Vanilla Scented Potatoes Gratin
Potatoes! One of the best comfort foods, especially when it’s cold, at the end of a day outside, or just about anytime, for that matter. What’s not to like about something you can bake, boil, fry, stuff, make into a salad, use it as a gravy boat, and dress it up for the holidays?
As you probably already know, potatoes are a food of the Americas. They’re tough, living at high, dry altitudes in Peru and Bolivia, but also thriving at sea level and in moderately rainy climates. The tragedy of the Irish potato famine was that they planted only one variety of potato and when it developed a disease and the crops failed, the country starved.
Fortunately we have a beautiful variety of potato types to draw from now as the heritage potatoes have made a comeback in our country. The only difficult-to-find potatoes are “old” potatoes. My Czech grandmother loved the dry russets from Idaho that had survived a season or two when she made potato dumplings. Even that problem can be solved by baking the potatoes instead of boiling them as I learned from a Neapolitan chef who showed me his secrets to perfect gnocchi.
Now, for the recipe at hand. Potatoes Gratin are a hands-down favorite in my family. If you don’t own a cooking mandolin, pick one up. They are a dream for making thin slices of potatoes. Buy the mid-range price variety as the really cheap ones aren’t worth it.
I like using Yukon Gold potatoes as they have a nice flavor and hold their shape when cut and baked, but you can use Russets if you prefer or even white potatoes. The addition of the onions in this dish is optional but it does add a really nice flavor. And I’ve found that using broth is the way to go and to add a little more cheese instead of cream. The full-on cream version is delicious but a little too rich. However, the choice is yours. The vanilla is nice as there isn’t much added, but it gives a slightly sweet low note. My only caveat is to suggest that you make extra for leftovers. They’re that good.
- 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large yellow onions halved and thinly sliced
- 1-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1/2 - 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or to taste)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 6 medium-large Russet or 8 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
- 1-1/2 cups Gruyere, Fontina or Havarti cheese, grated
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the oil, and when it’s hot, add the onions. Season with salt and cook, stirring often, until the onions are translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to high and brown the onions, stirring constantly. Add broth slowly, scraping the bits of onion that have cooked onto pan. Remove from heat. Add vanilla extract.
- Grease a 2-1/2 quart casserole dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter, then cut the rest of the butter into small pieces. Create an overlapping layer of potatoes at the bottom of the casserole dish. Cover with 1/3 of the onions, parsley, salt and pepper, and 1/4 of the remaining butter along with 1/4 of the Gruyere or other cheese. Arrange two more layers in the same manner. For the fourth layer, use the balance of the potatoes and butter, and sprinkle on the last of the cheese along with the Parmesan.
- Bake until the top layer is golden brown, the potatoes are tender, and most of the broth has been absorbed. Let the gratin cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.
- Note: For a richer version of this recipe, use 1 cup of broth. After removing from the heat, add 1/2 cup cream to mixture. If the potatoes seem a little dry while cooking, add a little more broth.
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