- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

“When in doubt, serve meat and potatoes.” That’s a motto I embrace often when entertaining if my guest list does not include vegetarians.

My spouse, like countless others, swoons when he hears this combination mentioned. He likes almost any variation on the theme.

Last month, he was delighted by a creamy potato gratin that I served with a leg of lamb on one occasion and with beef tenderloin on another. He even went off his diet and indulged in seconds.

The rich gratin is a remake of a scalloped potato dish I created several years ago. In the original version, I topped layers of sliced potatoes with grated Gruyere cheese and creme fraiche, a thick French cream that is a cross between heavy and sour cream. In the new rendition, I replaced Gruyere with Italian Fontina and garnished the baked gratin with chopped rosemary and a drizzle of truffle oil.

When I first started making these potatoes, creme fraiche was not readily available, and I assembled my own by whisking heavy and sour cream together, leaving the mixture to thicken for several hours on my countertop. Today, though, creme fraiche is sold in many groceries, as is truffle oil, which adds a nice robust touch to the potatoes.

This gratin has many advantages for the cook. It can be prepared several hours in advance and reheated when needed. It calls for only six ingredients, plus salt and pepper. It serves eight, so is ideal for a large gathering. It’s also quite versatile.

I love to use it as an accompaniment for beef or lamb, but it makes a stellar side to baked ham, roast chicken or grilled salmon, as well. In one of my cooking classes, I even noticed a vegetarian making an entire meal of this potato gratin and a salad. The rest of the group, however, opted for the roast beef, too.

Creamy potato gratin drizzled with truffle oil

The gratin can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cool, cover loosely with foil and leave at room temperature. Reheat, uncovered, in a preheated 350-degree oven until hot, about 15 minutes

1/2 tablespoon butter for greasing baking dish

8 ounces Italian Fontina cheese, well chilled

3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cups creme fraiche (see Note)

1 tablespoon truffle oil, optional (see note)

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

Butter a 9-by-13-inch oven-to-table baking dish. Remove rind and grate cheese using a hand grater. (Since Fontina is a soft cheese, it is easier to grate with a hand grater than in a food processor.) Place half the potatoes, overlapping slightly, in prepared dish. Salt and pepper slices generously.

With a rubber spatula, spread half the creme fraiche over the potatoes. Then sprinkle half the cheese over the creme fraiche. Make a second layer in the same way using the remaining potatoes, creme fraiche and cheese.

Bake gratin on center rack of preheated 400-degree oven, uncovered, 30 minutes. Then, lower heat to 350 degrees and bake until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife and a golden brown crust has formed on top, about 30 minutes more. Check occasionally, and cover with a sheet of foil if potatoes become too brown.

Remove gratin from oven and let stand 10 minutes. Drizzle potato gratin with truffle oil and sprinkle with rosemary. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Creme fraiche is available in many groceries, but if you can’t find it, you can make your own by whisking together 11/4 cups heavy whipping cream and cup sour cream in a medium nonreactive bowl. Let stand at room temperature until thickened, 6 hours or overnight. Cover and refrigerate; it can be stored up to 1 week, covered, in refrigerator. Makes about 13/4 cups.

Also, truffle oil is available in specialty food stores and some supermarkets. I love the assertive accent it adds, but if you can’t find it, it can be omitted.

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