Sunday, 27 November 2011

Somerset and Potato Gratin

You know it’s going to be a good weekend when you’re met on arrival with hugs all around and a glass of your favourite champagne.

We were in North Somerset, 30 minutes or so out of Bristol, staying with G’s first year university roommate and his large and very welcoming family. The champagne—accompanied by a platter of blinis and salmon mousse—began an evening of copious food and wine, good conversation and a level of relaxation very rarely achieved on a Friday night.

The next day, having slept well under the watchful gaze of Justin Beiber (we had poached the seven year old’s room), we headed off on a country tromp. There was mud, stiles to climb over, lush green meadows and lots of sheep: all the things that the city folk expect out of a country walk. We ended up at a restaurant so seasonal, rustic and organic that the well-heeled, left-leaning readers of the Observer named it the UK’s best ethical restaurant. Other than its name, the Ethicurean, it wears its credentials lightly; the food did its setting ample credit.

Set in the conservatory of an old walled garden, much of the food is sourced on site or from nearby suppliers. The menu is small: terrines, salads, pies and platters of cheese and meat, served with local beers and ciders. Highlights included fantastically piquant chutneys and piccalilli (a traditional English vegetable pickle), off-dry Welsh cider and an Eccles cake, a flaky pastry filled with a warmly-spiced and not too sweet currant mixture.

After lunch, we ambled through the garden, where I discovered how Brussels sprouts grow, then into the orchard of dwarf apple trees. Home was through a series of corn fields, our progress hampered somewhat by our haul of mildly intoxicating beverages from the restaurant’s small shop.

We had been asked to cook dinner, a daunting task for a family that has eaten in serious restaurants and has shown us such exceptional generosity on many occasions. The opportunity to repay their hospitality was a welcome one, and the menu planning a massive highlight in an otherwise forgettable work week . We wanted the food to reflect how we like to eat, to demonstrate some effort, but not so much as to impinge on the relaxed atmosphere, and, most of all, to taste good.

We began with the Union Square Cafe’s bar nuts, buttery and warm, the sweetness offset by cayenne and rosemary. A simple salad followed: mustard-dressed leaves topped with blue cheese and walnuts. The main was duck confit; little more than some fresh herbs and a 24-hour run-up required. With that, we served gratin dauphinois and sautéed mushrooms. We finished with quince which we had poached in vanilla syrup until it was almost ruby-coloured, vanilla ice cream (not home-made) and sablé biscuits.

The duck and the quince are two of our favourite dishes at this time of year, while the nuts and salad have both made previous appearances. Sablé biscuits were a bit of a risk, as I’ve probably not baked more than a few batches of cookies since I was a kid. But it turns out, that with good butter, a reliable recipe, and some sea salt, there wasn’t much that could go wrong.

I had wavered on the gratin. Though the obvious accompaniment to the duck, my only experience was with eating it. But I should have known better than to doubt Julia Child. Her version—as adapted very slightly here--was hearty but not too rich, perfectly soft through the middle and appealingly crusty and bronzed on top. It may even be good enough to earn us some more invitations.

Gratin Dauphinois (Potato Gratin)
Adapted from Food 52 (who in turn adapted it from Julia Child)
Serves 6
Total time: 50 minutes: Active time: 20 minutes
Special equipment: mandolin or food processor with a slicing blade; shallow baking dish (about 9 inches long and 2 inches deep)

350 ml whole milk
2 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves (ideally fresh)
1 kg waxy potatoes
200 grams grated Gruyere
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220C. Put the milk in a small saucepan. Peel and smash one of the garlic cloves. Add it to the pot along with the bay leaves. Heat the milk gently until it comes to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep.

Peel the second garlic clove, cut it in half and rub the cut side around the inside of the baking dish. Rub butter inside the dish.

Peel the potatoes and slice with a mandolin or similar implement. Layer about a third of the potatoes into the dish. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle a third of the cheese on top. Make two more layers in the same way.

Remove the garlic and bay from the milk and pour the milk over the potatoes. Bake the gratin for about 30 minutes, until it's browned and bubbly and a knife cuts through the potatoes easily. Let the potatoes cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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