Pomme de terre: potato. There is nothing more common with a more convoluted history. Is it a starch, a vegetable or both? Despite its origins, its humility, let’s face it, its plainness, just think of all the different ways it can be cooked: roasted, baked, sautéed, fried, pureed, boiled – not to mention all the different funny shapes you can cut one into.
In France the potato has quite a reputation. A chef is not a chef, a cook is not a cook unless they can cook a potato in all its many classic variations. Joël Robuchon, considered the chef of the century, up there with Carême and Escoffier, is best known for his purée de pomme de terre – or in English – mashed potatoes.
On this season’s Top Chef version française the remaining candidates were recently tested on their ability to prepare many of the most famous potato recipes known in French cuisine. Fries, were on the list, cut to perfect rectangular proportions known as pommes de terre pont-neuf. Also on the list were pomme de terre dauphine – a type of fried mashed potato mixed with puff pastry dough and the famous gratin dauphinois.
These recipes vary in their difficulty, not necessarily because of the cooking involved but because of the very precise preparation technique demanded to take these dishes from typical potatoes to something divine. The potato is taken so seriously here that it’s one of the foods that chefs are required to master if they want to gain the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Also on the list: eggs.
I could ramble on the relationship between France and the potato for a long time. A very long time.
But let’s get to the meal: Gratin Dauphinois.
The traditional recipe calls for nothing more than potatoes, milk and cream. Some salt, some pepper, and surprisingly, some nutmeg. A nice, thin slice to the potatoes.
I guess what is surprising about this recipe is the cooking process. Instead of tossing everything directly into the oven, the milk and cream are warmed in a pot and the potatoes and seasonings are cooked at a low boil for about 10 minutes. Then everything is poured into a casserole dish and baked until tender.
This creates a richness to the texture that for some reason reminded me of homemade macaroni and cheese – which I’m now craving something fierce. I topped our gratin with shredded cheese, but it’s not a part of the original recipe. Use enough milk and cream and the potatoes are creamy enough without it.
Like any potato dish, Gratin Dauphinois goes with just about anything. My husband and I ate it with a simple tossed salad.
- 1kg potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
- 250 g milk
- 250 g cream*
- nutmeg, salt, pepper all to taste
- shredded cheese (optional)
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.
- In a large pot bring the milk and cream to a slow boil. Add the potatoes and seasonings to taste. Cook on medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Pour everything into a large casserole dish. Make sure that the potatoes are spread evenly throughout and that there’s enough milk just reach the top of the potatoes. (Don’t worry, it will cook down) Top with shredded cheese if desired and bake 40-45 minutes or until golden brown and the potatoes are tender.