French Chicken Salad
Two Years Ago: Spring Risotto
Normally I try to publish healthy recipes, but I'll admit right up front that this is an exception in a big way. Three cups of heavy cream? I mean, really. But it's one of those dishes that is so incredibly good, it's worthy of a special occasion like a birthday or holiday. I wanted to post it because Easter and Mother's Day are coming up, and this is The Dish to accompany ham, roast pork, leg of lamb, or roast beef. It's so good, it could easily steal the show from any one of those centerpiece dishes.
The first time I made this was for an Easter dinner. The guests raved about it all during dinner, then followed the few remaining leftovers into the kitchen where they started picking pieces of potato out of the pan and eating them with their fingers. It's that kind of a dish. Just be prepared - once you serve it you'll get requests for it at every special occasion dinner thereafter. Don't be tempted to substitute fat-free half and half or any other fat-and-calorie saving substitute for this one - it's the cream and cheese that provide the luscious richness. Remember it's only for special occasions! Think of it like any other favorite indulgence at a holiday. Would you make low-calorie fat-free pecan pie for Thanksgiving?
Although you technically could slice the potatoes with a knife, it requires more dexterity and patience than I have to slice them all into perfect 1/8" slices. Do yourself a favor and buy a mandoline, which is a manual slicer. It allows you to set the thickness you want, and slice it perfectly every time. I bought mine ages ago (probably for this very recipe) and I think I bought the cheapest one I could find, which today costs about $25. I was recently looking at mandolines on the Consumer Reports website and was surprised to find that they rated my cheap Japanese Benriner Mandoline Slicer as their top pick because it's sturdy, it works well, it's simple, and it stores flat. You can find it here at Amazon; it's also available elsewhere online. You can find stainless steel mandolines with fancy stands for up to $200, but why pay the money when the less expensive version works perfectly well?
Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel and other stores also carry inexpensive mandolines if you need one right away. Just be sure the model you choose has a knob to adjust thickness, and a hand guard to protect your fingers while slicing (that's the blue thing in the picture above). Some models also have more than one blade for making different types of cuts. After slicing the potatoes, this is a simple recipe.
Be sure to read the note at the end so you know what to watch for as the cream goes through different stages of cooking. The picture below shows you what butterfat looks like - they're the little yellow drops around the edge. That's when you take it out.
Don't worry that the cheese on top browns early - it's supposed to be dark brown in spots but it doesn't end up burning so don't be tempted to cover the dish or turn the temperature down. Finally, the recipe calls for a 2 1/2 - 3 quart baking dish; big and shallow is better than narrow and deep so you can spread out the cheese topping and have it get all lovely brown all over.
Classic Potato Gratin
2 lbs Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled
3 cups whipping or heavy cream
1 tsp coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
¾ cup finely shredded Gruyere, Emmental, or Comte cheese
Preheat oven to 400d.
Using a mandolin (recommended) or a very sharp knife, carefully cut the potatoes into 1/8-inch slices (no thicker).
Put the potatoes in a large heavy-based saucepan and add the cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic. Cook the mixture over medium-high heat until the cream is boiling, stirring occasionally (very gently with a rubber spatula so you don’t break up the slices).
When the cream boils, pour the mixture into a 2 ½ - 3 quart baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Remove and discard the garlic cloves. Shake the dish a bit to let the slices settle and then sprinkle the surface with the cheese.
Bake until the top is deep golden brown, the cream has thickened, and the potatoes are extremely tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes. Don’t worry if the dish looks too liquidy at this point; it will set up as it cools a bit. Before serving, let the potatoes cool until they’re very warm but not hot (at least 15 minutes) or serve at room temperature.
Note: If you cook the potatoes too long, the cream will separate and the butterfat will start to break out. Watch for this as the potatoes go through distinct stages of cooking; first you’ll see lots of mad bubbling of cream, which makes you think “this can’t possibly be right, it’s swimming in cream”. Next, the amplitude of the bubbling decreases, but the frequency stays high because the cream is getting thicker; the top of the gratin also starts to brown. The last phase is small bubbles, thick cream, and just the first few drops of yellow butterfat appearing around the edges of the pan. Take the dish out of the oven the moment you see any butterfat.