Article and Photos by Elizabeth Miller
Last year, when flipping through a magazine at my parents’ house sometime right around the holidays, I came across the most astonishing picture I’d ever seen. Crisp brown edges of something, dripping with molten cheese of some sort, every nook and crack bursting with what looked to be cream sauce, or maybe a béchamel? I didn’t know, but I needed to eat it right then.
I took the magazine directly to my mom, a woman who is not, by nature, an adventurous cook, and pointed to the picture.
“You need to make this,” I said, firmly jabbing my finger into the page.
My mom looked at the picture quizzically. “What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I…I can’t know. It’s going to be really, really bad for me, and I don’t want to know how bad.”
My mom, still not understanding what I was getting at, cocked her head slightly to one side.
“Look,” I said. “I think I need to eat that. Whatever it is, it looks delicious. But I can’t make it. If I know what is in it, I won’t eat it, because just look at it! Cheese! Cream sauce! Potatoes! Are those potatoes? I don’t even know, but, man, you’ve just got to make it. Like, now. Please?”
My mom, not quite understanding my line of reasoning, gently took the magazine from me, never saying a word. I stood in front of her, wondering what to say next, my mouth slowly opening and then closing again, giving me the look of a recently caught trout as I contemplated how best to continue my begging. When my mom slowly put the magazine down on the counter, cover down, I knew my campaign had come to a close. There would be no cheesy, creamy, crisp-edged delight coming my way. No matter that I didn’t know what the object of my obsession actually was, my heart sank a little.
And then, like a true holiday miracle, the dish appeared, just like that, on our holiday dinner table. Next to the turkey and the greens, there sat my long lost love, the root vegetable gratin of my dreams. I only now know that what I was so frantically craving turned out to be a vegetable gratin, because after I ate at least two servings (all right, three) of the heavenly dish, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go back to the magazine where I had first spotted the creamy wonder and finally find out what, exactly, comprised it and all of its cheesy wonder.
Now, I don’t generally condone keeping secret the components of a recipe. Sharing the gift of food is a particular love of mine, and whenever people ask me what went into a dish, I happily list off the ingredients, taking time to note any important particulars of the recipe in question. But with this dish, you just can’t do that. If people become privy to what goes into this dish, common sense, that which keeps us all from succumbing to evolutionary perils, will tell them to step back from this dish, to run far, far away from it, never looking back. But if you serve this to people as is, with no explanation, you’ll find that it will be difficult to keep people away from it.
So, as a gift to those around you, I suggest you take advantage of the wonderful selection of winter root vegetables available right now—potatoes, parsnips, celery root, turnips—and make this incredible dish for the people you love. And because you love them, you will never, ever tell them what went into it, making it so creamy and rich, so deeply flavorful. It’s the holidays, so you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to enjoy a show-stoppingly delicious gratin, once a year, when we celebrate the fact that sometimes it’s best to simply enjoy those around us, and whatever they kindly agree to do in the name of indulgent, delightful, blissful ignorance.
Root Vegetable Gratin
The types of root vegetables I have listed here represent exactly what went into this particular gratin. You can, of course, swap these out for any root vegetables you want. Parsnips are good in this, and I’ll bet sweet potatoes would add a nice punch.
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, then sliced extremely thin
1 large leek, rinsed, then sliced into thin half-moons
1 large celery root, about 15 ounces, peeled, then sliced extremely thin
8 ounces fontina cheese, coarsely shredded
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a medium saucepan, combine cream, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, Bring to a gentle simmer, then immediately remove from the heat and set aside.
In a large baking dish (I used a tall, round gratin dish, but any dish around 8”x13” large with tall sides will work), lay ½ of the sliced potatoes. Cover with all of the leek slices, the celery root slices, then half of the shredded cheese. Lay the rest of the potatoes over the cheese. Pour the cream over the potatoes. Sprinkle the remainder of the cheese over the cream-covered potatoes.
Bake the gratin for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the cream is bubbling rapidly around the vegetables. Remove from oven, and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.