Great Gratins Fresh vegetables are dressed with rich cheeses in delicious French casseroles.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even in early-childhood attempts at cooking, I found hot vegetables teamed with melted cheese an irresistible combination. At 8, I got mixed reviews from my family when I slathered perfectly innocent buds of blanched broccoli with warm, processed cheese from a jar. The cheese formed an eerie orange mask over the warm florets, creating a smooth, porcelain-like finish that filled every nook and cranny.

It was one of my first tries at creating drama on a plate. I loved it. I tried it with everything from baked potatoes to brussels sprouts. And when I added a garnish of chopped green onions, I thought I'd reached the height of culinary sophistication.

Thank goodness for gratins those delectable, French casseroles that pair cheese and vegetables in mouthwatering ways. They're a big step up from my early cheese-and-vegetable concoctions, but not complicated to prepare. Basically, the vegetables are placed in a shallow, oval baking dish (called a gratin dish) and grated cheese and bread crumbs are scattered over the top. Then the dish is baked until the ingredients are heated and the top is crusty and lightly browned. Most often the vegetables are cooked before assembly. Sometimes, a cheesy white sauce is required. Sometimes not.

When I was in my teens, Julia Child became my gratin guru. And the results got unanimous raves. For years, the Cauliflower au Gratin from her first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Knopf, 1961), was my signature vegetable. The dish can be made in advance and heated for about 30 minutes just before serving, making it great for entertaining. It's delicious with simple roasts and grilled poultry, fish, pork or beef. Or it can be a glamorous centerpiece of a vegetarian banquet.

The base of this creamy-style gratin is a cream sauce (also called white sauce) augmented with grated Swiss cheese. When cheese is added, it's called Mornay sauce. Once you've made it a couple of times, it only takes about five minutes to prepare: Blanch the cauliflower florets in boiling water until cooked tender-crisp, drain and cover with Mornay sauce, then sprinkle with bread crumbs and more grated Swiss cheese. When it bakes, the top gets crusty and the interior gets delightfully rich. And it tastes just as luscious today as it did back in '65.

The technique in this recipe is a blueprint for a cream-sauce-style gratin that can be made with sweet potatoes or butternut squash. But because the sweet potatoes or squash aren't cooked before assembly, you'll need to make a thinner cream sauce. The sauce is absorbed by the vegetables as they bake, giving them a wonderful flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Or eliminate the cream sauce and create flavor drama by either pumping up the topping with a combination of stronger cheeses or tossing the vegetables with some milk (or cream) and garlic before layering them in the pan, then top with cheese and bread crumbs.

Fresh Spinach Gratin is fast and delicious. Saute baby spinach leaves in olive oil. To save time, use ready-to-use spinach leaves sold in plastic bags in the produce section. Drain and place spinach in a thin layer in a gratin pan and cover with a mixture of crumbled feta cheese, blue cheese, Edam cheese, bread crumbs and herbs. Bake until topping is toasty brown. It's so delicious, you can even serve it on small slices of rustic bread as an appetizer.

Or toss thinly sliced zucchini with cream, shallots and garlic and place in a gratin pan. Top with grated cheese and bake until zucchini is tender and topping is brown and crunchy.

Sweet Potato Gratin

Yield: 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter, divided use, plus more for greasing pan

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup heavy cream

4 sweet potatoes

salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs, see cook's note

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook's note: The easiest way to make fresh bread crumbs is to use a food processor, with the metal blade. I use firm bread, such as sourdough or even rosemary bread. And because this is a rustic dish, I don't remove the crusts.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously grease a 12-inch oval gratin pan or an 11-by-7-inch baking dish.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add garlic and stir until garlic is softened, but don't brown the butter; reduce heat if butter starts to turn brown. Stir in flour; stir over heat for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Return to heat and stir until mixture reaches a low boil.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. I use the standard slicing blade (4 millimeter size) on my food processor. Place sweet potato slices in prepared pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce evenly over top.

Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour. Remove from oven and sprinkle on bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Melt 1 tablespoon butter and drizzle over top. Bake 15 minutes. If you want the top browner and crisper, place 6-8 inches below broiler element and broil until nicely browned. Watch carefully to prevent burning.

Per serving: 259 calories; 18 grams fat; 11.1 grams saturated fat; 59 mg cholesterol; 181 mg sodium; 63 percent calories from fat.

Zucchini Gratin

Yield: 8 servings

1 cup heavy whipping cream

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 large shallots, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons salt

freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 pounds zucchini, trimmed and cut into thin rounds

1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 15- or 16-inch oval gratin pan.

In a large bowl, whisk cream, garlic, shallots, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add zucchini and mix, using your hands or a large rubber spatula, until zucchini is thoroughly covered with cream mixture.

Place in prepared pan, pressing gently into pan so it forms an even layer. Sprinkle with cheese.

Bake in middle of preheated oven until zucchini is tender and cheese is deep golden brown, about 45 minutes. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 217 calories; 17.8 grams fat; 10.7 grams saturated fat; 63 mg cholesterol; 618 mg sodium; 73 percent calories from fat.

Adapted from "French Farm House Cookbook" by Susan Herrmann Loomis (Workman, 1996, $15.95).

Baked Spinach With Three Cheeses

Yields 4 side-dish or 12 appetizer servings

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/2 cup grated Edam cheese

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

1 egg yolk

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 (10-ounce) packages ready-to-use fresh baby spinach

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 12-inch oval gratin pan or an 11-by-7-inch baking dish.

Mix onion, feta cheese, Edam cheese, blue cheese, dill, nutmeg, bread crumbs and egg yolk in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add spinach and saute until wilted and juices evaporate, about 3 minutes. Transfer to strainer; drain well. Shake strainer up and down to remove as much liquid as possible.

Arrange spinach in prepared baking dish. It will make a thin layer. Top with onion mixture. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes.

Heat broiler. Broil spinach, about 6 inches from broiler element, until cheese is golden brown on top, watching closely to prevent burning, about 2 minutes.

Presentation: Serve warm or hot. For an appetizer, serve with thin, small slices of fresh, rustic bread. Use spinach as a topping for the bread.

Per side-dish serving): 231 calories; 17.5 grams fat; 7.4 grams saturated fat; 83 mg cholesterol; 402 mg sodium; 68 percent calories from fat.

Cauliflower Gratin

Yield: 6 servings

1 (8-inch) cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons butter, divided use

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese, plus 2 tablespoons, divided use

salt and white pepper to taste

pinch of ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons fine bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add cauliflower. Boil until cauliflower is cooked tender-crisp, about 9 minutes. Drain, refresh with cold water. Drain again.

Prepare bechamel sauce. In a medium saucepan, heat milk to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy-bottomed, large saucepan on medium heat. Add flour and stir for about 2 minutes (do not brown).

Remove from heat. Add hot milk in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Increase heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil gently for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup cheese. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Add nutmeg and stir.

Pour 1/3 of sauce into a 12-inch oval gratin pan or an 11-by-7-inch baking dish. Add drained cauliflower in a single layer. Season cauliflower with salt and pepper. Pour remaining TTC sauce over top. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and cheese. Cut remaining butter into small pieces and place sporadically on top of cheese. Gratin can be covered and refrigerated at this point for several hours.

Bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes. If you want a browner, crisper top, place under broiler, watching carefully to prevent burning. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 163 calories; 11.7 grams fat; 7.3 grams saturated fat; 37 mg cholesterol; 187 mg sodium; 65 percent calories from fat)

-- Adapted from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1" by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck (Knopf, 1961)

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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