Are those au gratin potatoes real or from a box?
When I was out of town not long ago, my teenage son Louis spent a few days at his grandparents’ house. Along with all the dirty laundry, he brought home a box of au gratin potatoes. They are Louis’ favorite side dish (another is canned baked beans), one he begs his Mimi to make and in his eyes my mother’s specialty. No way was he leaving her kitchen without knowing her secret to those delicious cheesy potatoes. She handed him a box.
When I asked my folks how the visit went, my father simply replied, “we’re sick of au gratin potatoes.” Yes, boxed au gratins are tasty (and way too salty). They are the potato version of boxed mac and cheese containing shelf stable dried potatoes and a powdered cheese packet ready for the addition of water, milk, and a little butter. The store brand costs just 97 cents at my supermarket. Cheap and convenient, but not quick, boxed au gratins take at least 45 minutes to reconstitute back into real potatoes. They always take longer than the directions say.
Actually, the real thing takes about the same amount of time. I wonder whether Louis would like them. Before kids, I used to make au gratin/scalloped potato variations all the time. How could I have missed on this kid friendly dish? In my mind, the dish was too decadent with all that cream for a family night, better for company. I used to blow away dinner guests with my country ham and leeks version, way too fancy for kids that just want cheesy potatoes. The world and web are loaded with cheesy potato casserole recipes.
Where have I been?
Everyone I know loves the famous hash brown casserole at Cracker Barrel made with frozen potatoes, canned soup, and lots of cheese. I’ve seen recipes for that one made in the Crock-Pot. Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tenn., even serves a terrific version. R.B. and I wrote their last cookbook and the recipe is even in the book!
Scalloped, au gratin, or potatoes Dauphinoise, whatever you want to call them, illustrate that simple real ingredients can be many fabulous things. Whatever the recipe, the most important thing to know is that you are baking sliced potatoes in rich milk or cream. Variations are limitless. Add any kind of cheese, broccoli, corn, peppers, bacon, chunks of ham, turkey or chicken. Turn it into a main dish. Classic recipes layer the raw potatoes with cream and bake. My usual biggest problem is getting the potatoes cooked enough, so slice them very, very thin and get a head start by simmering them in the milk/cream first. You can add a couple tablespoons of flour to the milk mixture to assure a thick sauce. It’s best if you can get your hands on a mandolin slicer or a cheap v-slicer. Nice even slices of potato make all the difference as Dr. Phillips used to tell us in food lab at Virginia Tech many years ago. If you are worried about over-browning, cover the casserole lightly with foil for the first 30 minutes of baking. Be prepared for the baking time to vary a bit.
Box Free Au Gratin Potatoes
2 1/2 pounds all-purpose or russet potatoes
5 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups whole milk (use half and half or a mixture of milk and cream for a richer dish)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (make a pure version without the cheese)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or 3 quart gratin with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Peel the potatoes and slice into very thin at the most 1/8-inch thick slices (use a madonlin or cheap V slicer for best results). Rinse in cold water. Combine the potatoes, remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and milk in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat about 5 minutes or until the potatoes are slightly softened an the milk is slightly thickened and foamy. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese. Pour the potatoes into the baking dish. Bake about 1 hour or until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed and the top is nicely browned. Makes about 8 to 10 servings.
Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Country Ham 2 1/2 pounds all-purpose or russet potatoes 2 leeks, white and light green part only sliced 5 tablespoons butter, divided 1 cup diced country ham 1 clove garlic, minced Salt and pepper to taste 2 1/2 cups whole milk (use half and half or a mixture of milk and cream for a richer dish) Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Peel the potatoes and slice into very thin at the most 1/8-inch thick slices (use a mandolin or cheap V slicer for best results). Rinse in cold water and set aside. Cook the leeks in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the country ham and garlic; cook until the ham is heated through. Add the potatoes to the leek mixture. Add the milk. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat about 5 minutes or until the potatoes are slightly softened an the milk is slightly thickened and foamy. Pour the potatoes into the baking dish. Bake about 1 hour or until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed and the top is nicely browned. Makes about 8 to 10 servings.