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Spoon sauce over a cooked vegetable, sprinkle it with a simple topping and brown it in the oven, and you've got a gratin. Even avowed veggie-haters enjoy their greens this way. From Paris to Provence, gratins have long played a menu role in France similar to American casseroles. And they're not just for vegetables. You can apply the gratin principle to pasta or protein foods and use it to create new dishes from leftovers.
For an elegant dish that's easy and fairly fast, it's hard to beat this staple of French home cooking. Gratins make menu-planning simple because you can assemble them ahead and bake and serve them in the same dish. Many time-conscious cooks prepare a double quantity of vegetables, serving half of them steamed or sauteed on one day, and turning the rest into a gratin on the next.
The crust that forms during baking gives this fancy casserole its name. "Gratiner" in French means to bake until crusty. This crust can be delicate or crunchy. Grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese, sometimes mixed with bread crumbs, is the traditional topping. American cooks often choose sharp cheddar. Occasionally I use assertive grating cheeses like kashkaval or Greek kefalotyri.
For a new twist, I sometimes opt for chopped nuts, which give a delicious crust that's crunchier than cheese or bread crumbs. I love pecans, walnuts and almonds but any kind of nut will work. The nuts become toasted and their taste intensifies as they bake with the vegetables. Once in a while I sprinkle my gratin with sesame or sunflower seeds instead.
Cheese sauce is not your only choice for making saucy gratins. Nutmeg-scented cream sauce is nice for a more delicate dish, and tomato sauce is perfect for a more robust coating. You can also use prepared spaghetti sauce.
You can make gratins without sauces too, by simply moistening the vegetables with a little butter or a flavorful oil to protect them from drying and to make the topping adhere.
These simple, sauceless gratins are popular in Mediterranean homes. In A Spanish Family Cookbook (Interlink, 1997), Juan and Susan Serrano prepare a leek gratin with tasty Spanish manchego cheese. Karyl Bannister, the author of Cook & Tell (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) likes a fresh corn gratin with sauteed tomatoes crowned with tiny cubes of buttered bread.
Even the humblest of vegetables becomes glamorous as a gratin. Slice, dice, chop or puree any vegetable from asparagus to zucchini. Fall and winter vegetables work especially well. Onion, cabbage and squash family members make great gratins, as do mushrooms. Create gratins from single vegetables or mix two or more, as Peter Berley does in his book The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen (with Melissa Clark, Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2000). His gratin combines baby lima beans, spinach and sauteed onions in a sourdough bread crumb crust.
Heavy, attractive, round or oval baking dishes made of enamel-coated cast iron or earthenware, called gratin dishes or sometimes au gratin dishes, are designed for baking and serving these casseroles. In fact, any shallow broilerproof baking dish is suitable, as long as the food in it forms a fairly thin layer, so that the gratin components heat quickly and there's plenty of crust. Gratins are ideal accompaniments for simply prepared main courses like baked fish, and make inviting entrees on their own for a brunch, lunch or casual supper.
TWO-WAY BROCCOLI GRATIN
For the fastest gratin with the most crunch, prepare the broccoli only with its pecan and cheddar cheese topping. If you'd like a more luscious dish, make the saucy gratin in the variation. Serve either gratin with a simple entree or as a meatless main course with a salad and good, crusty bread.
You can make this dish with cauliflower too. After cooking the broccoli or cauliflower florets, drain them well in a strainer or colander; otherwise, liquid adhering to them dilutes the sauce or moistening element.
When using nuts in a gratin topping, buy them untoasted. Toasted nuts are likely to burn in the oven or broiler.
700 gr. broccoli, divided in medium florets
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oil or melted butter
1â„2 cup coarsely grated sharp cheddar or Gruyere cheese or 2 to 4 Tbsp. finely grated Parmesan
1â„4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
2 Tbsp. unseasoned bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 220Âº. If you want to use the broccoli stalks, cut off fibrous outer layer, then slice stalks. Add florets and sliced stalks to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered for 4 minutes or until just tender. Drain gently, rinse with cold running water and drain well.
Butter a shallow 5-cup gratin dish or other heavy baking dish. Arrange broccoli florets in prepared dish, stems pointing inward. Put any stalk slices between florets.
Sprinkle broccoli with 1 or 2 tablespoons oil, then with salt and pepper. Mix cheese, pecans and bread crumbs and sprinkle evenly on top. Sprinkle with remaining oil.
Bake for 8 minutes or until cheese melts. If topping is not brown, broil broccoli just until topping browns lightly, about 1 minute, checking often and turning dish if necessary so topping browns evenly. Serve hot, from baking dish.
Makes 4 servings.
SAUCY BROCCOLI GRATIN
Prepare cream sauce (see recipe below). Omit oil. After arranging broccoli in gratin dish, spoon sauce carefully over florets, coating them completely. Sprinkle with topping, omitting final sprinkling of oil. Bake as above.
This sauce is delicious in any vegetable gratin. To make it parve, you can substitute vegetable broth, soy milk (one that's not very sweet), rice milk or a combination of them for the milk and cream.
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
11â„2 cups milk
1â„4 cup heavy cream or whipping cream (optional)
Salt and white pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
Melt butter in a medium-size heavy saucepan. Add flour and cook over low heat, whisking, for 2 minutes or until mixture is foaming but not browned. Remove from heat.
Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, whisking. Add salt, white pepper and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking often, for 5 minutes. Whisk in cream and bring to boil. Cook over low heat, whisking often, for 7 minutes or until sauce thickens and coats a spoon heavily. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Makes about 11â„3 cups.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and The New Casserole.