Cooking at Christmas
Cooking is something I enjoy doing all year round. To me it’s a peaceful, meditative process that always brings me right into the moment of creating something delicious and transports me far away from any worries or strife. Perhaps that’s why I especially love cooking during the holidays, which can be a stressful time despite the import of the season’s messages of peace and joy. This year, I will be home (finally!) and cooking for a small group of friends. I’m particularly looking forward to a simple meal. My “core” menu item will be a standing rib roast of beef with a horseradish cream sauce and au jus for juicy dipping and my annual creamed spinach gratin.
I love gratins for many reasons – perhaps the biggest being their crunchy, buttery tops and tender, creamy centers. With those pre-requisites in mind, I created the recipe that follows. Even though I’m not a huge Brussels sprouts fan (except for using them as baby heads of lettuce in my childhood doll’s house kitchen), in keeping with the season and their rewarding versatility, I slipped them into this recipe. The bottom layer is a mixture of grated Russett potatoes blended with sour cream, Parmesan, chopped, hydrated porcini mushrooms that ends up tasting like a soft, glorious loaded baked potato. The Brussels sprouts are quartered and nestled into the top of the potatoes and the whole glorious dish is topped with buttered panko crumbs tossed with plenty of fresh thyme. The Brussels sprouts neatly roast themselves and their light cabbage flavor into the nutty, creamy dish and the end result is nothing short of smashing.
I’ll be serving this alongside the beef at my holiday table, but it would also pair very well with turkey, pork, chicken or game. It could double as a main course for vegetarians, or even makes a delicious Christmas morning breakfast. It’s especially nice that it can be completely assembled, tightly covered and refrigerated overnight before baking. One important note: You’ll want to get your mis en place put together ahead of time and grate the potatoes at the last minute or they may discolor just a bit.
Creamy Potato and Brussels Sprouts Holiday Gratin
(Recipe makes 8 to 10 heaping side portions)
Needed: Large, shallow oven-proof casserole or gratin dish, roughly 3″ deep X 9″ long X 5″ wide.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 ounce (about 1 cup) dried porcini or substitute another strongly flavored dried mushroom
Enough water to cover – about 1 cup
3 large Russett potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated (about 8 cups)
4 cloves crushed garlic
1/2 cup whole cream
1/2 cup whole milk
2 cups whole sour cream
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon greshly ground black pepper
1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
For the topping:
4 tablespoons unsalted, melted butter
2 cups unseasoned panko bread crumbs (or another variety of plain, coarse bread crumbs)
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 3250F. Butter the casserole/gratin dish with the 2 tablespoons of butter. Place the porcini in a non-reactive 2-cup measuring cup or small glass bowl and cover with water. Heat in the microwave on high for one minute. Set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prep and grate the potatoes. Place in a large, clean kitchen towel and twist firmly over the sink to extract any excess water. Set aside, reserving in the towel wrap.Return to the reserved mushrooms. Strain the mushrooms out of the liquid and squeeze any fluid back into the “mushroom water.” Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside. Pour the reserved mushroom water into a small saucepan, being careful to strain out any possible grit through a paper towel or cheese cloth. Add the garlic, bring up to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cooking for about 5 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced down to 1/4 cup. Remove and discard the garlic cloves. Whisk in the cream, milk, sour cream, Parmesan and salt and pepper, and reserved chopped mushrooms. Heat over low heat to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
Place the grated potatoes in the buttered dish. Pour the entire cream mixture over the potatoes and toss thoroughly to coat. Spread the top evenly with a spatula to flatten it evenly. Arrange the Brussels sprouts, cut side down, evenly over the top. Season lightly with salt and pepper. To prepare the topping, combine the melted butter, panko, seasonings and thyme in a small bowl. Drizzle evenly over the top of the entire gratin. Bake for one hour, or until golden brown, soft in the center and lightly bubbling. Serve warm with a garnish of fresh thyme sprigs.
Have a joyful, safe and delicious holiday and Christmas season!