Hydrating Droopy Vegetables

DSC_0686While it is not ever my first choice, hydrating droopy vegetables is worth the effort if your vegetables aren’t too far gone.  I am not talking about trying to save rancid moldy vegetables but rather the carrots I bought yesterday that were crisp, fresh and gorgeous but somehow, within a 24 hour span in the fridge, have gone wilty, maybe even beyond wilty but nowhere near rotten.

It pains me to throw out food.  Generally I would make a stock with vegetables like this just to use them up but I was really counting on this particular gorgeous bunch carrots for dinner.  I wanted to roast them in a high heat oven, taste their sugary goodness alongside a perfect roast chicken, but not now.  At the end of an hour in a hot oven they would be nothing but mush. Continue reading “Hydrating Droopy Vegetables”

Perfect Microwave Broccoli

_TJH7023Rarely do I use my microwave. I use it to take the chill off my coffee. I heat leftovers for lunch. Whenever a recipe calls for “butter, melted” onto the glass turntable the fat filled Pyrex measuring cup goes. I don’t cook with my microwave in any real culinary sense. I sometimes wonder why I have it, why I allow it to take up precious counter space when I know everything for which I use it can be done just as easily on the stove.

Of course there is also the fear that has been around as long as the microwave, that somehow it poses some sort of health risk. I don’t know if it does or not but if I error on the side of solid scientific research, it would tell me the microwave is harmless. Even so, I will lean on the side of caution and repeat the mantra I continually voice to my children, don’t put your face right up to the microwave door to watch as a cooking pizza pocket swells and shrinks, as if it is coming to life, and please, stand back an arms length.

I don’t believe the microwave has ever lived up to its original space age expectations. Nonetheless I read an article touting the healthy aspects of cooking vegetables in a microwave. Because it basically steams the vegetables, the vegetables retain a large portion of nutrients then if you used other cooking methods. It made sense, and I am buying in, or at least I want to and there are lots of reasons why. Continue reading “Perfect Microwave Broccoli”

Classic Creamy Coleslaw

cabbage

My favorite kind of coleslaw is the classic, creamy variety; it comforts me because I grew up eating it at a mom-and-pop catfish bar whose coleslaw was second to none. Their version was made with finely grated cabbage and bright orange ribbons of carrot. It was a bit tart and a little sharp — the way horseradish can be — because the cabbage was freshly grated. It paired perfectly with deep-fried catfish, whose crispy tails tasted of bacon. This is the slaw by which I judge all others. Continue reading “Classic Creamy Coleslaw”

Morels with Asparagus & Five Reason to Eschew Recipes

Mushroom Hunting

There was a time when my father and I would have walked the distance up the hill to Gordon’s Rocky Top. We would have crossed the creek, stepping gingerly across the slick rocks like seasoned hopscotch players, hiked to the fork in the path, taken the trail on the left, and then quietly ascended the long, wooded hill. On our way, we would have walked past the pond, and if we were lucky, we might have spooked an owl or happened upon some white tail deer. Continue reading “Morels with Asparagus & Five Reason to Eschew Recipes”

5 Resolutions to Make You a Better Home Cook (+ Pot-Roasted Collard Greens )

Pot-Roasted Collards

While you start the collards on the stove top you roast them in the oven at a low temp unattended.

To be honest I lost interest in New Year’s Eve a long time ago. If memory serves me, the last New Year’s Eve I celebrated was sometime late last century. For that matter, I am not sure what year it was that I last made it to midnight.

It doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate, I do, I am just not in a rush to do so as the bell tolls. I guess I prefer to ease into it casually, like when my eyes pop open after a good night’s rest. Continue reading “5 Resolutions to Make You a Better Home Cook (+ Pot-Roasted Collard Greens )”

The Virtues of Routine and Braised Cabbage

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I like repetition. It guides me from one task to another. Like how in the morning I’ll make my wife’s coffee exactly the same way and take it to her while she is getting ready for work before making my own. Then I’ll pack the kids’ school lunches, followed by preparing breakfast, and every Tuesday, I go to the grocery store immediately after the kids get on the school bus.

