Monday 23 April 2018

Earn your crust

Gratin dishes are one of the classics of French cooking, says Brenda Costigan, and they're also the perfect comfort food for cold winter evenings, with soft, creamy vegetables providing a a delicious contrast to the crusty, oven-baked topping


Picture if you will, bitterly cold winds blowing outside, with torrents of rain pouring down. Inside the house, a big log-fire is burning, creating a wonderfully cosy atmosphere.

In the oven, a tasty, creamy gratin dish is cooking. The top will be a delicious golden brown, with crunchy bits all around the edge just waiting to be scraped off and savoured. Even thinking about it is good! Gratin dishes are one of the classics of French cooking, coming from the provinces of Savoie and Dauphine. These neighbouring Alpine provinces on the Italian border are mostly mountain country, where the food is as robust as the climate.

Gratin dishes are perfect comfort food for the colder, darker days of winter. The deliciousness of any gratin lies in the contrast of soft but well-flavoured vegetables, with the crisp, crusty surface. Nowadays, the term gratin or au gratin is most likely to be applied to a dish with a topping of grated cheese browned in the oven or under the grill. Originally, the French word gratee, from the verb 'to scrape', referred to the action of scraping all the delicious crusty bits from the dish. Cheese was not an essential ingredient. For best effect, choose an ovenproof dish that is not too deep, but has a wide surface so there is a lot of nice baked topping and, hopefully, lots of tasty, crusty bits around the edge.

These dishes will bake happily in the oven along with a roast or casserole. Waxy potatoes are often recommended for these recipes, although I like to use Roosters, as they usually keep their shape fairly well during baking.


This classic dish needs no eggs or cheese, though I like to sprinkle the top with a little freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 4-6.

You will need:

900g (2lb) potatoes, peeled, washed and then sliced thinly

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

250ml (9fl oz) milk

1 medium onion, stuck with 2 cloves (the apple-tart kind)

1/2 teaspoon ground mace or ground nutmeg

1 small garlic clove, chopped

250ml (9fl oz) cream

2-3 tablespoons Parmesan, freshly grated

Use a wide, ovenproof dish, generously buttered, and preheat the oven to 180 C, 350 F, Gas 4.

Spread the thinly sliced potatoes out on a board and season them with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Put the milk and the prepared onion, stuck with cloves, into a non-stick, wide-based saucepan. Then add a little salt, some freshly ground black pepper and the ground mace or ground nutmeg, whichever you are using.

Bring to the boil and then add in the potato slices. Cook gently for a few minutes, stirring to ensure the milk doesn't scorch the saucepan. Add the chopped garlic and the cream, stir gently and heat through. Transfer into the prepared dish and spread out the potato slices evenly.

Scatter the freshly grated Parmesan over the top. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling and golden and the potatoes are tender.


The combination of creamy potatoes, prepared as above, with a layer of fried mushrooms, makes a tasty variation to this dish.

You will need:

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

150g (5oz) mushrooms, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 tablespoons Parmesan, freshly grated

Make the gratin as described above to the point where you've added the chopped garlic and cream to the potato slices and heated everything through.

In a frying pan, heat the olive oil and fry the chopped onion, garlic and thinly sliced mushrooms until they are soft and tasty. Season well with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Arrange a layer of sliced potatoes in an ovenproof dish, then put the fried mushroom mixture in a layer on top. Finish with a layer of potatoes.

Scatter the grated Parmesan on top and bake for about 35-45 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling and golden and the potatoes are tender.


Potatoes and celeriac are combined to make this delightful gratin dish. The thinly sliced celeriac is first cooked briefly in boiling, salted water for a few minutes, then drained and dipped in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process. The remainder of the cooking is done in the oven. If you like, use parsnip instead of the celeriac. Serves 4-6.

You will need:

1 large celeriac

1 tablespoon lemon juice

700g (1?lb) potatoes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence

1 clove garlic, chopped finely

250ml (9fl oz) cream, warmed

1 teaspoon cornflour mixed with a drop of milk

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5. Generously butter a wide, ovenproof dish.

