"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Recipes–Potatoes Au Gratin Aux Fines Herbes

Potatoes Au Gratin – or scalloped potatoes – are a staple of both French and American cooking.  I got a particular liking for them when I was staying in Normandy with a friend who cooked them with fresh herbs from her garden.  It was in December, and I was amazed that parsley, oregano, and thyme would withstand the winter.  As cold as it can get in France in the winter, they rarely get the hard freezes that would kill any herb or vegetable in the Northeast United States.  As an aside, I got my first look at rosemary growing in St. Tropez in the south of France on the Mediterranean – great bushes of it everywhere.

The classic French version of this dish is with lots of cheese, usually Emmental or Gruyere.  So much cheese, in fact, that when pulled out of the oven, the cheese is bubbling and overflowing the baking dish.  I use much less cheese, but the dish is still excellent.

Potatoes Au Gratin Aux Fines Herbes

* 4 large Yukon Gold potatoes (even the biggest of these potatoes are not very big, certainly not like a baking potato), sliced very thin (not paper thin and translucent, but almost)

* 4 tsp. each of dried oregano, thyme, and basil. 

* 2 cups grated Gruyere or Emmental cheese.  The French would use at least double this amount.  More is good, and if you like a lot of cheese, use it, and be sure to put an extra large portion on top.  The best is to use half-Emmental and half-Gruyere

* 1 large onion, cut into thin, round slices

* 1 Tbsp. unsalted European-style butter

* 3/4 cup whole milk

* 1/2 cup half-and-half

* 1/4 cup Cognac or dry sherry

* 2 tsp. Dijon mustard

* ground pepper to taste, at least 10 grindings of the pepper mill

* salt

- Rub the inside of a medium-sized, shallow Pyrex dish with butter

- Arrange one layer of potatoes over the bottom of the dish

- Place about half of the sliced onions over the potatoes

- Sprinkle with spices and add ground pepper

- Dot the layer with butter

- Grate about half of the cheese over the layer of potatoes, onions, and spices

- Repeat the process – layer the potatoes, onions, spices, and pepper; dot with butter

- Grate the remaining cheese over this second layer of potatoes and onions

- Mix the milk, cream, mustard, and cognac/bourbon

- Slowly pour the liquid evenly over the potatoes

- Preheat the oven to 400F, bake for 25 minutes covered; then another 20 uncovered. After you uncover the potatoes, poke them with a large fork.  They should be still a bit firm. When they are done, the top layer will brown and the potatoes easy to put a fork through. 


Both of these variations are classic and good.  Pick the one which suits you.  You can’t go wrong!

1) Use fresh herbs.  If you do, omit the basil which has too strong a taste, and too sweet and floral a taste for this dish

2) Use bacon.  Use about 1/4 a package of standard, smoked cured bacon, fry until well done, but not crisp.  When you are building the potato layers, omit the spices and replace with bacon

3) Use mushrooms. Buy flavorful fresh mushrooms, slice, and sauté in butter and sherry. Place them on each layer of potatoes, and add a sprinkling of thyme.  Omit the other spices.

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