I follow a routine when I go to the grocery, too. The automatic doors swoosh open like the welcoming arms of an old friend as I enter, and I wonder who the first person I’ll see will be. A stranger? A familiar face? What will they look like and will they be smiling? Which fruits and vegetables are right up front this week and who made the covers of the gossip rags at the checkout line? All pressing questions, I know.

But the other day I broke routine, for an observation. As usual, the endcap to the vegetable aisle was full of cabbage — red cabbage, green cabbage, some Napa and even Savoy. What occurred to me was that this endcap is always full, always a mountain in fact, of cabbage. It wasn’t just replenished either — they don’t restock until 9:30. I am nosy too, and often leer into peoples’ carts just to see what they are eating and, I can assure you, I don’t often see cabbage tucked into carts, other than those few days cabbage gets its due during the corned beef holidays. So why is this end cap continually dedicated to an Everest of cabbage? Are cabbage eaters late night shoppers? Is it for looks much in the same way as a mannequin in a window at Saks? Who, besides me, buys cabbage?

Yes, I eat cabbage and I am proud of it. So much so that I could write a poem, Mon Petite Chou, and it would be an ode to the poorest of poor man’s food. That is what it is though isn’t it: poor man’s food? Maybe this is why it is shunned, that to buy it means you are nearly destitute, for why else would you eat it? I used to feel this way, and never really encountered cabbage other than as a creamy coleslaw side to an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner — and even then I usually stayed closer to the hush puppies and fries.

That is, until Paula Wolfert’s book The Cooking of Southwest France introduced me to the possibilities. And there are many when it comes to cabbage — braised, steamed, creamed, and stir-fried. Cabbage, now, has become a part of my routine.

Tips for Choosing, Storing, and Preparing Cabbage

Pick a hefty cabbage.
I grow a lot of cabbage and I am always amazed at how solid cabbages can be, like a bowling ball. So when I do buy them at the store I look for very solid cabbages that feel heavy.

Look for purple leaves
Typically, the grocer cuts off the outer leaves and trims the stems. As the cabbage ages, they trim them up so to keep them looking pretty. You know you have a fresh cabbage when the leafy outer purple green leaves are still there.

Keep it cool
Cabbages can last a long time in the fridge. Make sure the outside leaves are free of moisture and wrap the cabbage in plastic wrap, then store the cabbage in the crisper. I like cabbage because it stores well, so I use up all the perishable veggies early in the week saving the sturdy ones, cabbage, for the end of the week.

Simple Braised Cabbage

Serves 6

3 ounces pancetta, small dice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onion, small dice
1/3 cup celery, small dice
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup carrots, peeled, small dice
6 to 8 cups Savoy cabbage, julienned
2 bay leaves
Scrape or two fresh nutmeg
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced

  1. Place a 3 1/2-quart Dutch oven with a lid over medium heat. Add the pancetta and render its fat. You want a gentle render here. You aren’t trying to crisp the pancetta, just render.
  2. Add the butter and, once it has melted, add the onion, celery, garlic, and carrots. Sweat the vegetables until they are tender, don’t let them brown. Add the cabbage, bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper. Turn the cabbage to coat the leaves in the fat. Add a quarter cup of water and put the lid on the pot. Reduce the heat to low. Cook the cabbage until tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Add a scrape or two of nutmeg, the parsley, and thyme. Stir to combine, then serve.

Everything but the Hamburger, Special Sauce Included

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Sadly, as I sit at the bus stop watching my daughters play, I have to tell myself: summer is so last season.

