As a way to present vegetables, enhanced but not hidden by their golden brown crust, a gratin seems to me ideal. Even when dressed in a white sauce, the color and shapes of the vegetables still show through, and nuts, chopped herbs and other flavorings only add to the riot of color. The special shallow dishes about 5cm/2in deep designed for gratins are such fun too, they come in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes, often with little eared handles so they are easy to take from the oven. I must have a couple of dozen of them– I’m a gratin dish junkie.
This spring gratin is multi-purpose for all sorts of vegetables. Here I’m suggesting baby vegetables, but a wide variety of roots and greens do equally well, including celeriac and chopped leaf spinach. Look for contrasts of color and texture – carrots are always cheerful, for instance; celery complements other flavors; and it is a poor gratin that has no onion in it at all.
Serves 6 as appetizer, 4 as a light main course
- 8-10 baby carrots, or 4-5 medium carrots, halved if large (450g/1lb)
- 4-5 baby turnips, halved or quartered depending on size (450g/1lb)
- 8-10 small white onions
- 3-4 small bulbs fennel, cut in 8 wedges (450g/1lb)
- 4-6 baby zucchini, thickly sliced (450g/1lb)
- For the Cheese and Mustard sauce
- 55g/2oz/1/4 cup butter, more for the baking dish
- 30g/1oz/¼ cup flour
- 450ml/16fl oz/2 cups milk, more if needed
- salt and pepper
- 110g/4oz/1¼ cups grated Gruyère or cheddar cheese
- 1½ tablespoons smooth mild or hot Dijon mustard, more to taste
- 1.5 liter/1¼ quart/1½ quart gratin dish, or 4-6 individual dishes
1. Put the carrots in a pan of cold salted water, cover, bring to a boil and simmer until just tender, 8-10 minutes. Cook turnips in the same way, allowing 10-15 minutes until just tender. Drain both vegetables and set aside.
2. Bring a pan of salted water to a boil, add the onions and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 6-10 minutes. Drain them, rinse with cold water and leave to drain thoroughly. Cook fennel and zucchini separately in the same way, allowing 5-8 minutes for fennel and 2-3 minutes for zucchini.
3. Butter the gratin dish, or individual dishes. Mix all the vegetables and spread them in the dish(es). For the sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming. Pour in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 2 minutes. Take the sauce from the heat and stir in half the cheese until it melts (do not cook the sauce further or it will cook into strings). Stir in the mustard, taste and adjust the seasoning. It’s important not to overheat the mustard as that turns it bitter. The sauce can be spicy, or mild, as you prefer; it should generously coat the back of a spoon but not too thickly, so if necessary add more milk.
4. Spoon the sauce over the vegetables – they should be completely coated, but still show through a veil of sauce. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. (The gratin can be prepared ahead to this point and kept, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for up to a day in the refrigerator.)
5. To finish: Heat the broiler and set a shelf 25cm/10in from the heat. Put the gratin on the shelf and broil until browned and bubbling around the edges, 8-10 minutes for a large gratin or 6-8 for small ones.
Shortcut: Reduce the number of vegetables to two of contrasting color and taste.
Getting Ahead: A cinch. Prepare the gratin completely ahead and refrigerate it up to 24 hours. Reheat it in the oven at 180ºC/375ºF/Gas 4 for 20 minutes for small dishes or 25-30 minutes for a large dish, then broil it as directed.
On the Side: Spring Gratin would be excellent with Colombian Rice or plain boiled rice.
In the Glass: A pleasing white wine that is not too dry such as an Alsatian-style Riesling or a light Chardonnay.
From Good Food NO FUSS by Anne Willan, 2003
Photo CREDIT: Simon Wheeler