Gravies and gratins

Learning to make Classic Thanksgiving food

Butternut squash and potato gratin (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Butternut squash and potato gratin
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
With the Thanksgiving turkey, most Americans serve gravy. According to Rick Rodgers, author of The Big Book of Sides, making good gravy is “no big deal – it’s just a sauce.”
At his recent gravy-making demonstration at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, Rodgers said that gravy, like many sauces, begins with a roux made of fat and flour that are cooked together. The first rule for making good gravy is to measure the ingredients – use 1½ tablespoons of fat and 1½ tablespoons of flour for each cup of stock.
The importance of measuring may seem obvious, said Rodgers, but many people try to wing it and imitate what they remember their grandmothers doing – throwing a handful of flour into a roasting pan, then pouring in some broth and hoping the gravy will come out smooth and properly thickened.
When making gravy for turkey, Rodgers uses turkey stock made by cooking necks, wings and backs in water with onion, carrot, celery, thyme, bay leaf, parsley, salt and black peppercorns. To enhance the gravy, he makes use of the bird’s roasting juices, but first he separates the fat from these juices and sets it aside for making the roux. Usually he uses a tool called a gravy separator, but for his demonstration he used a clear measuring cup instead. Shortly after he poured the juices into the cup, the yellow fat rose to the top, and the darker drippings remained at the bottom.
The drippings should be deep brown to give good flavor and color to the sauce. “If they look a bit wimpy,” said Rodgers, “brown them on top of the stove” in the sturdy roasting pan in which you roasted the turkey. Then add the drippings to the stock.
To make the roux in the roasting pan, you heat the turkey fat that you separated from the roasting juices, add the flour and cook the mixture while whisking. Next you whisk the stock into the roux and simmer the sauce for a few minutes. If the gravy is lumpy, simply whirl it in the blender.
Rodgers usually seasons gravy with only salt and pepper, although he sometimes sautés minced shallots or garlic in the fat before adding the flour. For extra flavor, said Rodgers, you can add a bit of booze – bourbon is fantastic, and so are cognac and port. But use a light hand – “don’t turn it into a cocktail.” You want just enough alcohol to lift the flavor. One or two tablespoons per cup of gravy are enough. (See recipe.)
The same sauce-making principles apply to the creamy sauces used in many vegetable casseroles known as gratins, which are baked with a topping until browned. For these side dishes, the sauce is often made with milk and is thickened with a roux of butter and flour. It is then mixed with cooked vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. Grated cheese is the favorite topping, but you can also use breadcrumbs or chopped nuts. Green bean and mushroom casserole, an American favorite, is a form of gratin with a crunchy onion crust; Rodgers makes it with a shallot crust. (See recipe.)
With some ingredients, such as potatoes, you can make a gratin without a roux. No flour is needed, because the starch from the potatoes thickens the liquid to a sauce as it bakes. Rodgers’s butternut squash and potato gratin is an example. In it the potatoes, squash and butter-cooked leeks bake in seasoned cream to a delicious casserole with a light crust of Parmesan cheese. (See recipe.)
The dishes at Rodgers’s demonstration had an appealing familiarity to us. Perhaps it’s because we acquired our knowledge of classic cuisine at the same school – Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris.
“Any time you have pan drippings from a roast be it red meat or fowl, you have the beginnings of gravy,” writes author Rick Rodgers in The Big Book of Sides . “Make the gravy directly in the roasting pan so you are sure to get every last bit of the browned meat juices, as these provide flavor and color.”
If you like, substitute ½ cup dry white wine for an equal amount of the stock.
Makes 2 cups; 6 to 8 servings
❖ Pan drippings from roast chicken, turkey, goose or beef
❖ 2 cups chicken, turkey or beef stock or broth
❖ 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
❖ Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pour pan drippings into a measuring cup, leaving any browned bits in bottom of pan. Let drippings stand 3 to 5 minutes. Spoon off fat from top of pan drippings and transfer them to a small bowl.
Evaluate color of pan juices; if they are not a rich, dark brown, pour half of the juices back into roasting pan. Bring juices to boil over high heat and cook until they reduce and darken, about 1 minute. Stir in remaining juices and return darkened juices to measuring cup. Add enough stock to drippings to measure 2 cups total liquid.
Place roasting pan on top of stove over medium-low heat. (See Note below.) Add 3 Tbsp. of the reserved fat to pan. Whisk flour into pan. Let mixture bubble, whisking constantly, until it turns beige, 1 to 2 minutes. Add broth mixture and whisk well to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer, whisking up the browned bits on bottom of pan. Cook, whisking occasionally, until gravy has thickened and lost any taste of raw flour, 2 to 3 minutes.
