A Gruyère Day Than Usual
Many years ago, I spent a semester of my senior year of college in Grenoble, a city at the foothills of the French Alps and at the heart of the Dauphiné region. I lived with a host family in a southern suburb, and after classes most of the day, I would return "home" and learn about everyday French cuisine, especially the modern fare influenced by the wide variety of immigrant populations that found a home in this bustling metropolis.
These were my pre-vegetarian days, so I sampled and enjoyed rabbit in a wine and mushroom sauce, couscous with a spicy beef tagine, salade dauphinoise strewn with petits lardons (small chunks of ham or bacon), and the occasional lasagna. My host mother worked full-time outside the home but still prepared a full meal (salad, entree, dessert) each evening (and I still don't know how she did that!).
But the dish that I loved the most (and she willingly trotted out regularly for me) was the regional classic gratin dauphinois. You can imagine this as a version of potatoes au gratin, but it is so much more creamy and rich and savory than plain ol' potatoes au gratin that it's like comparing a Hershey bar to a dark chocolate pot de crème.
As she made the dish one night, I took noted on the ingredients and the method, and I have since made it on an annual basis, usually for company. (It's far too rich for more frequent use now.) It requires liberal amounts of butter, garlic, potatoes, half-and-half, and, of course, my favorite cheese from the region, Gruyère.
(I sometimes characterized the aroma of this delightful cheese as something akin to dirty socks. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. It has a potent flavor with a nice tang, and despite my description, I grew quite fond of Gruyère as it tasted so good on a fresh baguette, with or without ham, and thus made an easy and cheap lunch during the school day.)
When we stopped at West Point Market a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a small block of cave-aged Gruyère from the Comté region of France (some comes from Switzerland; I choose not to join the debate over which is better) and asked Phoenix if I needed to make gratin dauphinois for her soon. After a brief, blissful reminiscence over the last time she sampled it, she gave me that look I know all too well and said, "Well, I wouldn't say no."
So when it came time to plan dinner for my Wonderful Parents -- as well as for my Wonderful Work Crew of Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy -- I opted for a sort of country French meal with a hearty white bean cassoulet, the not-really-French flatbreads mentioned previously, and gratin dauphinois.
After we loaded the minivan with boxes from the basement, Phoenix helped me prepare the potatoes as I layered butter, garlic, potatoes, and shredded Gruyère in the baking dish. I had chosen to use 2% milk from the local dairy instead of half-and-half in order to make a slightly healthier dish, but it turned out a little on the runny side.
But no matter: everyone agreed that the flavor was still fantastic and that it harmonized well with the cassoulet. And after all that, no one had room for dessert (a relief, since I hadn't made any!).
I sometimes miss Grenoble and being in such a lovely area so close to the Alps. But once a year, I make this dish, and I'm transported back for an evening, savoring what was good about the city and the region... and the cheese.
This recipe originally comes from my French host mother, though it was confirmed by a similar recipe in the Betty Crocker International Cookbook. I'll include measurements here, but I don't follow them any longer; just use liberal amounts of everything (except salt and pepper), and you will end up with a very rich and creamy dish.
4 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1-4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
1 stick butter (don’t worry! you don’t have to use it all!)
salt and black pepper to taste
1 1/2 c shredded Gruyère cheese
1 pint half-and-half
Scrub the potatoes but don’t peel them. Cut them into enough thin slices to measure about 4 cups. Sprinkle an oblong baking dish (10 x 6 x 1 1/2 inches or thereabouts) with garlic. Slice thin curls of butter into the bottom of the pan as well; they don’t have to cover the bottom, they’re just there to grease the pan.
Arrange the potatoes in three layers in the pan, sprinkling each layer with a bit of salt and pepper, 1/3 of the cheese, and a little extra butter and garlic if you feel so inclined. The top layer of potatoes should be well-covered with Gruyère and dotted with a little more butter. Pour the half-and-half into the pan along the sides; the level should stop about 1/2 inch from the top of the pan so that it doesn’t bubble over and make a mess of your oven. (If you really feel the need to fill it up, then put your pan on top of a cookie sheet with sides... then you only have an extra pan to clean up.)
Cook uncovered in a 350 degree oven until potatoes are tender, top is golden brown, and a most succulent aroma is filling your kitchen, dragging you out by the tongue. This should take about 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool a little while before serving.
Serves approximately 6