Here’s what I dream of lately*: Gentle ocean breezes. The scent of lilacs in full bloom. The warmth of the sun on my face. My whole face, not just the tip of my nose, which is the only exposed body part in the last three months because it’s been so ridiculously cold.
There have been a few fun moments in this arctic nightmare that is central Wisconsin (and much of the rest of the US, to be fair). We got an invisible fence for Libby and Cleo this fall. The learning curve was a bit steep, but the rewards are great. The dogs love being outside, running loose. Cleo leaps over entire flights of stairs in our terraced yard, and Libby terrorizes squirrels and unearths frozen mice. We’ve loved playing in the snow with them. We’ve especially loved how exhausted they are when they come inside.
Cleo and Libby tunneling for varmints.
Frigid days are tolerated with liberal applications of comfort food, as we all know. I’ve been roasting a lot of chickens and making vats of soup. Tonight, I made one of Tom’s favorite dishes: potato gratin.
Gratins are tricky, if you’re the type of cook who likes to at least pretend to create healthy food. Leave out the cream and butter and you’ve got a bland, dry dish. One New Year’s Eve I threw out all my scruples and made a potato gratin laden with cheese and heavy cream. It was artery-clogging and I gained a pants size with that one meal, but man, it was fantastic.
Since then I’ve been trying to develop a potato gratin that’s deeply flavored, moist, rich, and not going to send us to the cardiac unit. It’s a tricky balance, and it took a long time. But I’m there.
Starting with a base of shallots and garlic accomplished two things: they both contribute a fair amount of nutrition and, when they’re cooked to golden brown, they add a big ole pile of flavor. I do use butter, but only 2 tablespoons for 4 main-course servings. And there’s the ham — only 2 ounces per serving, but it adds protein and that umami element. Whole milk contributes the creaminess and chicken stock adds depth. And then there’s cheese, of course, but not an overwhelming amount.
The sauce alone is so delectable that we were tempted to just eat a bowl of it. Tom rolled his eyes and groaned when I handed him a spoonful. Layered with sliced potatoes and baked until golden, the result is addictively decadent, yet won’t kill you.
Normally, this is where I tell you you can leave out the ham and use vegetable stock to make it vegetarian. My apologies, but it won’t work here. That ham adds the umami finish that takes the gratin from fine to fantastic.
*This post was delayed by a week. Now our temps are above freezing! We are pathetically grateful.
Potato-Ham Gratin with Shallots and Cheddar
about 4 main-course servings
2 tbs. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (or 1 1/2 tsp. fresh)
salt and pepper
8 oz. diced cooked ham
2 tbs. flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar
2 lbs. potatoes
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Generously butter a 9-inch cake pan or casserole.
Melt the butter and oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. (The oil is there to keep the butter from burning.) Add the shallot, garlic and thyme. (If using fresh thyme, add it later.) Season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté for about 10 minutes until the shallot is tender and browned. Add the ham and sauté for a few minutes longer, just until warm. Stir in the flour.
Warm the stock and milk in a microwave for a minute. Pour into the skillet, stirring well. Keep stirring until the liquid is incorporated, smooth, and slightly thickened, 3-5 minutes. Shut off the heat and stir in about 1 cup of the cheese until it’s melted into the sauce.
Peel the potatoes, if you wish, and slice 1/8-inch thick. Spread about a third of the slices in an overlapping layer in the baking pan. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Spread a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce over the potatoes; it won’t fully cover them. Add another overlapping layer of potatoes, season, and another 1/2 cup of the sauce. Add the last of the potatoes. Pour the remaining sauce over the potatoes, spreading it to cover as much as possible. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top.
Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender and the top is browned.