My alternate name for this recipe is “bright and sunny root veg gratin”. Really, how can you not cheer up and forget about the below zero wind chill when you look at this color combo of root veggies. Rutabagas must be yellow for a reason–because in the dead of winter, what’s more uplifting than making the first cut and finding that gorgeous hue? Probably only taking a sweet, crisp bite of it…then transforming the rest into this gratin.
If you live in a warm climate or it’s not winter where you are, please comment with stories of beach days and sunshine. I grew up in Minnesota, but the winter we’re having this year in the northeast is, of late, rivaling even the coldest of days in the Twin Cities. On the upside, it’s finally gotten cold enough for that oxymoron of constant sun to take effect. I’m not sure if there’s any scientific backing to this, but rumor has it that the reason for the sunny weather when temps plummet to 10 and 20 degrees below zero is that it’s just too dang cold for clouds to form or hang out. I buy it. Even though going outside is extremely unpleasant, I can, for once, rest relatively assured that I’ll have good photography weather and get to use real live natural light(!) for my photos. Like Friday’s kale puffs. I forgot how easy life (okay, maybe just food photography) is when you’re not combating subtle blue tones and drastic shadows.
This creamy, oven-baked, vegetarian entree warms you up with its richness and brightens up winter with its colors. It’s the FIFTH stop on the Tour de Gratins (read more here and excuse my made up French). A couple culinary notes on this one. Overall, I promise, making julienne cuts (without a special tool) and preparing a strained bechamel sauce is not scary. I won’t lie to you and tell you it’s super quick, but both tasks are worth the time. And if you’re not a cooking eccentric like me, who finds julienning by hand (Steve: “why would you do that manually???”) therapeutic, the special tool or mandoline blade is the best approach, shaving 10 to 20 minutes off of your prep time. If you are tackling it with just your bare hands and a chef’s knife but don’t even know the definition of julienning, here it is: pinky length, square-shaped strips. After peeling your veg, slice it into 1/8 inch thick slices, lay a stack of those slices flat on the board, then slice it into 1/8 inch slices the other way, creating a bunch of thin sticks. If the strips are really long, cut them down to 2 or 3 inches in length. Done! (Here’s quick, helpful video.)
I’m not a fan of the extra dirty dishes involved in Madison’s double boiler bechamel (white sauce) method in the book. Each of these recipes is already using an average of 3 pots or baking dishes, and I don’t have the world’s largest kitchen, or a dishwashing assistant. Instead of transferring the sauce to cook over very low, indirect heat via double boiler (a bowl set over a pan of simmering water), I keep it in the saucepan, turn the heat as low as it goes, and stir every couple minutes. I’ve never taken the trouble to look up the original French method, because I’ve never had a problem with burnt or under- or over-cooked bechamel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And when you want perfectly executed French food–go to an awesome French restaurant.
You may also wonder if straining the bechamel is necessary. Short answer: not entirely. Here, the milk and sauce are cooked beginning to end with aromatics like garlic, carrot, herbs, and peppercorns, which noticeably flavor the end product. But I don’t like thyme leaves and whole garlic cloves in the finished dish, so aside from keeping those out, straining also gives a super silky texture to the sauce. If you like, use edible aromatics (minced and chopped onion, garlic, carrots, and celery) and just skip the slightly messy step of straining the bechamel. If you choose to strain, this is the mesh strainer I currently use, and it’s one of my most used kitchen tools.
I’m loving the whole process of a cookbook cook through, and I’m especially looking forward to tackling an upcoming gratin on the road when Steve and I make a visit to my sister and her hubbie’s in OKC (Moore, Oklahoma to be precise) in March. Pioneer Woman country! Updates to come.
Up next: Individual spinach gratins with roasted red pepper sauce
- 1 medium yellow onion; 4 slices reserved, the rest finely chopped (3/4 C chopped)
- 1 medium carrot, diced
- ⅓ C diced celery (1 small stalk)
- 5 to 10 thyme sprigs, tied into a bundle
- 5 to 10 whole black peppercorns
- 2 C whole milk
- 5 T unsalted butter, divided (plus more for dish)
- 3½ T all purpose flour
- ½ C heavy cream or half and half
- 3¼ t kosher salt
- ½ t ground white pepper
- Freshly grated nutmeg (or dried; see notes)
- ¾ lb. rutabaga, peeled and julienned
- ¾ lb. turnip(s), peeled and julienned
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
- 1 C fresh bread crumbs (my method in notes to this recipe)
- 1 T olive oil (plus more for dish, if not using butter)
- Heat a large pot of water over high heat, while you prepare the béchamel. If it boils before the sauce is finished, turn down the heat slightly so it will return quickly to a boil later.
- Combine onion slices, carrot, celery, thyme, peppercorns, and milk in a small saucepan and heat over medium low. Once warm, gradually raise heat until milk just boils, then remove from heat and set aside, covered. In a medium saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then add flour and stir or whisk constantly for a few minutes as it bubbles slightly. Reduce heat to medium low and carefully whisk while pouring in milk with all its additions. Once combined, raise heat to medium high and bring to a simmer. Stir, simmering, for a couple minutes, until slightly thickened. Reduce heat to low and stir frequently, ensuring that no flour accumulates in the corners of the pan, for about 15 minutes. Set a mesh strainer over the pan used to heat the milk, and pour sauce through it, stirring to encourage all the sauce through the strainer (which may take a few minutes; see notes for alternatives to straining). Stir in cream, then season with ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Set aside sauce.
- Add ½ tablespoon salt to now-boiling water. Lower rutabagas only into water, maintain high heat, and blanch for 2 minutes (water may not return to a boil in that time). Drain rutabaga and rinse briefly with cold water.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F). Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add diced onion and cook until softened, but barely browned, about 8 minutes. Place onion in a large bowl and add blanched rutabaga, turnip, carrot, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper (or more seasoning to taste). Toss to combine.
- Lightly grease a deep, 8 by 10 inch (or thereabouts) casserole pan or baking dish with butter or oil. Distribute the vegetable mixture in an even layer. Pour béchamel evenly over vegetables, spreading gently with back of a spoon to cover, if needed. Top with a layer of all the bread crumbs, then drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. Bake on middle oven rack for 45 minutes, until bubbling and top is slightly golden. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for a few days. See notes for make ahead instructions.
To substitute ground nutmeg, start with the smallest pinch possible, tasting and adding more if needed.
To assemble up to 12 hours (or more?) in advance, leave breadcrumbs and oil off until ready to bake and refrigerate in baking dish, covered. Bring to room temperature for an hour before baking, to keep approximately the same cook time. If baking straight from the fridge, add 10 or more minutes, and make sure the gratin is heated through.
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