Even in the slushy shoulder season, there are still plenty of local vegetables to enjoy. Just as I’m not ready to pack away my heavy sweaters or swap my down coat for a cotton one, I still crave those hearty roots in soups, stews, casseroles and roasts.
Though I can find peas and asparagus from California in our markets, they don’t satisfy my cold-weather cravings. Better to wait for the brighter local delights of our Midwest spring.
The best thing about root vegetables? They’re interchangeable. Similar in density, they cook at the same rate and because of their starch and natural sugar content, they brown up beautifully. Roasting may be the easiest way to dispatch a batch of roots, but when I’m winter hungry, there is nothing like a gratin.
Hale and hearty, nicely crusted with breadcrumbs and cheese, a gratin makes a warming meal and a glorious side dish. While most recipes focus on potato gratins, all root vegetables do well when cooked this way.
In truth, the “gratin” is really just a fancy name for casserole with cream that’s topped with toasty cheese. Though most gratin recipes call for par-cooking the vegetables first and whisking up a béchamel sauce, you can skip both of those steps by making a few adjustments and employing a lot of patience.
First, layer thinly sliced root vegetables with a mix of stock and cream. (Yes, use cream; milk has a tendency to curdle.) Cover the dish with parchment and bake in a moderate oven long enough for the vegetables to absorb the liquid and become tender, while contributing their juices to the resulting rich, velvety sauce. Once the vegetables are thoroughly cooked, the parchment comes off and the top is scattered with breadcrumbs and cheese and returned to the oven to become the golden crown.
Use a mix of root vegetables in the gratin. This builds layers of flavors that are far more interesting than focusing on a solo ingredient. Sweeter roots such as carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and parsnips work nicely with the muted, earthy flavors of celeriac, turnips and rutabagas.
Gratin describes both the dish as well as the cooking vessel. Bake and serve this in a pretty pan and the humble root vegetable casserole is transformed into an elegant gratin.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.