The gratin is one of the best-kept culinary secrets of the French repertoire. So many vegetables can be turned into a gratin, and what keeps any and every version amazing is the inimitable “French Touch”.
Which pretty much has to do with the right amounts of milk and cream, the suggestion of garlic (often not always), perfect seasoning and bubbling and tender interior with crispy top. It is that crusty top which lends the name “gratin” to the dish, because anything just almost burnt in France is called “gratinee”. The word gratin is used, too, to describe high societe, le gratin. If you’re with a French person and you meet someone from “a family” (aristocracy) the French person may whisper to you that they are part of “le gratin,” the top.
Everything in France is related to food.
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This particular gratin is beautiful, and it almost begs to be made right now, since squash, apples, and onions are at their best. It’s wonderfully flexible, as is any gratin really. You can use any squash, any apple or a blend, white and red onions. You can use more milk than cream, or all half and half, or all cream. You may be tempted to add cheese but nine times out of ten a French gratin has no cheese (and honestly doesn’t need it).
Two-Thirds Cream/One Third Milk
Two-thirds cream and one third milk is a sort of golden rule, though I go according to mood and who is going to share the gratin with me. When I have a vegan over for dinner, then I experiment with non-dairy dairy such as that from oats or soy. Depending on the mix of vegetables, I may add more or less cream or milk. I like to mix everything together then pour it all into a baking dish, because this guarantees a perfect blend. Then, the seasoning needs to be relatively generous without overkill, because you want salt and pepper – and often nutmeg – to evenly penetrate the ingredients.
The Goal: A Crispy Top
Baking is subjective too. I bake my gratin at about 425F (220C) up to 50 minutes because I like a nice and crispy top. You will do what you like, too.
Seasonal and Something New for Leftover Turkey
We are running this now because it is seasonal, but there is another reason. Gratins are adaptable. Once you’ve got the basic vegetable ingredients, and the milk and the cream, you can add, during this season, leftover turkey. If you’re going to fold in turkey shred it first, and fold it right into the mixture in the bowl before putting it in the baking dish. You want the turkey hiding amidst the wealth so it doesn’t dry out.
Lots of Things to Add
At other times of year, you can add bacon, shredded ham either braised or air-cured, small rounds of chorizo…the sky is the limit!
A Recipe to Use as a Guide:
Squash, Apple, Onion Gratin
6 to 8 servings
1 medium butternut, kuri, or any squash, peeled and cut into chunks or sliced
1 apple (preferably sweet, but your favorite apple is great, too!), peeled, cored, thinly sliced
1 medium onion (white or red), peeled and diced
2 fresh, or dried, imported, bay leaves
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
- Generously butter a 6 cup (1-1/2 quart/liter) souffle dish or a baking dish. Preheat the oven to 425F (220C).
- Place the vegetables and the apple into a large bowl and mix. Add the milk and the cream, fold all the ingredients together, then add the bay leaves, the salt, and the pepper and fold together the ingredients so all is combined. Pour the ingredients into the prepared baking dish, and bake in the center of the oven until all the ingredients are tender and there is a nice, dark crust on top and around the edges (this will be subjective, according to what you like) 45 to 50 minutes.
- If the gratin isn’t golden enough on top, you can turn on the broiler and broil it until it is the color you like.
- Remove from the oven and let sit so it cools slightly, for 8 to 10 minutes. Serve.