Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Parsnip, Potato and Leek Gratin

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, I crave warming, delicious food that not only tastes good, but also fills the house with wonderful smells so that as soon as you walk in the door you are enveloped by comfort and cosiness.

For this reason, I've always made a lot of gratin dishes in the Autumn months. They are always well received and they are also easy on the cook. There is a fair bit of slicing involved, but after that it is pretty much an assembly job. They are also easy to cook – you simply put them in a low oven for an hour or so and voila, dinner! Easy on the pocket in these days of economic meltdown, gratins hold beautifully in the oven if everyone is eating at different times on busy Autumn evenings. 

I was keen to incorporate some vegetables from my organic veg box in my gratin this week so decided to experiment with parsnips and leeks.  The results were delicious.  You do need a bit less liquid when you are making this sort of a gratin as parsnips and leeks release some of their own liquid during cooking.  (Be sure to drain the leeks well after you wash them as the last thing you want is watery gratin.)   I always use half fat (2%) milk for health reasons, but if you wanted a richer dish you could use full cream milk instead.  I recommend using cheddar cheese in this dish as its strong flavour really compliments the root vegetables.  In fact, this is an ideal dish for vegetarians, provided you use a vegetarian cheddar. The recipe that follows can be a meal in its entirety; simply add a little something green and crisp on the side. 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, this gratin is equally delicious as a partner to any meat or fish.
1 – 2  large baking potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and thinly sliced
4 medium leeks, washed, drained and very thinly sliced
5 large (or 7 medium) parsnips, washed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 vegetable stock cubes
2 handful of bread crumbs
3 handfuls grated cheddar cheese
2 ½ cups (that is roughly a pint, or 600 ml) milk
Prepare the vegetables.  Mix together the bread crumbs and cheddar cheese in a medium size bowl.  Finely crumble the stock cubes into this mixture and stir to combine. 
In a large casserole dish, begin to layer the gratin.  Start with a thin layer of potatoes, then of parsnips and then leeks.  Sprinkle with one third of the cheesy breadcrumb mixture.  Repeat with another layer of potatoes, parsnips and leeks and again sprinkle with one third of the cheesy breadcrumbs.  

For the third layer of vegetables, reverse the layering order and start with the parsnips. Follow with the leeks and finish with a layer of potatoes.  Do not sprinkle the last portion of breadcrumb mixture over top just yet.
Heat the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave until it is just warm (not boiling).  Pour the milk over the gratin.  Now sprinkle the last one third of the cheesy breadcrumb mixture over the top of the gratin.  Bake at 170ºC ( about 350ºF) for about an hour and a half. The gratin is done when the vegetables are tender (a good way to check this is to insert a dinner knife in the gratin - it should slide in really easily) and and the top is golden brown.

Cool any leftovers quickly. They will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator and are delicious rewarmed. Be sure to reheat until piping hot.