Thursday, 16 October 2008

Gorgeous Autumn Gratins

Autumn is a capricious season. One day it’s crisp and colourful with the leaves a spectacular display of gorgeousness , the next it is damp, bone chilling and grey, making you want to go and hide under the duvet. As the nights draw in and it gets dark earlier, I crave warming, delicious food that not only tastes good, but fills the house with wonderful smells so that as soon as you walk in the door you are enveloped by comfort and cosiness.

So what to cook? The obvious choices are soups and stews, to take advantage of autumn’s bounty and the abundant choice of fruit and vegetables. But there is something else I love to cook, which contains the mother of all comfort foods – potatoes. So revered are potatoes in terms of mood boosting properties that Kathleen Desmaisons wrote an entire book in the early part of this decade singing their praises called “Potatoes Not Prozac”. Several articles discussing the mood enhancing possibilities of the humble potato then appeared in the press, including one in the pages of British Vogue by the now very famous Nigella Lawson. While I have to agree with Nigella that one of the best ways of eating potatoes for comfort involves mashing them with lots of butter and cream, my very favourite way of preparing potatoes is au gratin.

The beauty of potatoes au gratin is that they require very little preparation and they are easy to cook – you simply put them in a low oven for an hour or so and voila, dinner! Of course, they make an amazing side dish as well. They are also easy on the pocket in these days of economic meltdown.

The recipe that follows is a meal in its entirety, simply add a little something green and crisp on the side (or bread if you are not worried about carbohydrate overload). It could not be easier to prepare, and it is absolute heaven to eat. However, if for you potatoes will never be more than a side dish, choose the second recipe. It is equally easy and delicious and a perfect partner to any meat or fish.


The 21st Century Housewife’s
Leek and Bacon Potato Gratin
Serves 4 as a main course


3 baking potatoes, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3 to 4 leeks, washed and sliced in thin rings
¼ cup (about 125 grams) of cubed pancetta or four to five slices of bacon cut into small pieces
(Vegetarians should feel free to leave the bacon element out. It can simply be omitted, or replaced with a bit of browned vegetarian mince or veggie bacon if desired.)
2 large handfuls cheese (cheddar, Swiss and Gruyere all work well)
1 large handful bread crumbs
3 cups (24 ounces) milk
1 vegetable stock cube

You need a large casserole for this recipe, and as you are going to be layering the ingredients in this dish, it's a good idea to have everything ready first. Peel and slice the onions and potatoes. Mix the bread crumbs and cheese together in a medium size bowl. Crumble the stock cube very finely and mix into the crumbly cheesy mixture .

Melt the butter in a frying pan and sauté the leeks for about ten minutes or until they are beginning to become tender. Remove and set aside. Put the pancetta or bacon in the same pan and sauté until just beginning to brown. Pour the milk into a microwave safe jug and heat in the microwave for about three minutes, until warm, but not boiling.

You are starting with the potatoes so place one third of the sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. Follow with half the tender buttery leeks, half the cooked pancetta or bacon, and one third of the cheesy crumb mixture. Repeat the layers – potatoes, leeks, bacon and then cheesy crumbs. So at this point you should have no more leeks or bacon left. Place the last layer of potatoes on top, followed by the last third of the cheesy crumbs.


Carefully pour the warm milk over the ingredients in the casserole and place in the oven at 170ºC (375ºF) for about an hour and a half, or until the potatoes are tender when you gently insert a knife into the casserole. You want the gratin to be nicely browned, but if it begins to brown too quickly, turn the heat back a little. If you need to hold the gratin after it is cooked for people who are late for dinner, you can do this for about a half hour by simply turn the heat back by about fifty degrees. Leftovers can be cooled to room temperature and then kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Reheat thoroughly before serving.


The 21st Century Housewife’s
Potatoes Au Gratin
Serves 4 - 6 as a side dish


3 baking potatoes, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced in rings
2 large handfuls cheese (cheddar, Swiss and Gruyere all work well)
1 large handful bread crumbs
3 cups (24 ounces) milk
1 vegetable stock cube

Again, you need a large casserole for this recipe, and it is a good idea to have everything ready first. Peel and slice the onions and potatoes. Mix the bread crumbs and cheese together in a medium size bowl. Crumble the stock cube very finely and mix into the crumbly cheesy mixture. Pour the milk into a microwave safe jug and heat in the microwave for about three minutes, until warm, but not boiling.

Put one third of the thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. Now put half the onions on top. Sprinkle with one third of the cheesy crumbly mixture. Now repeat the layers again – potatoes, onions, cheesy crumbs. At this point, you should have no more onions left, but there should still be one third of the potatoes and the cheese mixture remaining. Put the last layer of potatoes on top, and then sprinkle the last of the cheesy crumbs over the top of the potatoes.

Bake in the oven at 170ºC (375ºF) for about an hour and a half, or until the potatoes are lightly brown and tender when you gently insert a knife into the casserole.

Warming, delicious food for Autumn days, the 21st Century Housewife's way.

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