All summer I have been grilling vegetables for salads. Mostly zucchini and summer squash; I char it deeply and then chop it and toss it with basil, lemon juice, and olive oil, in sort of a grilled chopped salad. It captures all the flavors of early summer one could want. But at some point, either the zucchini or I tire and the dish no longer appears on the table. At least not until next summer, when the annual craving for these flavors peaks again. Continue reading “Everything but the Hamburger, Special Sauce Included”

Taco Night on the Grill

beef rib taco

I can’t get enough of taco night. Neither can my wife Amy or my daughters. We love it, and especially me, because I can do everything — with the exception of chopping with a knife or the food processor — on the grill. It makes for easy clean-up, and who isn’t for easy clean-up?

I cut my teeth on Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas circa 1984 (does Instagram have a filter for that?). At this point in my life I hadn’t eaten that much Mexican food. For the most part it didn’t exist in Indiana outside of Chi Chi’s and my inner punk rocker wouldn’t allow me to set foot inside any place that colorful or where the waitstaff could happily sing Happy Birthday table side.

Nevertheless, when I would slide into a booth at one of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries (many of them were Spanish-speaking only), I would order as many kinds of salsa as I could point to on the menu. I didn’t know this many kinds of salsa existed, or for that matter soft shell tacos, or the food love of my life, tamales.

As I ate my way around both sides of Highway 35, little did I realize I was becoming an addict, to Texas country music, chili, and to Austin itself. It was hard to come home, and once I was back in Indiana it didn’t take long before I began jonesing for Texas Hill Country, salsa included.

All About Grilled Salsa

The grill is a great way to make an old salsa recipe feel new.
I couldn’t even guess how many varieties of salsa there are in the world, but I do know I haven’t found one yet that can’t be made on the grill. I like a fresh raw salsa as much as the next person, but sometimes I like to shift the flavor and it is an easy thing to do on the grill.

Chile oils on your hands are not your friend.
Be careful with hot chile peppers. I used to go at them in the manly man way and just tough it out, but the night I rubbed my eyes after working with Thai birds I thought a different approach might be appropriate. If you choose to go with bare naked hands in handling them, just realize you will quickly find out just how many places on your body you actually touch and how many places are very sensitive to capsaicin oils.

Get in touch with your inner caveman or woman.
I used to put my peppers and tomatoes on the grill grate and then one day I just decided to plop them right on the coals. It sears them very quickly while leaving the interior raw — the best of both worlds. You can roast whole heads of garlic too, but they need to be left to the side of the coals so they cook and soften slowly or you will burn the cloves which makes them bitter.

Liquidy or dry, it all depends on your tomato variety.
A lot of fresh tomatoes have a high liquid content. If you use too many tomatoes, your salsa will be watery, which isn’t always a bad thing. If you want a thicker salsa, it is a good idea to use plum or San Marzano tomatoes.

The finishing touches matter.
To the finished salsa I always like to add a drizzle of olive oil for mouthfeel and a splash of acid, be it lime, red wine vinegar, or whatever. Make sure you season your salsa with salt and black pepper.

Corn tortillas or flour both can be warmed on the grill, and should be.
I prefer corn tortillas over flour and my preference for cooking corn tortillas is right on the grill. They puff up and blacken in spots and become yummo-licous. Just make sure after searing them to wrap them in foil so they stay soft and don’t dry out.

Choose your toppings accordingly.
Almost every person I have ever met who hails from Central America prefers green cabbage, sliced razor thin, to lettuce for their tacos. It gets even better when you dress the cabbage with a touch of red wine vinegar and olive oil. You probably won’t find a lot of sour cream or cheese on the table either. I tend to go for authentic Mexican but I like Tex-Mex too. If you want to go for healthy, grill up a bunch of vegetables to use for toppings and forgo the dairy altogether.

Grilled Salsa

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Depending on the kind and size of tomatoes you use, this salsa can be liquidy or firm. You will have to judge. Roma tomatoes have little liquid and work well for a chunkier salsa.

