Great gratins

Versatile made-in-advance Thanksgiving side dishes can feed a crowd.

11/16/2012 4:33 PM

08/05/2014 10:00 PM

We all know turkey is the main attraction on the biggest food holiday of the year. But the side dishes can steal the show.

With a big meal to tend to, gratins are a good choice for a side dish. They are comfort food at its best. Most can be assembled in advance and can feed a crowd.

Gratins are basically casseroles with a crusty, crunchy topping. Underneath that topping are layers of vegetables (and sometimes fruits such as apples and pears) in a creamy, rich and often cheesy sauce.

To create a great gratin, follow this four-step process:

Step 1: Choose and prepare your vegetables. Hearty vegetables work best, which is why potatoes (regular and sweet) are a popular choice. They provide a sturdy layer to hold the gratin together, and their starch can thicken the sauce. Choose waxy varieties like Yukon Gold or russets. Cook them slightly beforehand or slice them thinner. Brussels sprouts, celery root, parsnips, squash and carrots are also gratin favorites. Slice or chop the veggies in advance.

Step 2: Make a basic bechamel-type sauce. Make a roux with butter and flour and then add heavy cream, half-and-half or milk (regular or reduced fat) as your base for the sauce. Infuse the sauce with fresh herb sprigs (remove after simmering) and aromatics like leeks, onions, shallots, garlic and other favorite seasonings. Once thickened (it should thickly coat the back of a spoon), pour the sauce over the layered vegetables. You can also add cheeses to the sauce.

Step 3: Choose a topping. Fresh or dried bread crumbs from your favorite bread (white, wheat, rye, baguettes) are an easy option. Mix the crumbs with butter, seasonings and even cheese. Or you can have a cheese topping alone. Try cheeses such as Gruyere, Gouda (smoked and regular), fontina, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano. To make fresh bread crumbs, remove crusts, tear the bread into pieces and whirl in a blender or food processor. For ease, consider panko bread crumbs — toast them if you like — or even bread stuffing mixes with the smaller crumbs.

Step 4: Assemble and bake. Layer your vegetables and sprinkle the bread crumb mixture and your favorite cheese in between if you like. You can assemble most gratins in advance; just make sure any precooked or partially cooked vegetables and sauces are cooled before assembling. Or you can bake and cool them. Refrigerate and then reheat the next day.

Check out today’s gratin recipes. Though some may look long, they’re really quite effortless.

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