Sky diving into a gratin.

November 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

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It’s late afternoon on a Thursday and a colleague casually asks me what my favorite kind of food is. It happens almost immediately: I’m out of the 3 pm slump and wide awake, palms sweating while the weight of my unspoken answer hangs in the air. Without knowing it, she’s stumbled right into my culinary Achilles’ Heel.

So I do not tell her that I have no favorite food, that my tastes change as often as three times a day depending on where I am: at a restaurant, on the street, or in my own kitchen. Instead I blurt out “Alice Waters food” – leaving for another day the deep, deep ocean of my thoughts on the subject: about why in a restaurant I’m rarely excited to eat the kind of food I’m excited to eat at home, or about how dining out is my way of sky-diving into the unknown.

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I’m thinking a lot lately about my relationship to food in the restaurant vs. the home kitchen, because I’ve begun working with a small, boutique food PR firm in San Francisco. I never expected to be the invisible liaison between chefs/artisan food crafters/cookbook writers and the media – but I am now, and I am in love with it. Every day I learn more about food and the incredible people who make it, dipping my toes into the work of some 20 different restaurants, chefs, and cookbook writers - nothing could be more inspiring to an obsessive home cook.

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Like all 9-5 jobs bookended by longish commutes, this one leaves little time for lingering over my own stove on weekdays. Instead I immerse myself in cooking on weekends, like this past Sunday morning when I camped out in my kitchen for long enough to stock up for the week ahead with:

  • smoked paprika and cumin-roasted roots over lentils with parsley, lemon and walnuts
  • a pot of celeriac, potato and apple soup
  • a dish of baked apple-raisin-cinnamon oatmeal

By Thursday I will be weary of soup and of carrots, but on Sunday I feel content because I’ve made something good, and frugal, and more satisfying still because my hands were the ones tossing beets and carrots with spices and olive oil. Preparing for the week makes me feel connected to the generations of women that came before me, and to my own grandmother, whose house always smelled of frying sausages and pancakes in the morning, and who kept bottomless boxes of ancient comic books for us to pour over in quiet delight between meals.  Her food was always about comfort, but also about making something absolutely delicious on a budget, the kind of thing Depression-era-born women like my 90-yr-old grandmother made into an art.

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Those cozy kinds of meals are the ones I know I will always come back to, and this one, adapted from The Yellow House, is one of them. It is more of a set of guidelines than a recipe anyone needs follow absolutely. The base is a mixture of cooked grains, wilted greens, egg, a little cheese, and softened aromatics. Then comes the real magic – the topping. Instead of asking you to pour generous amounts of heavy cream over the dish like a traditional gratin does, this gratin is finished with a custardy quilt of whole milk yogurt, eggs, a dash of nutmeg and a bit more cheese. Pop it all in the oven and 45 minutes later you’ll find that yogurt-y mixture has set – and tastes like a layer of savory cheesecake sunken into a bed of whole grains and greens. It’s terribly exciting to pull out of the oven, and at the same time, nothing short of sitting on the floor reading Donald Duck with a plate of pancakes and sausages in my lap and my family’s chatter in the background, could make me feel quite so content.

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Greens and Grains Browned Yogurt Gratin
adapted from Sarah at The Yellow House

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 shallots or one onion, minced
  • 2 cups raw greens and a tablespoon or two of complementary herbs, chopped finely (If you use kale, chard, or collards, de-rib and de-stem them first)
  • 1 cup of 1/2 inch cubed and roasted winter squash (optional – my addition)
  • 1 cup parmesan, grated (another cheese could also work)
  • 3 cups grains, cooked (I usually choose quinoa and millet for their protein and fast cooking time)
  • 1 cup thick, Greek-style yogurt (OR: just plain, whole milk yogurt works fine too!)
  • 3 eggs
  • Sea salt
  • Black Pepper
  • Paprika or nutmeg (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Butter a 3-4 quart baking dish.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring a bit, until the shallot begins to become translucent and aromatic, about 3-5 minutes. Add the chopped greens and give a few quick stirs to coat in the oil and allium mixture. If using kale or collards sauté to remove the raw edge for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool until just warm.

Once greens mixture is cool, mix the grains, the greens mixture (I like kale with a bit of sage here), the squash, and 3/4 cup parmesan in a large mixing bowl,. Taste for salt and pepper and season if necessary. Then, stir in just one of the eggs and mix until well incorporated. Spread the mixture in an even layer in the prepared baking dish.

In another bowl, mix the yogurt, remaining two eggs, and remaining 1/4 cup parmesan. Throw in a few pinches of paprika or nutmeg if you’d like (I like nutmeg). Spread this mixture in an even layer over the grains and greens.

Bake, 35 minutes or so, until the egg-yogurt topping sets and becomes speckled brown. Serve hot.

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