- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

When I was cooking in the early 1970s at L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, one of my favorite specialties there, especially during the holidays, was gratin Dauphinois. To non-French-speaking ears, that name may sound grandly haute cuisine, but it actually refers to one of the most easy and down-to-earth but luxurious side dishes you could possibly make.

Gratin, as you probably know, is French for “crust,” any crust that forms on top of a dish baked in a hot oven. Since that crust often includes cheese, English-speakers understandably think the term refers more specifically to a cheese topping, as in potatoes au gratin, literally potatoes “with crust.”

The “Dauphinois” part of the dish’s name refers to the Dauphine region of France, around the city of Grenoble, in the foothills of the Alps. They grow lots of potatoes there, as well as farming dairy cattle that provide a wealth of cream and, yes, cheese. Put it all together and you get a signature dish of the region: a casserole of sliced garlicky potatoes slathered in rich cream and topped with melted cheese.

Oh, my mouth waters just describing it!

But why, you might wonder, would a restaurant in sunny Provence proudly serve a recipe from the Dauphine region? The answer is simple: It makes a perfect side dish for roast leg of lamb, one of the simplest and best main courses of that southern French province. Since such grand roasts are seldom served with a sauce, it makes sense to accompany them with such a rich, saucy side, which perfectly complements any roast you might want to serve for any festive meal.

The ingredients are easy to find. I like to use buttery, nutty-tasting Yukon Gold potatoes, although regular baking potatoes will work fine, too. Most well stocked markets today carry creme fraiche, French-style soured cream, though you could substitute well-drained regular sour cream if necessary. Instead of the Swiss cheese, feel free to use any other good melting variety you like, such as Fontina or mozzarella.

An added advantage to the gratin is that it’s so easy to make. Though you bake it twice, you can do the first and longest portion of the baking well ahead of time; then, assemble the final gratin dish following the recipe, top it with cheese, and refrigerate it until about half an hour before serving time. Then, do the final baking to form the gratin, adding another 10 to 15 minutes to the cooking time to allow for the fact that you’ve started with a cold dish.

There you have it: a simple plan for preparing a side dish that could win as many raves as the roast that stars on your holiday table!

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS

Serves 6 to 8

12 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

3 cups (750 ml) heavy cream

3 cloves garlic, peeled, 2 minced, 1 cut in half

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup (125 ml) creme fraiche

1/2 cup (125 ml) shredded Swiss cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (180 C). Bring a teakettle or saucepan of water to a boil.

With a sharp knife, cut the potatoes crosswise into slices 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick. In a mixing bowl, toss together the potatoes, cream, minced garlic, salt, and pepper. In a baking dish, arrange the potato mixture in an even layer. Place the casserole inside a roasting pan.

Pull out the middle shelf of the oven. Place the roasting pan on the shelf. Carefully pour into the roasting pan enough of the boiling water to come half way up the side of the baking dish. Carefully slide the rack into the oven, taking care not to slosh the boiling water.

Bake until the potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a skewer, about 1-1/2 hours. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven. Raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees. (230 C). Bring more water to a boil.

Rub the inside of a large gratin dish all over with the halved garlic clove. Spread half of the creme fraiche in the dish. With a large spoon, spread half of the potatoes in the dish. Distribute the remaining creme fraiche on top, then the remaining potatoes. Sprinkle evenly with the Swiss cheese.

Put the gratin dish into the baking pan, put the pan on the oven rack, and carefully pour boiling water into the pan to come half way up the side of the gratin dish. Slide the rack into the oven and bake until the cheese has melted and formed a golden-brown crust, about 15 minutes.

To serve, spoon the potato gratin from the dish onto individual serving plates.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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