“It’s… about simple cooking. It’s the kind of woman’s cooking that everybody knows about but nobody knows how to do. It’s nice dining-room cooking. It can be very simple or it can be more sophisticated in terms of traditional food — but lighter, with nothing heavy. It’s a kind of poem.” — Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch
There was a time when learning to cook meant learning how to cook French food. We were reminded of this while watching Haute Cuisine, a quietly elegant film based on the not-so-quiet life of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, who served as a private chef for Francois Mitterand. Though some of this cuisine’s fussier aspects, as depicted in the Palace’s kitchens, have fallen out of fashion, at essence, it’s one centered on respect for good ingredients, balance of flavors, and a knowledge of technique — qualities that span time and place.
It was with these thoughts in mind that we set on making Potato and Celeriac Gratin, a French bistro classic. This is a hearty dish well-suited to the cold-weather season, and the addition of celeriac to the potatoes adds a haunting note. The extra step of simmering the root vegetables in a milky bath before baking lightens the richness of the dish, and keeps it from being overburdened by cream. Do use whole milk, we’ve found substituting low-fat or skim a detraction. Though we’re not usually concerned with removing the green germ from storage garlic, here it seems to makes a difference, in keeping with the spirit of the dish. It’s not always easy to use fresh herbs during winter, however, we were able to wrestle some thyme from the garden, still fragrant under it’s crust of snow.
A note on the cheese: Gruyere brings a sweet and nutty flavor to the gratin, and is especially known for its baking qualities. For a more local choice, look for a cheese that will melt smoothly yet retain a bit of body. Some New England options include: Green Mountain Gruyere from Blythedale Farm; Farmstead Jack from Boggy Meadow Farm; cheddar from Brookford Farm; or fontina from Maplebrook Farm.
Potato and Celeriac Gratin
1½ pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1½ pounds celeriac, peeled and sliced thinly
2 cups whole milk
2 cups cold water
3 cloves garlic, minced (green germ removed)
¾ teaspoon sea salt
3 bay leaves
A bunch of fresh thyme
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
– Heat the oven to 375°F.
– In a large saucepan, place the potatoes, celeriac, milk, cold water, garlic, salt, bay leaves and bunch of thyme. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking at the bottom. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the vegetables are just tender, about 10 minutes.
– Remove the bay and thyme. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the vegetables to a 2-quart gratin dish. Season to taste with nutmeg and pepper, and cover with half of the cream and half of the cheese. Cover with a final layer of vegetables, cream, and cheese. Season again with nutmeg and pepper, and sprinkle with thyme leaves. Discard the milk and water mixture.
– Place in the center of the oven, uncovered, and bake until crisp and golden on top, 1 to 1½ hours.
Adapted from “The Provence Cookbook” by Patricia Wells.
Local ingredients: Milk and cream from Harris Farm; Yukon Gold potatoes, celeriac, garlic and thyme from the garden.