Our October weather went to pot, and I got bit by a cooking bug. It’s something I take advantage of when it strikes, since it does not strike that often. But something about the first chill in the air, the first snowflakes on the ground and yard chore avoidance collided in a perfect symphony of cooking up a storm. Some recipes I made were old favorites, like the aromatic and garlicky adobo from the Philippines, and others required no recipe, like a basic steak. But variety is the spice of life, so every so often I take down one of the many cookbooks littering my shelves and browse for inspiration. Like many cooks I keep a running list in my head of recipes I’d like to actually make, not just read about. A good third of them are Jeffrey Steingarten’s. I browse through both of his books regularly and even though many recipes involve heroic shopping efforts and epic cooking sessions, something about his writing style implies success before you even begin.
Much of his recipe seduction comes from meticulous instructions. The details of each step are so well explained that one feels like he’s hovering over your shoulder, pre-empting any shortcuts you may attempt and explaining how he’d really like things done. There is no ambiguity in the explanations of each step, which is very nice given that many recipes he provides are so time consuming that you would cry if they met with failure. But not every recipe he published has been a culinary Everest (like the home made Turducken, or boudin noir), and there are a few that are not only feasible to try at home, but actually look simple. One of them was potatoes au gratin.
After a wonderful discourse on the merits of potatoes au gratin and the plebeian tendencies of many recipes to smother the potatoes with cheese, he goes on to provide his own recipe which he accidentally stumbled upon all by himself. The recipe requires few ingredients, namely butter, milk, potatoes and cream, and does not take much more than a mandoline and an oven, so I bravely ventured forth to try it out. What appealed to me in the recipe is the lack of cheese. I live with a guy ready to smother breakfast cereal with cheese, while I like to use a smaller amount of sharp cheese, and find a large melting blanket of cheese oily and gross.
I heated the milk with garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg:
I sliced the potatoes without killing myself:
I poured cream on the potatoes, dotted with butter (forgive me treadmill), and baked the gratin:
And the result – utterly delicious. The cream cooks down into a rich clotty sauce, faintly scented with garlic and nutmeg, (next time I’m tripling the garlic), and they were universally proclaimed by the cheese eater and his father an excellent recipe. So if you’re willing to take the caloric hit, but have a stellar side dish, then embrace the fall and make these potatoes. And contrary to Jeffrey’s instructions, they taste fantastic lukewarm out of the pan an hour after dinner. Not that I would know anything about that.