Russ Parsons's Cauliflower and Potato Gratin
January 04, 2010
Well. Let me tell you one thing. Berlin? Is cold. Very, very cold. There's this Arctic wind blowing down on us from the north, apparently, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. Did you know that Berlin is on the same latitude as Labrador? New York, in case you're wondering, is on the same latitude as Rome. That might help put the proximity of that Arctic wind in perspective for you. It is awfully, bone-chillingly close.
Then, the snow. The city has been blanketed in white since I arrived here almost three weeks ago. At first it was festive and clean! Now, I sort of want to kick all that snow in the teeth. I've been wearing the same waterproof, wool-lined hiking boots for weeks. Doesn't the weather know that a woman's happiness is bound up in her ability to alternate footwear at least once or twice a week? Or at least change out of the heavy duty socks purchased on one trip to the Rocky Mountains a few years ago.
Anyway, all of this complaining is actually to explain why on earth, after the absolute gluttony of the holidays, I made a cheese sauce-cloaked potato and cauliflower dish on New Year's Day. Delicate salads and gossamer soups, take your pretty little selves to warmer climes. Here in Berlin, I'm turning on the oven as often as I can. The more burners I can use, the better! And I need butterfat to help the cause.
Russ Parsons meant for this dish to be served as a side for a Christmas feast, but there was no such restraint in my kitchen. Between two mouths at dinner, one admittedly a little larger than the other, the whole thing was polished off in no time. Okay, fine, with a salad. And it was delicious. Honestly, I don't know that I'd ever serve this as a side dish - I need those usually to be simpler and plainer. But it is perfect as a vegetarian main course. Just right.
The Gruyère was restrained, the cauliflower practically sweet, the potatoes creamily yielding. Russ has you make a leek-studded, cheese-scented béchamel that would make a lovely blanket for any number of vegetables (endives! leeks! white asparagus!). It gets poured over and under a pile of boiled, cubed potatoes and cauliflower and then stuck in a hot oven for bubbling, crisping action. The gratin must be eaten straight out of the oven, never mind about your burned tongue. Hot, hot, hot, it does a wondrous job filling bellies and warming cold bodies. (Thank you, Russ!)
In other news, I have one small victory to report: I have a working cell phone! With a German number! It only took me three weeks, three missed delivery attempts, some minor computer hacking and a few chewed cuticles to get here. And it feels glorious. Like the first piece of my everyday life just shifted into place. Next up, an apartment of my own, pretty please.
I'm camping at my mother's apartment while I look for my own place. It's not half-bad, living rent-free, and in a gorgeous, art-filled, turn-of-the-century apartment with a lovely kitchen (the counter space! the dishwasher!) to boot. Cooking in her kitchen is a little weird - like walking in a pair of shoes that's a size too small or eating dinner at a table that's about 5 inches too high. You know what I mean? It's doable but feels a little off. Though the measuring cups and spoons that I brought with me from Queens are making me feel a little more settled.
Anyway, I'm still getting used to the light here, so please forgive the strange quality of the photos in my posts for now - they're all a little wonky. On the whole, though, I have to say, it is so nice to be here. Cold weather, weird lighting, longing for a space of my own, I can take it all. It's good to be home.
Cauliflower and Potato Gratin
Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish
1 (1 1/4-pound) head of cauliflower
1/2 pound small boiling potatoes
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/4 cup butter
1 leek, white part only, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons crème fraiche or sour cream
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese, divided (about 1 1/2 ounces)
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the dried base and green leaves from the cauliflower and discard them. Separate the head into florets about the size of walnuts and chop the stem into similar size pieces. Cut the potatoes into similar-size pieces as well.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high head and salt liberally. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar and the cauliflower and potatoes (the vinegar will help keep the cauliflower white). Cook until the cauliflower pieces are tender enough to be easily cut with a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
3. While the cauliflower is cooking, make a cheese sauce. In a medium, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat and stir in the leeks. Cook until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and whisk to make a smooth paste. Add the milk a little at a time, cooking until it thickens. When all the milk has been added, reduce the heat and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Stir in the crème fraîche, then one-half cup of the Gruyère, 1 teaspoon salt and a generous grating of nutmeg (a little less than one-quarter teaspoon). Whisk until smooth, then taste and add more salt or nutmeg if necessary.
5. Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and spread a thin layer of the sauce evenly over the bottom. Arrange the cooked cauliflower and potatoes in an even layer over the sauce. Pour the remaining sauce over the top and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. It should come about three-quarters of the way up the vegetables.
6. Scatter bread crumbs evenly over top and then scatter the remaining one-quarter cup Gruyère over that. Bake until the gratin is bubbling and the top is browned, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.