Another Thanksgiving is almost here, another feast built around all or most of our favorite flavors from the past. But if you’re looking for one more over-the-top vegetable dish for your Thanksgiving table, you might sample something new this year that’s actually almost as old to the French as Pilgrims and native Americans are to us.
The French have been making gratins (pronounced grah-TANS, not GRAHT-ins) since the 1700s. On the North American menu, only one small, if delicious, variation turns up often, either as potatoes au gratin or au gratin potatoes. Still, the technique is solid and beloved in the old country, where potatoes are famously used as well as a dozen other vegetables, additional starches, seafoods and even meats. The road from gratin to all-American mac and cheese is neither long nor winding.
Not surprisingly, the original French gratin was born of necessity, the world’s most famous mother of invention. Various kinds of fires and wood-burning ovens produced low heat for hours on end, sometimes with heat coming from above whatever dish or pot or pan was slipped inside. This kind of fire produced not only items that were “cooked” but items that were browned. Early country cooks discovered that browning got extra delicious when the main ingredient was covered in some combination of butter, cream and cheese.
Even the extended time such a dish took to cook ceased to be a negative and became a positive when someone played it right. In France, there were tales of 18th and 19th centuries village women who put their gratin on the fire to cook (for up to four hours), went off to Mass on Sunday mornings, and came home to find the dish bubbly and golden just in time to feed the family.
As is typical of a classic country dish anywhere in the world, there are just about as many slightly or sometimes very different recipes as there are home cooks. Some cooks used butter, especially in the dairy-rich regions, while others closer to the warm South of France relied on olive oil. The type of cheese also tended to vary, but eventually Swiss Gruyere won the position of favorite – just as it did on the croutons atop traditional French onion soup. It was delicious, sufficiently stretchy and terrific at turning brown.
Once the technique was in place, it was only a matter of time before just about anything got a turn. Yes, potatoes did eventually produce the most common gratin, becoming a “thing” unto itself as “pommes de terres gratinees.” One interesting method involves baking and mashing the potatoes, mixing the soft flesh with butter, cream, grated cheese and seasoning, then baking again inside the skins. This version, though invented in France, is quite popular here as “twice-baked potatoes.”
Two regional standouts, both using thinly sliced potatoes, are regionalized as Dauphinois and Savoyard. The one from the Dauphine region gets baked in a buttered dish with cream and garlic. The one from neighboring Savoie does much the same, except it uses butter between the layers and does without cream altogether.
When it comes right down to it, a gratin is a wonderful way to serve vegetables (green beans, cauliflower, eggplant and peas pop to mind), as well as seafood (shrimp, crabmeat and small scallops especially, that last as coquilles St. Jacques). The French even bake their delicate Dover sole this way. It produces a lush special-occasion taste that most enjoy, which makes any variation a welcome addition to this year’s Thanksgiving feast.
CHAMPAGNE HONEY MUSTARD GREEN BEAN GRATIN
Though in this country best known for potatoes au gratin, the cooking method for making a “gratin” is used on all kinds of vegetables, starches, seafoods and meats in the country of its invention – which is France, needed to say. The addition of our special mustard makes this dish’s creamy goodness only more incredible.
½ stick butter
1 pound fresh green beans, cut in thirds
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 ½ cups heavy cream
¾ cup Fischer & Wieser’s Champagne Honey Mustard
¼ teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¾ cup gruyere or Swiss cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the green beans and onion, cooking until soft and lightly caramelized. Add the garlic and stir briefly, then add the cream, mustard and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish and set in oven for 20 minutes, until green beans are cooking. Cover the top of the beans with cheese and return to oven until golden brown on top, 12-15 minutes. Serves 6.