Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gratin of Artichokes, Spring Onions & Mushrooms

The recipe that I'm sharing today is a variation on a vegetable gratin from Frank Stitt's Southern Table. I know that I have mentioned before that I love Frank Stitt's food. Deeply rooted in French, Italian and American Southern food traditions, it is just the kind of food I want to cook and eat. The photograph of his Gratin of Asparagus, Spring Onions & Mushrooms has always held particular appeal. Every time I page through the book, I stop and examine the picture and the recipe. A couple of weeks ago as I looked at it I thought that something similar—made with artichokes instead of asparagus (I just happened to have some artichokes on hand), and maybe with the addition of a few potatoes to make it substantial enough to be an entrée—would be pretty fine. It was.

Stitt's asparagus gratin is somewhat unusual in that it is comprised of ingredients that are already fully cooked. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of a vegetable gratin is a dish of thinly sliced raw or partially cooked vegetables that are layered into a shallow dish with heavy cream (or a mixture of cream, milk and/or stock). These kinds of gratins are baked slowly until they become soft throughout and golden on top. There are few things more delicious than a well-made gratin of this style. But this is of course not the only style of vegetable gratin—technically, anything baked in a shallow dish (the dish itself is called a gratin) until browned on the surface (the French verb gratiner means "to brown") can be called a gratin.

When I worked at The American Restaurant, for a short while we had a gratin of white wine-braised artichokes and flageolets on the menu that was similar in style to Stitt's asparagus gratin. The beans and artichokes were cooked ahead of time. When a diner ordered the dish, the beans and artichokes were heated together in a bit of bean broth, spooned into a dish and topped with breadcrumbs and drizzled with olive oil. The whole preparation was then placed briefly under the salamander (broiler) until the surface became crisp and golden brown. The process of making and serving that gratin was—like Stitt's gratin—classic restaurant cooking. All the components of a dish (called the mis en place—pronounced meez-ahn-plahs) are cooked (or otherwise prepared) ahead of time. At the point of service the final dish is quickly assembled/heated and "finished"—in this case "gratinéed".

In Stitt's gratin, the reheating of the components is done in the oven rather than in a pan on the stove top. All of the cooked ingredients are placed in the gratin and drizzled with cream before they are topped with cheese, breadcrumbs and butter. Instead of spending a few seconds under the broiler, the entire dish spends a longer period of time (20 minutes or so) in the oven. By the time all of the vegetables are hot through, the cheese will have melted and the breadcrumbs will have become crisp and golden brown.

I love the use of heavy cream in this dish. (Please don't leave it out!) Like the broth in the artichoke and bean gratin, the cream keeps the vegetables from drying out as they heat. But its contribution is far more than just that. As the gratin heats, the cream comes to a simmer. As it simmers, it absorbs some of the flavor of the vegetables and it reduces just slightly—becoming a rich and delicious sauce that lightly coats all of the vegetables. I think it elevates this gratin from "very good" to "extraordinary".

You can of course make the components, build the gratin and then immediately bake it and serve it. But if you are serving this for a large gathering...or just want to work ahead...you could prepare it the way it would be prepared in a restaurant: Cook all the vegetables and allow them to cool. Package them separately, or arrange them in the baking dish. Cover and chill. An hour or two before you want to serve the gratin, pull everything out of the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Then a half hour before you want to serve it, pour in the cream, cover the vegetables with cheese, breadcrumbs and butter. Bake and serve.

Because this gratin is more of an idea than an exact recipe and you will want to come up with your own versions and variations, there are a couple of things to think about when you are putting it all together. First, choose a baking dish that holds all of the vegetables snugly and at a shallow depth. If the vegetables are too spread out they will dry out. If they are arranged too deeply, they won't be hot by the time the breadcrumbs are browned. Also, the prized portion of a gratin is the crispy top—the larger the surface area, the more crispy topping you will have. Likewise, the amount of cream you add should only be small amount and will be dependent upon the size of the baking dish. If you have matched the amount of vegetables to the size of your dish correctly (a snug and shallow layering), you will only need enough cream to come to about a depth of 1/4-inch. This will be just enough to make the gratin moist without being soupy (or too rich). In the same way, match the amount of cheese and breadcrumbs to the surface area of the dish, aiming for good coverage, but a thin layer—the goal is a touch of flavor and a light crunch, not a thick, gooey and sodden layer.