Cut the celeriac in quarters -- this way it is easier to peel because you can see the thickness of the skin -- and peel it thickly. Add the lemon juice to a bowl of water. Cut the celeriac into thin slices, about 0.5cm (0.2in) thick, and immediately put them into the bowl of lemony water -- this will prevent the slices from discolouring. Peel the potatoes, rinse, and then slice them to the same thickness as the celeriac. Drain the celeriac very well and pat it dry, before spreading out the slices of both vegetables on a board. Season them with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Arrange the slices in alternate layers in a buttered dish, sprinkling a little herbes de Provence between each layer.

Put the chopped garlic into the warmed cream. Add the paste of the cornflour and milk, making sure there are no lumps, and then pour this mixture over the vegetable slices. This liquid should almost reach the top layer. Sprinkle with the ground nutmeg and bake for about 50-60 minutes until vegetables are tender, and the dish is bubbling and golden on top.


This tasty recipe is really a cheat's gratin. The cauliflower florets are cooked in chicken or vegetable stock, mixed with creme fraiche, scattered with grated cheese and then browned under the grill. Delicious. Serves 4-6.

You will need:

1 vegetable stock cube

1 head cauliflower, divided into florets of similar size

4 back rashers, grilled and cut into narrow strips

150g (5oz) cherry tomatoes, cut in half

250g (9oz) carton creme fraiche

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

50-75g (2-3oz) mature Cheddar, freshly grated

Dissolve the vegetable stock cube in boiling water, and then boil the cauliflower florets in this water. When they're just tender, drain them well. Put them into a warm bowl and mix in the grilled rasher strips, the halved cherry tomatoes and enough creme fraiche to moisten everything nicely. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Turn the mixture on to a wide, shallow, ovenproof plate and scatter the freshly grated mature Cheddar liberally on top. Brown the dish under the grill until the cheese is golden, then serve.


Inspired by the popular Avoca recipe, this recipes makes a tasty main course at any time. Serves 6.

You will need:

6 chicken breasts or 1 whole chicken (preferably slit in half)

Chicken stock cube

1 litre (1 1/2pt) boiling water

1 onion

1 carrot

1 stick celery

1 garlic clove

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mixed herbs, fresh or dried

225g (8oz) broccoli florets

For the sauce, you will need:

50g (2oz) butter

50g (2oz) flour

600ml (about 1pt) stock from the chicken

300ml (1/2pt) cream

50g (2oz) mature Cheddar, freshly grated

2-3 tablespoons Parmesan, freshly grated

75g (3oz) breadcrumbs

40g (1 1/2oz) melted butter

Put the chicken breasts or the halved chicken into a wide saucepan so the chicken makes a single layer. Dissolve the chicken stock cube in the boiling water. Add the onion, the carrot, the celery, the garlic and the chicken stock to the saucepan. Add some salt, freshly ground black pepper, and the fresh or dried mixed herbs, whichever you're using. Bring to the boil and then simmer until the chicken is cooked -- about one hour for a whole chicken and 20 minutes if you are using breasts. Strain off the stock and put it to one side. Discard the vegetables. If you've used a whole chicken, remove the flesh and cut it into bite-size chunks, discarding the skin and bones. If you're using breasts, cut them into bite-size chunks. Preheat the oven to 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5. Cook the broccoli florets in boiling, salted water until they're just tender. Drain, dip in cold water to stop the cooking, then drain again.

To make the sauce, melt the butter, add the flour and cook over a moderate heat, stirring to make a loose paste. Then add the chicken stock you set aside. If the stock is hot, add it in one go, using a whisk to stir briskly to make a smooth sauce. If it has cooled, add it gradually, stirring well. Then bring the sauce to the boil to thicken it. Stir in the cream. Add the chopped chicken and the cooked broccoli, stirring gently but thoroughly.

Pour into a heated, wide, ovenproof dish and spread out. Mix the freshly grated Cheddar and Parmesan and the breadcrumbs and scatter over the top. Drizzle the melted butter all over.

Bake until brown and bubbling. This will take about 30 minutes if the gratin is hot going into the oven. Otherwise, it will take 45 minutes or longer.

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