Unfussy gratin (Or: In praise of Madison)

I’ve always liked the thought of gratins.

I mean: starchy goodness baked and held together by creamy, cheesy goodness?  In a form that you can make look pretty for comp’ny, and lends itself to leftovers?  Yes, yes, and yes.

The problem with gratins is that there is no way in hell I would make them on a regular basis.  This is primarily due to their richness, though also partially due to the fact that I am an impatient lady.  Arranging wafers of potato or celery root or kohlrabi or whatever in concentric circles in a pie dish is a vision that inspires shudders.  And hives.  And maybe a nervous tic.  The idea is great for special occasions, but for many reasons, not an everyday jam.

But this last weekend, visiting Madison, WI for a long weekend, I encountered what had until then been something of a culinary unicorn.

Earlier this year, after our magnificent sea voyage en famille, Danny and I realized not only was our vacation/recreational/social calendar filling up for the remainder of Chicago’s warm months, it was filling up with more and more family time.  We were so excited to be able to spend so much time the folks we love and feel like we don’t see enough of.  On the other hand, we realized that that meant there would be little time (or additional funding) for the two of us to hang out and find adventure somewhere.  Our one-year anniversary was also coming up, so we felt compelled to take some kind of romantical trip to somewhere, anywhere.

Welcome to our world, where romance = bikes, lakes, beer, fried cheese curds, watch tanlines, and open praise of comfortable shoes.  Have I swept you off your feet?

We chose Madison because it was a) close, b) inexpensive, c) we’d never hung out there, and d) we’d heard good things about the food, beer, and ease (and safety) of riding a bike all around town.  It seemed a good size for a weekend visit, so we rented an apartment for the weekend, and buzzed up on Friday morning, bikes strapped to the back of our little car.

What we found in Madison was exactly what we figured we might get.  Then we found more.

Stuff We Loved About Madison, WI (aka Reasons We Wish We Could Move There In a Dream World):

  • The bike friendliness, which can be broken down into two subcategories.
    • Care shown toward people on bikes:  Not only are there bikes everywhere, but cyclists and drivers seem to have such a polite and civil relationship compared to the bash-or-be-bashed road culture of Chicago.  Also, THEY HAVE SOMETHING CALLED A BIKE ELEVATOR.  It does exactly what you think it does.
    • The friendliness of cyclists toward other cyclists.  Stopped at a traffic light, a fellow rider overheard us discussing which street we would use to cut west toward the Capitol square.  She asked, sweetly, if we were from out of town and needed help navigating.  I admitted we had a few options in front of us and did not know the best one.  She said “follow me!  I’ll show you THE BIKE ELEVATOR.”  She insisted it was not at all out of her way, and we rode together to Monona Terrace where there was, in fact…
  • The availability and affordability of local and delicious beer.
  • Four words:  Dane County Farmers’ Market.
  • One more word:  Fromagination.
  • The ubiquity of beautiful public parks.
  • Saying the word “isthmus” 487 times per day.
  • The fact that the grounds of the Capitol Square, home to Wisconsin’s state capitol building, were not only immaculately kept and gardened, but that they truly seemed to belong to everyone.  Families sit on the lawn, kids play on the steps and under the trees, couples read quietly on benches, and it seems to be pretty well understood that this is a place for anyone to enjoy.
  • The ubiquity of fried cheese curds.  We thought fried cheese curds were really just a myth; a placeholder for the jokes people make about Wisconsin and its undying devotion to cheese.  But NO, REALLY, THEY ARE EVERYWHERE, and they are so delicious it is just not right.  (Seriously, it’s not right.  I am glad we don’t have them in Chicago [or at least not decent ones].)
  • Speaking of cheese curds, we learned the true meaning of the word “squeakiness.”  If you didn’t know, true, superior cheese curds should, and will, squeak in your mouth as you chew on them.  The ones we found were indeed so squeaky that Danny, upon popping a new one in his mouth, startled himself, saying “I am surprised every time!”
  • Every cocktail and every dish we had at Forequarter.  (And we had a lot.)

