Great Gratins Fresh vegetables are dressed with rich cheeses in delicious French casseroles.

December 31, 1997|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Even in early-childhood attempts at cooking, I found hot vegetables teamed with melted cheese an irresistible combination. At 8, I got mixed reviews from my family when I slathered perfectly innocent buds of blanched broccoli with warm, processed cheese from a jar. The cheese formed an eerie orange mask over the warm florets, creating a smooth, porcelain-like finish that filled every nook and cranny.

It was one of my first tries at creating drama on a plate. I loved it. I tried it with everything from baked potatoes to brussels sprouts. And when I added a garnish of chopped green onions, I thought I'd reached the height of culinary sophistication.

Thank goodness for gratins those delectable, French casseroles that pair cheese and vegetables in mouthwatering ways. They're a big step up from my early cheese-and-vegetable concoctions, but not complicated to prepare. Basically, the vegetables are placed in a shallow, oval baking dish (called a gratin dish) and grated cheese and bread crumbs are scattered over the top. Then the dish is baked until the ingredients are heated and the top is crusty and lightly browned. Most often the vegetables are cooked before assembly. Sometimes, a cheesy white sauce is required. Sometimes not.

When I was in my teens, Julia Child became my gratin guru. And the results got unanimous raves. For years, the Cauliflower au Gratin from her first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Knopf, 1961), was my signature vegetable. The dish can be made in advance and heated for about 30 minutes just before serving, making it great for entertaining. It's delicious with simple roasts and grilled poultry, fish, pork or beef. Or it can be a glamorous centerpiece of a vegetarian banquet.

The base of this creamy-style gratin is a cream sauce (also called white sauce) augmented with grated Swiss cheese. When cheese is added, it's called Mornay sauce. Once you've made it a couple of times, it only takes about five minutes to prepare: Blanch the cauliflower florets in boiling water until cooked tender-crisp, drain and cover with Mornay sauce, then sprinkle with bread crumbs and more grated Swiss cheese. When it bakes, the top gets crusty and the interior gets delightfully rich. And it tastes just as luscious today as it did back in '65.

The technique in this recipe is a blueprint for a cream-sauce-style gratin that can be made with sweet potatoes or butternut squash. But because the sweet potatoes or squash aren't cooked before assembly, you'll need to make a thinner cream sauce. The sauce is absorbed by the vegetables as they bake, giving them a wonderful flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Or eliminate the cream sauce and create flavor drama by either pumping up the topping with a combination of stronger cheeses or tossing the vegetables with some milk (or cream) and garlic before layering them in the pan, then top with cheese and bread crumbs.

Fresh Spinach Gratin is fast and delicious. Saute baby spinach leaves in olive oil. To save time, use ready-to-use spinach leaves sold in plastic bags in the produce section. Drain and place spinach in a thin layer in a gratin pan and cover with a mixture of crumbled feta cheese, blue cheese, Edam cheese, bread crumbs and herbs. Bake until topping is toasty brown. It's so delicious, you can even serve it on small slices of rustic bread as an appetizer.

Or toss thinly sliced zucchini with cream, shallots and garlic and place in a gratin pan. Top with grated cheese and bake until zucchini is tender and topping is brown and crunchy.

Sweet Potato Gratin

Yield: 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter, divided use, plus more for greasing pan

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup heavy cream

4 sweet potatoes

salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs, see cook's note

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook's note: The easiest way to make fresh bread crumbs is to use a food processor, with the metal blade. I use firm bread, such as sourdough or even rosemary bread. And because this is a rustic dish, I don't remove the crusts.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously grease a 12-inch oval gratin pan or an 11-by-7-inch baking dish.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add garlic and stir until garlic is softened, but don't brown the butter; reduce heat if butter starts to turn brown. Stir in flour; stir over heat for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Return to heat and stir until mixture reaches a low boil.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. I use the standard slicing blade (4 millimeter size) on my food processor. Place sweet potato slices in prepared pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce evenly over top.

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