Gratin pleases with aroma that goes to your head

August 30, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Some dishes turn your head with their texture; others win you over with their looks. This one grabbed me with its aroma.

I was up on the third floor of our rowhouse when I caught my first whiff, a compelling mixture of tomatoes, peppers and onions. I quickly made my way down the stairs, inhaling my way toward the first-floor oven where the dish was baking. At the kitchen door I picked up scents of garlic.

"Wow," I said to my wife who was working in the kitchen, "whatever that is, it smells wonderful." The source of these sweet smells was, I was told, "a Lydie Marshall gratin."

This both confused and pleased me.

I was confused because I thought a "gratin" had to have cheese in it, and I didn't smell any.

I was pleased because I knew that almost any dish that came from a Lydie Marshall cookbook was going to taste good. The recipes from her 1982 book, Cooking With Lydie Marshall - everything from vinaigrette to simple roast chicken - are savory staples in our lives. This dish came from Marshall's 1993 work, A Passion for Potatoes, and was one of a few recipes we had not tried.

A passage in this cookbook cleared up my notion that a gratin had to contain cheese. You can have a gratin without cheese if you cook it in the right type of pan.

"Gratin is from the French verb gratter, which means to scrape," Marshall wrote. Gratin is both a description of the prepared dish and the shallow pan in which it is cooked, she wrote.

"Au gratin," she continued, describes the crust that is formed by sprinkling bread crumbs or cheese over food and heating it under a broiler.

Then came the part of the explanation that I loved. The upper crust of society, she said, is known, in some circles, as "le gratin."

Not only did this potato gratin make our house smell better, it also improved our social status. We were now traveling with the upper crust, gratin-eating crowd.

This gratin spent a long time in the oven, about two hours. The instructions called for cooking it for 1 1/2 hours in a 325-degree oven. But after 90 minutes it emerged from the oven with the potato slices crunchy, rather than crusty. So the dish went back in the oven for another 30 minutes or so.

This snag stemmed from the fact that our potato slices were too thick. The recipe called for thin slices, about 1/8 inch to 1/16 inch thick. Our potatoes were at least twice that thickness, so they took longer to cook.

Ordinarily it is a pain to put something back in the oven. But with this dish, which turned out to taste terrific, 30 minutes more in the oven meant 30 minutes more of sweet perfume. For at least an evening we had made it into the ranks of "le gratin," smelling like we led the good life.

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Potato Gratin With Peppers, Onions and Tomatoes

Serves 6

1/3 cup olive oil (divided use)

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (divided use)

2 pounds (6 cups) Yukon gold, White Rose or russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick

1 yellow pepper, sliced 1/8 inch thick

1 red pepper, sliced 1/8 inch thick

3 large tomatoes, sliced 1/8 inch thick

1 Spanish onion, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick

1 1/2 teaspoons salt (divided use)

fresh ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons fresh oregano (divided use)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Dribble 1 tablespoon of olive oil into a 2-quart rectangular or 14-inch-by-8-inch-by 2-inch oval baking dish and scatter 1/4 of the minced garlic over the bottom of the pan.

Arrange the vegetables in layers, starting with the potatoes and peppers and finishing with the tomatoes and onion. Sprinkle salt, freshly ground pepper, and oregano and about 1/4 of the garlic between each layer.

Pour the remaining olive oil over the surface and bake for 1 1/2 hours or until fork-tender.

From "A Passion For Potatoes," by Lydie Marshall

Per serving: 271 calories, 5 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 36 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 597 milligrams sodium

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