We went to Forequarter on Saturday night, on a recommendation whose origins I can’t remember. (Did you, dear reader, tell us to go there?  Am I not giving credit where it’s due?  I am sorry, the beer and lactose have wiped my brain.)  Of the many things we enjoyed — and seriously, it was many — one of them was just the nicest little gratin of fingerling potatoes and kale.  It was made simply, and without fuss.  I believe this was because they were making the gratins to order, so instead of carving off a brick from a casserole, little sliced potatoes were tossed in a little metal saucer with kale and an unbelievably creamy, and ever so slightly funky, cheese sauce and finished in the broiler.  This is, at least, how I imagine it came together.

That morning, I had bought some super-fresh little potatoes, red and yellow, at the farmers’ market — skins so thin you could peel them by rubbing them off with your thumb; the largest ones the size of large gumballs, the smallest the size of hazelnuts.  That night, after the first bite of gratin, I knew what I’d do with the potatoes:  I’d do my darnedest to approximate that luxurious little dish at home.

Now notice, I said approximate, not replicate.  Replication happens after some practice.  I knew I would not get this precisely right without the benefit of several go-rounds (goes-round?) and probably the suggestions of friends and experts and expert friends.  But for tonight, I think I did pretty well.  Danny will back me up.

Get this:

**Please note, measurements are approximate.  I don’t know exactly how many potatoes I bought!  And I was too excited about gratin to measure very much.  The good news is that it still turned out pretty well, so I am not steering you TOO far afield.

  • About 1 lb potatoes, cut thin (a mandoline, on a thicker setting, is great for this).  You can use any old potato, though I do like the creaminess of fingerling or new potatoes.
  • 4 oz taleggio, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup baby kale or other greens, packed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup hot (heated!  not boiling) milk.  I happened to use half & half here (don’t ask), and if I had had regular milk around, I would have used it.
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
  • Salt & pepper
If you suspect a bechamel is coming your way, you’re right!  I used the same concept as Le Mac Meilleur (and any decent mac & cheese recipe) to throw together a funkalicious cheese sauce for this gratin.

Do this:

Preheat your oven to 400.  Or, if you are feeling adventurous (and short on time), turn on your broiler.

You’ll want to parboil your potatoes.  Toss the sliced potatoes in a little pot, bring to a boil, and cook, adding salt at some point, until they are tender (not crunchy anymore) but not exactly soft yet.

While the potatoes are boiling, heat your milk in a saucepan slowly, stirring often.

While that’s heating (because you have three hands!  Not really — nothing here is super high-maintenance, though your attention does need to be nimble), melt the butter in another small saucepan over medium heat.  Once it’s melted, sprinkle the flour over the butter, and incorporate using a whisk.  Cook this down for a minute or so, until the mixture starts to look creamy.  Add the mustard powder, bay leaf, and warm milk, and continue to whisk until combined.  When that’s done, add your cheese and stir until that is melted and incorporated.  Kill the heat when you’re done.

Now, back to those potatoes.  How are they tasting?  If they’re done, drain them, return them to their pot, and add the cheese sauce.  Then add the kale or greens — these can be pre-cooked, if you’ve got some lying around, but they can be raw, too — and stir, trying to avoid them clumping together.

Taste that stuff.  Is it good?  Does it need something?  It will probably need salt and pepper.  Add those things until the mixture is tasty.  This should taste very alluring now, and once it’s done in the oven, it should be irresistible.

Spray a pie pan, glass dish, or small metal baking pan down with a bit of oil (or butter it), and dump the potato mixture in, smoothing it out so it bakes evenly.

If you heated the oven and not the broiler, throw that pan into the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s a bit golden on top.  If you fired up the broiler (and if you did, I hope you used a broiler-safe dish!), put the pan under the broiler for just a few minutes until you’ve got some nice crispness on the top.

What?  No photos??  
I know, not our style!  This is part of the fallout of the inconvenient and untimely apparent-death of a very important external hard drive.  I say apparent because we’re not totally sure if all hope is lost, but the upshot for now is that I don’t have photos from this kitchen escapade!  I do, however, have a photo of the devastatingly pretty park and lake down the street from the restaurant that inspired this dish.  It’s the best we’ve got!  You’ll want to go to there.

Tell me what you think...

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