural ingredients instead of “natural flavor.”
Buon appetito! (Or in this case I guess it should be Bon Appetit!)