A French-themed post this week, but not a mountain of patisserie froth – instead I’ve gorn all savoury!
Prowling round the French brocantes (posh car boot sales), I’ve always got an eye out for second-hand cookery books and this year I found a great little paperback entitled Vosges Grannies Recipes (I paraphrase) – regional recipes from the mountains in eastern France, near the German border.
The booklet has lots of simple and comforting dishes, including this one, which I decided to include not only as a delicious, make-ahead meal, but also as a blueprint recipe for having up your sleeve or – more usefully – in your freezer.
I especially like this recipe because it isn’t rich. Too often a gratin dish is swimming in oil from fistfuls of cheese or cream. This is altogether much lighter and can easily be adapted to a variety of fillings, including vegetarian. It also doesn’t require a trolleyload of expensive ingredients, yet it’s packed with flavour, and is very simple to bring together.
The Anatomy of a Gratin
Using this recipe as an example, there is a bottom layer of lightly steamed leeks, followed by a tangy tomato and bacon layer, topped with a white sauce sprinkled with cheese. The tomato layer is bright from the fresh tomatoes, bold with the favour of herbs and tangy with bacon. All of the component ingredients can be prepared beforehand, then either hauled out of the fridge and assembled and baked, or assembled and frozen until required.
Imagine the joy of getting home of an evening knowing you’re just 30 minutes away from a delicious home-made meal that requires – literally – one minute’s preparation: stick your defrosted gratin in the oven, turn it on, go have a shower or read the paper, open a bag of salad, cut a slice of crusty bread and Bam! Supper is served!
It doesn’t have to be leeks – other options for the base vegetable are diced swede, turnip, carrots, parsnips) or a mixture of all of these), potatoes, celeriac, cabbage (Savoy, white, red, mixture), broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts – you get the idea.
If you’re vegetarian, you can substitute blanched samphire (its deliciously salty) for the bacon in the tomato sauce – add it whilst assembling your dish to keep some of its crunch.
Top with white sauce or for a gluten-free option, use low-fat creme fraiche.
Sprinkle with a cheese of your choice. Choose Comté or Gruyere for melty goodness, Grana Padano or Parmesan for punchy flavour. Whichever you choose, you don’t need a lot. People think a gratin is all about the cheese, and it’s not. The gratin in the photo had just 30g of Comté on the top, which was more than enough. The cheese is a garnish, if that. A gratin is about a crunchy topping. You can substitute breadcrumbs for the cheese, or a mixture of half breadcrumbs, half grana padano.
If you don’t have a stack of gratin dishes – who does? That’s my one-and-only in the photo – the supermarkets sell packs of aluminium foil dishes with cardboard tops, perfect for freezing. No washing up, either! These can also be used to heat the defrosted dish up in the oven. You wouldn’t be able to defrost them in the microwave, but being in a solid block they would be easy to decant into something suitable.
This recipe will make 4 portions of gratin. You can easily double or treble the quantities and make a stash of meals for the freezer.
Leek and Bacon Gratin
4 large leeks
200g smoked bacon lardons, or dice a large piece of smoked bacon or samphire
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic – sliced thinly
4 tomatoes – cut into 1cm thick matchsticks
2 bay leaves
1tsp dried thyme or 2tsp fresh leaves stripped from the stalks
salt and pepper to taste
25g unsalted butter
25g plain flour
salt and pepper
120g grated cheese, or breadcrumbs, or a mixture of both
- Bring a pan of water to the boil.
- Wash and slice the leeks into 2cm slices.
- Put the sliced leeks into a steamer pan and cook over the simmering water for 8 minutes. You can blanch them IN the water, but they do take on a lot of liquid this way, and you run the risk of your dish becoming waterlogged.
- Set aside to cool.
- Put the bacon into a pan and heat gently. When the fat has begun to run, add the onion, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme.
- Cover, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the lid for the last 5 minutes to allow most of the moisture to evaporate
- Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaves.
- Set aside to cool.
- Put the butter, flour and milk into a pan and whisk gently over a low heat until it comes to the boil.
- Turn the heat down to a simmer and allow to bubble gently for 5 minutes to ‘cook out’ the flour.
- Season generously with salt and pepper.
- If not using immediately, cover with cling film so that it touches the surface of the sauce and set aside.
- Divide your components equally into the number of dishes you plan on using.
- In each dish, put a layer of steamed leeks – or cooked vegetable of your choice – in the bottom.
- Spoon over a layer of the tomato bacon sauce. Sprinkle your blanched samphire if using.
- Pour over a thin layer of white sauce to cover and sprinkle with your topping.
- Put your cold/defrosted dish into the oven.
- Turn the heat to 180°C/160°C Fan.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes if the portion-size is a single serving, 25-30 minutes if larger.
- When done, the cheese will have melted and browned and the sauce bubbling.
- Serve with a salad and crusty bread for mopping.