Thursday, 27 October 2011

Celebrating National Potato Day 2011 with a Potato Gratin

I don't know what is so different about this week, but it certainly hasn't been difficult finding dishes to make in celebration of national food holidays. Today of all days is the celebration of one of the easiest and most versatile starches to work with: National Potato Day. From the potato soup to potato puffs, poutine to potato salad, many easy dishes can be pulled together and under a very acceptable budget. To celebrate this year's day of the root crop I'm most familiar with, I made a potato gratin (also recognised as scalloped potatoes) with a Swiss cheese Mornay sauce (i.e., béchamel with shredded Swiss cheese). And I don't know about you, but it's tough to cook with potatoes and not have some sort of pork around; to that end, I also discovered my own way of making bacon bits... by twice frying them.

Prep the cooking experience by setting the oven to 375 °F and then either buttering/greasing, or using aluminum foil on, a baking dish (I actually made two smaller dishes rather than one large one since I essentially planned to feed two different groups). While many, if not most, of the recipes I use on this blog are my recipes by means of compiling and refining multiple recipes, this particular one is one based on both my understanding of this dish and previously eating experience. I assemble my potato gratin as I would a lasagne (as opposed to layering the potatoes and covering them with milk and cheese separately) and as such began the cooking process by first creating the sauce. Specifically, I made a Mornay sauce, which I have made a few times in the past year, and which starts by making a simple roux of 2 tbsp butter (I'm currently using leftover unused butter from Saturday's program) and 2 tbsp flour (I had to use the finer cake flour because I had used up all my all-purpose flour over the weekend; it turned out quite well and easier to dissolve and cook). Once the flour has cooked into the butter and reaches a smooth consistency, reduce the heat to lo-med and slowly add 2 c milk, as you stir very quickly to prevent clumping. Even if you do get clumps, do not panic; as the (now) béchamel continues to cook, the sauce will smooth itself out. When everything is velvety smooth, bring the heat back to medium and whisk in 2 c Swiss cheese, as shown in the above right photo.

After the cheese has thoroughly melted and the sauce has thickened, add to it a pinch of salt, about two pinches worth of ground black pepper, and a few tsps ground paprika. Combine everything together very well, again until a smooth consistency. Reduce the heat down to low to keep the sauce warm as you work with the potatoes.

Wash and peel about 2.5 lbs potatoes (I began with about 1.5 lbs and found I needed more). Using the slicing side of a box grater, a mandolin, or a very sharp knife, carefully and thinly slice about 4/5 the potatoes (somewhere between paper thin and 1/4"). I aimed for the feel of multiple layers while not having the gratin tasting particularly dense and erred more to the side of paper thin. Especially if you use the box grater, you'll eventually get to the point where you cannot easily slice the potatoes; do not worry about slicing these completely and instead use those to make slightly thicker slices for the top-most potato layer. Lay down the first layer of potato slices, and top this off with a few tablespoons of the Mornay sauce. Top this with two more layers of potato slices and the rest of the sauce, and then complete the potato layers by arranging the thicker potato slices. (To see what I mean by "thicker" potato slices, click here.) Be sure to work quickly, as the potatoes will brown. Put the now completed dish(es) in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes.

While the potato and sauce are cooking, work on the bacon garnish (because, as I mentioned above, potatoes and cheese seem to be lacking without pork). After crisping five slices of bacon (again, I used my smoky maple bacon), I was not satisfied with the result knowing that I needed to chop up the bacon into sprinkling size pieces and did not want to be left with huge chunks of bacon fat. And so, transfer the bacon to some crinkled paper towel to drain as much of the grease as possible, and then crumble and finely chop up the bacon when cooled (this makes it easier to work with). Next, clean out your frying pan/skillet and then fry the bacon a second time. This will not only render out more bacon fat but will more evenly crisp up the bacon for further chopping, if need be. Check out the difference before and after the second frying in the photos above.

Definitely by the time you are done working with the bacon, your gratin should be ready for the final layer: more cheese! Sprinkle some grated parmesan reggiano (or similar cheese) and allow the gratin to bake for about 10 more minutes before setting the oven to broil. Broil the gratin for just a few minutes to give a slight browning to the top potato and cheese layer. I should note here that another reason for paper thin slices is that you know for sure the potatoes will cook much more quickly and evenly than if you sliced the potatoes by hand and they were thicker.

To add a bit of brightness against the smoky bacon, tender potatoes, and rich Mornay sauce, chop up some fresh curled parsley just a few minutes before serving and then sprinkle it on. Depending on how you cover your dish (make sure not to seal it too well during transport or else you may risk spoiling it), the gratin should hold the heat for at least 2/2.5 hours. This being said, I prepped, cooked, and served everything within the span of about 5 hours (perhaps half an hour to 45 min of prep and one hour of baking at most), though you could prepare this the night before and then bake again to reheat everything the following day. For the 22-ish serving slices I got from this, the total estimated cost of used ingredients is $7.50. All told, this wasn't a bad way to spend National Potato Day! For the complete photo album, click here.

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