  • 1small head of garlic
  • 3 or 4roma tomatoes
  • 1 or 2heirloom variety tomatoes (Box Car Willies or Wisconsin 55 are good)
  • 1poblano pepper or 3 jalapeños or your choice
  • 3 to 4half-inch-thick slices of red onion, left intact
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Handful of cilantro
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  1. Fire up your charcoal grill. Let the coals get blazing hot.
  2. Wash the vegetables.
  3. Place the garlic off to the side of the coals where it will brown the paper skins but not burn the cloves. The garlic will take the longest to cook of everything. Let it get good and brown on all sides.
  4. Now place the tomatoes and peppers right on the coals. Let them blister and blacken. Remove them to a tray. Let the juices collect in the tray.
  5. Place the grill grate on the grill and grill the onions until they are caramelized and soft.
  6. If you plan to grill more stuff, like a nice skirt steak, you will probably need to add a few more coals to the fire. You be the judge.
  7. Peel the pepper, being carful not to spill or lose any pepper juices. I remove the seeds and, obviously, the stems. Put peeled peppers, tomatoes, onion, and peeled roasted garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor. Add the tomato and pepper juices that collected in the bottom of the tray.
  8. Add a two-finger pinch of salt, some pepper, half the cilantro, the red wine vinegar, and olive oil. Pulse the processor until the salsa reaches your desired consistency. I like this particular salsa smoother than most but still chunky. Taste the salsa and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
  9. Pour into a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro, and serve

Three Onion Chowder

Three Onion ChowderI really like chowders and really like French onion soup. I don’t like pasty chowders so I didn’t thicken it except for the starch released from the potatoes. One tip I learned from Jasper White’s 50 Chowders is to let the chowder rest covered for thirty minutes. It is really does make a difference by allowing the flavors to come together.

SERVES 4 TO 6

For the Soup:

For the Soup::

3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 inch dice

2 cups yellow onion, peeled and julienned

2 leeks, rinsed, white parts only, sliced into half moons

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

1/3 cup celery, 1/4 inch dice

1 1/2 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced

1 bay leaf

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups half and half

3 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 dice

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced

1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1. In a 3 quart Dutch oven or sauce pan add the butter and pancetta and place it over medium heat to render the pancetta. Once some of the fat has been released add the onions, shallot and celery. Saute until they are just becoming golden. You don’t want them to brown too much or the soup will be brown. Add the leeks, garlic and thyme. Cook until the leeks are just becoming soft. Add the bay leaf and chicken stock. Bring it to a boil and add the half and half and the potatoes. Bring the soup back to a boil and then immediately turn off the heat and cover the pot. Allow it to rest for at least thirty minutes.

Parsleyed Oyster Crackers:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup oyster crackers

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced

Fine sea salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Heat a small saute pan over medium high heat. Add the butter and once it has stopped bubbling but is not brown, add the oyster crackers and toss the crackers to coat with the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley and toss the crackers gently in order to coat all the crackers with the parsley. Pour out onto a baking sheet and let cool.

2. To finish the soup reheat it but don’t let it boil. Taste a potato to check and see if it is done and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If the potatoes are not done then cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Stir in the parsley and chives and then ladle into cups or bowls. Top with a few oyster crackers and serve.

The Asparagus Has Not Sprung

The rain is really coming down now.

On the few days it has been nice I have been to the garden looking for the tiniest hints of spring.  Maybe thin asparagus tips might be peeking at me through the damp dirt.  The tarragon is growing, so is the sorrel and savory.  The  purple chive blossoms are ready to burst open and there are strong whiffs of lovage.  I have already made my beloved lovage cream cheese spread even if it is only beloved by me.

I know I could go to the store and buy asparagus.  I know it would taste good.  I have already seen countless asparagus recipes tempting me, one for an asparagus tart that looks amazing.

