Since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, give or take a century or two, the great white tuber has been one of – and too often, the sole – highland subsistence crop on every continent on the planet.
Every regional and national cuisine foists the potato into its culinary limelight; the manner in which it is cooked and consumed can often tell one more about a culture’s priorities and values than its current top-selling novel or chosen method of government.
The root staple is a favorite among royals — Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were feverish potato fans, with Marie Antoinette even donning potato blossoms in her hair at various balls — and the staunchly proletariat — Frederich Engels gave the potato as much credit for enabling “the people” to move forward as the development of iron-working.
The species, Solanum tuberosum, originated in the South American Andes, but, a prodigious and opportunistic breeder, it spread to the Southwestern arm of the United States, sprouting thousands of offbeat branches upon which a wild variety of colors, shapes and nutritional profiles flourished along the way.
Its rate of spoilage is insanely low, it’s cheap, easy to grow and it satisfies hunger effectively in small quantities.
Most of us only utilize a handful of tubers, but even so, the medley of dishes we create with just the russet, Yukon, fingerling, new and red could fill a shelf of recipe books. They’re the work-horses of the kitchen: we use them to bulk up skimpy dinner plates, please even the most allergy and perversity-ridden palates, thicken soups without adding fatty dairy products, provide much-needed phytochemicals, potassium, Vitamin B6, fiber and Vitamin C during the long green veggie-starved stretch of months between September and February in the Northeast.
Even in their most debased – and some would say, delicious – form, the ubiquitous fried tator provides a wide range of taste sensations. Last week alone, I had French fries, potato pancakes and roasted fingerlings (working in catering has many benefits, choosing from an abundance of fried potato treats at lunch being one of the most universally cherished).
All of the dishes involved the same basic elements — potatoes, salt, fat (in the form of butter or oil) and / or dairy products, plus plenty of salt and heat. But the results were drastically different. As any third-grader knows, one Lunch Lady’s French fries land with a groaning thud on the tray — lackluster, dull, limp yet tough, wet and waxen; yet the Lady who comes on Wednesdays produces perfect rectangular discs that shimmer in hot, crispy, salty, golden brown, perfectly puffed and whipped ebullience. Both are better with ketchup.
The dark side to all of the deep fried fun has to be acknowledged too, of course. We’ve all seen the stats — French fries have become our children’s top source of vegetables, which can’t be helping their 1 in 3 chances of developing Type II Diabetes, or their rates of obesity, which have doubled in those under the age of 18 since 1980.
And then there’s the whole potato famine thing. Oy vey, that was some bad press.
As fabulous as they are, maybe we should push the fries to the back burner — at least every once in a while.
The gratin is (almost) as easy to prepare, and while it ain’t health food, it, at the very least, offers a bit more than our favorite fry. It’s just a simple, pure, (relatively) unadorned celebration of the potato’s most elevated and rustic tastes and qualities — and it’s easy enough to do on a Wednesday night after work.
When we dug into our this Sunday, I remembered how perfectly simple delicious can be. A few swipes at the mandolin and grater, some sautéed aromatics, a drizzling of cream, and in the oven. Behold, a balanced meal.
Below, check out my (current) favorite recipe for the gratin (and yes, I had to gild the lily a bit with an extra sauce. I can’t help myself).
Makes 6 servings
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 3 TBSP butter
- 1 shallot, sliced thin
- 1 ½ – 2 pounds potatoes, peeled or not (I leave the peel because the peel contains a ton of nutrients; also, I use a mixture of potatoes, I like their subtle flavor contrasts)
- 3-4 oz favorite cheese (Gruyere is the classic, but I used sharp English Cheddar and Pecorino Romano)
- 1 cup milk and half and half (more half and half will obviously make it richer and intense)
- Vegetable oil spray
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray 9 x 12 casserole dish with vegetable oil spray.
- Heat 1 TBSP oil and 1 TBSP butter in frying pan. When hot, add shallots, salt and cook over medium heat until just golden brown, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, slice the potatoes as thin as possible, using a mandolin if you have one.
- Plan on having 3-5 layers of potatoes. Spread a thin layer of potatoes, shingle-style on the bottom of the casserole dish. Top with plenty of salt and pepper, some of the shallots, a few thin pats of butter and a bit of cheese. Continue layering the potatoes, shallots and cheese, reserving about ¼ of the cheese for later. Drizzle the milk and half and half over the last layer of potatoes, add a few more pats of butter, more salt and pepper and pop in the oven.
- Cook until bubbling, about 40 minutes (press the top layer down with a spatula after about 30 minutes to keep everything moist and compact). Top with the rest of the cheese and cook until golden brown, about 15 more minutes.
- Garnish with parsley and serve! Or ….
Let’s gild the lily, shall we?
Optional gild: Melt 2 TBSP butter in a medium saucepan. Add 2 TBSP flour, whisk together until a paste forms. Whisk in 1 ½ cups milk and stir over low heat until smooth and thick – which takes a bit of time (about 20 minutes on my watch, but every stovetop will be different). Season with plenty of salt. Use to gild the gratin – on top, on the side, below, whatever floats your boat. It’s also fantastic on mashed potatoes, with a ham and cheese in a grilled cheese, on burgers, on roasted veggies.
Nutritional Breakdown for Gilded Gratin: 400 calories and 14 grams of fat, much of it saturated. Also full of fiber, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6.
Cost Breakdown for Gilded Gratin: About $1.75 a serving if you go organic, less if you don’t.
Verdict / In the Future: If I thought I could get away with it (a.k.a. get Stephen to eat it), I’d throw in sautéed purple kale, sunchokes, mushrooms and blue cheese between the layers! But the simple, plain gratin makes him so happy, why would I torture him like that?