Finally, there is one other thing about this particular recipe that is a bit unusual. Stitt's original version includes wedges of hard cooked eggs tucked in among the vegetables.

I have made the gratin both with and without this addition. If you like hard cooked eggs, you will love them in this gratin. Their inclusion makes the gratin substantial and filling—perfect for a meatless entrée.  All you need is a green salad for a very special meal. Without the eggs, the gratin is a wonderful side dish. One caveat about the eggs though, if you include them, make sure they are just cooked...maybe even a little underdone—otherwise they will toughen as the gratin bakes.

When you think about it in its abstract form, a gratin of this type—cooked vegetables bound with a flavorful sauce—is really not that uncommon. Many old favorites fall into this category. Eggplant and Tomato Gratin, for example. Even that Green Bean Casserole that unfortunately shows up on so many holiday tables is a gratin of this type. (If you have never made it from scratch, I published a fantastic scratch version a couple of years ago.) I'm sure there are many other examples. But for now, I'm pretty enamored with this particular gratin....and I'm fairly certain it will appear on our table another time or two before the current season comes to a close.

Gratin of Artichokes, Spring Onions & Mushrooms

9 oz. (250 gr.) small, waxy potatoes—Melissa's Baby Dutch, Yukons, Fingerling
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
3 medium-sized spring onions (white, plus some of the green), trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch widths on the diagonal
3 artichokes, turned and cut into 8 wedges each
1 to 1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
6 oz. crimini mushrooms, halved or quartered, depending on their size
3 hard-cooked eggs, quartered (see notes)—optional
1/2 cup heavy cream—more or less
2 1/2 oz. coarsely grated Dubliner or Gruyère (or other flavorful melting cheese)
1 c. coarsely ground fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 to 1 T. unsalted butter

Prepare each of the vegetables: Steam the potatoes whole (or alternatively, simmer in boiling salted water) until tender to the tip of a knife. When cool enough to handle, halve or quarter them (or you may cut fingerlings cross-wise into rounds if you like). The potatoes should be in about 3/4- to 1-inch pieces. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 T. of butter in a medium-sized sauté pan set over medium heat. Drain the artichokes and add to the pan with the spring onions and a pinch of salt.

Cook briefly in the butter until the vegetables begin to sizzle. Add a splash of water—to a depth of about a quarter inch—and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cover and cook until the artichokes are tender...25 minutes or so. Check occasionally to make sure the pan isn't dry. Add more water if necessary. When the artichokes are tender, uncover and increase the heat slightly and cook until the water has evaporated. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.

In a medium, non-stick sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. When the butter is melted, increase the heat to medium-high. When the foam subsides, add the mushrooms and sauté until golden brown in spots and tender. Wait to add salt until the mushrooms have begun to brown. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more butter. Set aside.

All of the cooked ingredients, ready to use (the mis en place)

Build the gratin: Butter a 1 1/2 to 2 quart shallow baking dish. Arrange the potatoes, artichokes and onions, and mushrooms in the dish.

Tuck in the quartered hard-cooked eggs, if using. Pour in cream to a depth of about 1/4-inch. Scatter the cheese evenly over the surface of the vegetables followed by the breadcrumbs. Dot with butter.

Place the gratin in a pre-heated 425° oven and bake until the crumbs are beginning to turn golden and the cream is bubbling (about 20 minutes). If when the gratin is hot through, the crumbs are not as brown as you would like, briefly run under the broiler.

(Recipe adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

• To make the hard cooked eggs, place the eggs in a small saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold running water.
• Without the eggs, this quantity of vegetables serves 4 as a side dish. With the eggs it is perfect for a light dinner for two or three (serve with a green salad).
• Frank Stitt also suggests serving the gratin as an elegant stand-alone course of a multi-course meal.

Made with a few spears of blanched asparagus as in Stitt's original recipe

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