The mustard greens are blooming now, a toad has dug his way up from the mud.  Around dinner time he wrestles himself in between clumps of dirt getting himself as close to the earth’s warmth as he can.  He needs to protect himself from the night time cold. During the heat of the day a snake is searching the compost pile  for mice.  Soon…I think to myself…soon you will get to taste the sweetness of the asparagus that only happens when you grow your own. Continue reading “The Asparagus Has Not Sprung”

Chickpeas in a Spicy Tomato Gravy

Khatte Channe

A wonderful blend of deeply caramelized onions, spicy tomato broth and creamy chickpeas.  Khatte Channe, as it is know in India, is traditionally served with a flatbread but as it is cooked in this recipe it has lots of sauce so it makes sense to serve it with simple steamed rice and some sort of green vegetable.

I don’t like to use a lot of canned goods but beans are one that I rely on.  They are no fuss, no standing over the stove stirring or adding liquid because they are already cooked.  In fact I think this dish benefits from canned because the peas stand out by not absorbing all the gravy flavors that long cooking would have infused in them .

There is some extra expense in buying spices for the dish but if you have an ethnic grocery nearby, either Asian or Indian, you should be able to find the ingredients.  Buy the smallest amount they sell and if you like the spices and find yourself using them to make other dishes then buy bigger quantities.

The thing I really like about this dish and these kind of bean dishes is even though it is of Indian descent it still feels familiar, I think of it as soul food.  It is warm with a hint of spice and very much like bean dishes from Central America and Mexico.  The dish is comfortable.

Cost to make this meal:

  • three 14oz. cans organic garbanzo beans $1.49 each or $4.47
  • 2 large onions .74 cents
  • one 14 ounce can crushed tomatoes .99 cents
  • at my local Indian grocery an 8 ounce bag costs $3.oo dollars or 2 teaspoons .12 cents
  • 1 head of garlic .99 cents 4 cloves about . 50 cents
  • fresh ginger 3.99 per pound 2 ounces at .48 cents
  • 48 oz vegetable oil  $2.99 or 3 tablespoons at .10 cents
  • cumin seeds vary in price greatly depending on where you purchase them  1 teaspoon at .25 cents
  • my recipe calls for tamarind but substitute a 2 tablespoon of vinegar to give the dish its sourness

Total cost range is from  $7.65 to  $9.00 and if you are only serving 4 you should have a couple of lunches.

This recipe is adapted from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking.  If you enjoy Indian food her books are a must for you shelf.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 (14.5 oz.) cans chickpeas/garbanzos (drained and liquid reserved)

2 tablespoons tamarind paste mixed with half a cup of water (or substitute 2 tablespoon of vinegar with no water)

3 vegetable oil

2 cups yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons garlic, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced finely

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin, toasted

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Place a 3 1/2 quart heavy bottomed pot over medium heat.  Add 3 tablespoons of oil to the pot and then the onions.  Season the onions with salt.  Cook the onions, patiently, until they begin to brown and become deeply colored. Stir them often enough that the onions on top brown at the same pace as those on bottom.   Don’t do this to fast you want melted gooey onions not seared.  Take your time it takes a while.

2. Once the onions are browned to your liking add the garlic.  Once you smell the garlic add the turmeric and cayenne pepper.  Give it a stir then add the tamarind,  tomatoes and ginger.  Reduce the heat and let the tomatoes simmer.

3. Add 1 cup of  the reserved bean liquid along with the cumin and curry powder.  Bring the liquid back to a boil reduce the heat and add the beans.

4. Cook the rice.  

5. By the time you finish the rice the beans will be warmed through and the flavors will have come together nicely.  Taste the peas and adjust the seasoning.  Serve over the rice.

Potato Cake

Potato CakeWhat thrills me the most about potato cakes like this is the crispy top and creamy interior.  If you use good potatoes the flavor is unbeatable and if you are creative you can even layer the interior with things like roasted garlic, wilted onions, green onions or even chopped frozen broccoli that has been thawed and drained of excess moisture.