If gravy seems too thin, increase heat to medium and boil until it is as thick as you wish. If gravy seems too thick, thin it with additional stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Strain if desired. Serve it immediately.
Note: If it’s easier for you, at this point continue making the sauce in a saucepan.
This recipe, from The Big Book of Sides, is baked like a gratin, but the crisp topping of fried shallots is made separately and added at serving time. If you prefer, substitute packaged or homemade fried onions. If you want to serve this dish at a meat meal, use chicken broth, margarine and soy milk that isn’t sweet.
Makes 8 servings
❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) green beans, cut into 2.5-cm. (1-in.) lengths
❖ 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
❖ 280 gr. (10 oz.) mushrooms, sliced
❖ ½ cup finely chopped shallots
❖ 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
❖ 1 cup whole milk
❖ 1 cup parve chicken-flavored broth, preferably reduced sodium
❖ 1 tsp. soy sauce
❖ Freshly ground black pepper
❖ Fried shallots (see Note below)
Position rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).
Lightly butter a 33- x 23- x 5-cm. (13- x 9- x 2-in.) baking dish.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add green beans and cook just until they turn a brighter shade of green, about 2 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in shallots and cook, stirring often, until they soften, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the flour and stir well. Stir in milk, broth and soy sauce and bring to boil, stirring often.
Stir green beans into mushroom sauce. Season with pepper. Transfer to baking dish. Bake until sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and tent with foil to keep warm.
Make fried shallots. Top casserole with fried shallots and serve.
Note: Fried shallots: Pour enough vegetable oil into a large, deep skillet to come halfway up sides and heat until oil is shimmering and reads 185°C (365°F) on a frying thermometer. Place a wire cake rack in a rimmed baking sheet. Mix ¾ cup (90 gr. or 3.2 oz.) all-purpose flour with ½ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper in a brown paper bag. Cut 2 large shallots into 6-mm. (¼-in.) rings and separate them. Mix with ¾ cup buttermilk in a medium bowl.
In batches, remove shallots from buttermilk, letting excess buttermilk drain back into bowl. Add shallots to flour mixture and shake to coat. Transfer to oil and deep-fry until golden brown, about 1½ minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer fried shallots to cake rack to drain and keep warm in a 93°C (200°F) oven.
Rodgers calls this one of his most reliable dishes for a dinner party. Note that you will use only part of the butternut squash; reserve the remainder for another meal.
Makes 8 servings
❖ 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
❖ 2 leeks (white and pale green parts), cleaned well, chopped
❖ Salt and freshly ground black pepper
❖ 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme
❖ 2 cups heavy cream, as needed
❖ ½ tsp. sweet paprika
❖ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
❖ 1 butternut squash (900 gr. or 2 lbs.)
❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) potatoes, preferably yellow-fleshed, peeled
❖ ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 30 gr. or 1 oz.)
Position a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Generously butter a 29- x 20- x 5-cm. (11.5- x 8- x 2-inch) baking dish.
Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, ¼ tsp. salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender but not browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in thyme. Remove from heat.
Bring cream, paprika and nutmeg to simmer in medium sauce - pan over medium heat. Stir in 1 tsp. salt and ½ tsp. pepper. Remove from heat.
Cut the “neck” from the butternut squash where it meets the bulbous bottom. (Reserve bottom part for another use.) Peel squash. Using a mandoline, a plastic V-slicer or a large sharp knife, cut squash and potatoes into 3-mm. (1/8-in.) slices. Mix potatoes and squash together in a large bowl.
Spread 1/3 of potato mixture in baking dish and top with half the leeks. Pour 1/3 of warm cream mixture evenly over vegetables. Repeat with another third of potato mixture, remaining leeks and another third of cream. Finish with remaining potato mixture. Slowly pour remaining cream evenly over vegetables, moving vegetables with a fork to spread them in an even layer, until they are barely covered with cream mixture, adding more cream if needed. Cover with foil and place baking dish on a large rimmed baking sheet.
Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and remove foil.
Sprinkle Parmesan over the gratin. Return to oven and reduce temperature to 180°C (350°F). Continue baking until gratin is golden brown and tender when pierced in center with tip of a small sharp knife and cream has thickened, about 45 additional minutes. If top becomes too brown before vegetables are tender, tent the gratin with foil. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.