Yukon Golds

Yukon Golds

There are few products that I recommend, or in this case don’t recommend, and those are conventional potatoes and canned tomatoes.  I don’t like conventional potatoes because they spray them with an anti-sprouting spray which means they have a longer shelf life.  I don’t know if the spray is good for you or not but I want potatoes that aren’t far from the harvest because I want fresh potatoes.  They taste better and I know they do, it’s that simple.  Organic potatoes can’t lollygag around and therfore are generally fresh.

The two types of potato most readily available at most groceries that would work for this dish are Russet Burbanks(Idaho) or Yukon Golds.  Both brown up nicely and both create a creamy interior.

As for tomatoes, I don’t like canned tomatoes because the acid leaches out the chemical from the liner of the can.  I only by tomatoes in glass or those nifty carton type boxes.

Cost to make the potatoes:

  • one bag of organic russet potatoes $3.49 about 10 per bag or $1.75 
  • unsalted butter .10 cents
  • canola oil  and salt .10 cents

Total cost to make this dish: $1.95

Serves 4 as a side dish

5 good sized russet potatoes, scrubbed under cold water with a brush

1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon canola oil

kosher salt

white pepper if you have it

1. Smear the bottom of a 10 inch non-stick skillet with soften butter.  Make sure to spread it evenly across the bottom.  Drizzle the oil into the pan too.

2. Slice the potatoes into very thin slices, a 1/16 of an inch would be great but no more then an 1/8 inch.

3. Starting in the middle of the pan spiral the potatoes by fanning them.  They should overlap about half the potato before them, if that makes since or you should cover the potato before the one you are putting into the pan by half by the one you are putting into the pan.

4. Lightly season each layer of potato with a pinch of salt.  Once the first layer is down you can layer the rest of the potatoes into the pan without detail to fanning them.

5. Heat the oven to 350˚ F.  Place the pan over medium heat to begin browning the bottom layer.  This always takes longer then I expect. I also have a baking stone that has a permanent spot in my oven so I also know then the pan goes into the oven it will continue to brown the potatoes.

6.  Once the bottom is browned nicely cover the pan and slide it into the oven.  Bake until the potatoes in the middle are tender.  Depending on how many layers you created anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes.

7. Remove the pan from the oven with a oven mitt or towel.  Place a pizza tray or the bottom of a sheet tray across the top of the pan.  In one swift motion invert the pan and tray.  Place the tray into the oven and let the cake bake another 5 to 10 minutes to crisp the top.  Serve.

Everyday Potatoes

This time of year potatoes are a shot glass full of sunshine, they are the break-up song I can’t stop listening to, they are my noodle, my rice, and my comfort. They are soothing in the way a pacifier is to a child and they get me through the edgy emotions of late winter.

They are one of those rare ingredients that selflessly put other ingredients on a pedestal. They make butter better and cheese cheesier and we all know potatoes are versatile by the vast number of ingredients you can pair with them.

You can bet come Sunday when I want something comforting for dinner, they will make an appearance at the table. Most of the time they aren’t fancy. Something simple will do. But on occasion they get dressed up and this is one of the many things I like about potatoes: they adapt to any occasion. They can even go solo and be the meal themselves.

Potato GalleteWhile I am not particular so much about potato dishes I am particular about my potatoes, really particular. But I didn’t become so until I grew them in my garden. Not until then did I understand what fresh, good potatoes were about. I grow fingerlings, purple, Irish cobblers, Kenebec, and Yukon golds. All are unique, and all have peculiarities the cook needs to understand.

Like which potatoes to use for which dishes: the Russet Burbank, for example, is perfect for mashed potatoes because, when cooked, the grains in the potato swell and separate, making for a light and fluffy mash. On the other hand, when you want to make a nice vinegary French herb potato salad, it is nice to have French fingerlings or Russian Bananas because the waxy make-up of the potato keeps them from falling to mush.

I have a film changing bag in which I store my potatoes. It is a relic from, yeah, the days of film but it is light-proof, which makes it great for storing potatoes. And this is where I get picky. I will use potatoes if they are just beginning to sprout but I won’t use them if I see any signs of green. Storing    continue reading Continue reading “Everyday Potatoes”

Celery Root and Potato Gratin

For some it might have been potato or green bean, but for me my gratin affinity began at an early age with macaroni and cheese. You know, the good old-fashioned kind with real cheddar and whole milk thickened with roux or egg yolks. The one that is baked until the correct ratio of crispy, crunchy top to creamy interior is achieved. It taught me early on in life just how fantastic a great food friendship is.

Then, as I came of age, somehow the gratin became any one-dish. It is tuna with the thin crispy onion rings baked on top or Chicken Divan with broccoli, cheddar, and crumbled Ritz crackers providing the crunch. There is the obligatory cottage pie, as done in the Midwest, topped with both cheddar and mozzarella, then browned. For a while, it was a multitude of eggy breakfast casseroles, all, of course, involving more cheddar.

It became neat, rectangular, and predictable. It served twelve. It was a 9×13 casserole world and I was living it.

I was fortunate. I got out. I went to college, I travelled, I ate.

With knowledge and experience came diversity. And we all know diversity makes the world a much better place. So I developed friendships with lasagna, cassoulet, moussaka, and the timballo, to name a few.

Through it all, and even though we didn’t see each other as much, the gratin remained my favorite.

What I realized is the gratin is the kick-ass cousin who went to college too. And when you reconnect at the family reunion you realize you hang with them because they are exciting, interesting, and you can rest assured that there is more depth to them than a spiky haircut and a couple of tattoos. You get each other in that way only family can.

I like the gratin’s quirks. I like its fondness for juxtaposition. I know that, without pretense, Tournedos Rossini can snuggle in next to a celery root gratin as easily as can Irish bangers and, regardless of which side of the tracks it finds itself, the gratin brings comfort to the table, weight to the unbearable lightness of being.

The thing is, the gratin comes by these traits naturally. But I also know that the things that make it stand out — the creamy interior and crunchy top — don’t just happen, that the building of flavors takes effort, and that without a true friend’s presence the gratin’s popularity might wane.

But then that is what true friends do, you know, bring out the best in each other, and relish in each others’ success.

Note: I have been making this recipe for years. It is based on a recipe in the Dean and DeLuca cookbook by David Rosengarten. I have always found it to be a lovely holiday side dish. It goes well with prime rib roasts and roast chicken. It is versatile and can be made ahead to be put into the oven when needed and also is easily doubled.

Celery Root and Potato Gratin

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

3/4 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon saffron, crushed

1 1/2 cup gruyere or comte cheese, grated

1. If you plan to cook the gratin right away heat the oven to 400 degrees. Otherwise move on to step two.

2. Place the potatoes and celery root into separate large pots. Cover by two inches with cold water and add a teaspoon of salt to each pot. Bring the pots to a boil over medium heat. Cook the vegetables until tender.

3. Once the vegetables are tender, pour them out into a colander set in the sink. Drain the vegetables and let them sit for a minute or two steam-drying.

4. Rinse out one of the pots and add the cream, garlic, butter, and saffron. Bring the cream to a boil over medium heat. Add a hefty pinch of salt and a few grinds of white pepper. Add 1/2 cup of the cheese. Stir it into the warm liquid till melted.

5. Place the celery root and potatoes into a mixing bowl (or the other blanching pot if it is big enough) and smash the mix with a potato masher. Add a pinch of salt then add the cream and saffron mix. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if necessary.

6. Use a little softened butter to grease an 8-inch oval gratin (12 inches long). Spread the rustic chunky mash out into the pan. Smooth the top with a spatula, then crosshatch the top with the tines of a fork. Spread the remaining cheese out over the top.

7. Bake until the cheese is browned, about 30 minutes. Let the gratin cool for 5 minutes, then serve.