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Suzanne Goin, Me, and a Potato-Tomato Gratin

Cooling Tomato-Potato GratinI have made the following potato-tomato gratin twice now. It’s a recipe I limit myself to making in late summer when tomatoes are at their peak and opal basil is plentiful and I’m tired of tearing up the latter and throwing it into a simple salad.  Your thoughts on additional uses for opal basil will be embraced.  Go on.

I first made this gratin last summer when my bosses were coming over for dinner. I was seeking something bold and grand, designed to impress my colleagues. No pressure at all. While I was serving a simple pork roast, I wanted to have another anchor item on the table, one that could be brought directly from the oven to table. A centerpiece to supplant a flower arrangement that would allow guests to “Ooooo” and “Ahhhh” over.  Something bubbly and crisp, with stained, dark edges around the white porcelain dish. I found this delicious gratin in the book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, the tome from the gracious and lovely Suzanne Goin, chef of Lucques Restaurant in Los Angeles.

Don’t believe she’s gracious and lovely? See her here prepare Lucques famed braised short ribs.  Take note, though: it seems that this dish— which made her famous—is a bit of a sore spot.

Suzanne is all about layering flavors–rustic, casual French (European comfort food, perhaps?)–and the recipes in her book are no exception. The menus are amazing and she flatly admits it takes two people to complete them. Again, a lot of steps. A lot of layering. In the end, it’s all worth it.

The bulk of the time for this dish involves 2 hours in the oven, so plan accordingly. There’s also a fair amount of time spent on caramelizing the onions, a crucial step so please, don’t short circuit this. You want to get as much flavor from the onions as possible.

BuildingTheTomato-PotatoGratin

There’s also great peace and satisfaction as you begin the layering process.

I did have one tiny snafu with this recipe the first time I made it last summer. Suzanne’s recipe instructed me to “cover the dish with plastic wrap (yes it can go in the oven) and then with foil.” Not seeking to question the sagacity of Ms. Goin, I hesitated, briefly, but obliged. When I pulled the gratin out of the oven and removed the foil, the saran wrap was….gone! Melted away into the bubbling brown crust of the gratin. I panicked, scrambled and began fishing out bits of melted plastic. “Would a little plastic kill my guests?” “Does it put hair on your chest?” I had no idea. But being neurotic, I began troubleshooting a variety of scenarios.

I cleaned up the dish well and served it that evening to rave reviews. I was impressed by the quality of the product, the depth and layered flavors throughout. I declared boldly that night, I thought this was one of the best things I had ever made. Rarely am I that impressed with my cooking (pat-pat-on-my-back-back).

That night, after the dishes were all cleaned, I sat down at my computer and drafted an e-mail to Ms. Goin. Not to upbraid, just to ask what might have happened. I also worked into the e-mail my adoration for her cooking and talents which are effusive and endless, respectively.

To my surprise, she wrote back to me the next day! She noted that obviously I’m a big fan having owned one of the first editions of her cookbook.

So, what happened with the plastic wrap?

In her first edition, she included the instruction about plastic wrap but soon after her book came out, she received some complaints that the wrap had melted. She soon realized that at home, she was using restaurant-grade wrap which holds up even to the highest of temperatures. Store-bought, ordinary saran wrap just doesn’t cut it. In later editions of her book, she has removed this step. Voila! Mystery solved.

So last week I made this, without the plastic wrap. It was just as delicious as I remembered. A lovely and gracious dish, much like its creator.

Sunday Suppers at Lucques – Suzanne Goin

Potato-Tomato Gratin

Ingredients

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 cups thinly sliced onions (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes

1/4 cup sliced opal basil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large saute pan or Dutch oven over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in 3 tablespoons olive oil, and add the onions, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon salt, and some pepper. Cook 6 minutes, stirring often, and then turn the heat down to medium. Add the butter, and cook 15 minutes, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon, until the onions start to caramelize. Turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are a deep golden brown. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes into 1/8 inch thick rounds. Toss them with the cream, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon salt, and some freshly ground black pepper.

Cut the tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick slices, arrange them on a plate, and season them with 1 teaspoon salt and some pepper.

Place half the caramelized onions in an even layer in a 9-by-9-inch (or equivalent) gratin or baking dish. Arrange one layer of alternating potatoes and tomatoes on top of the onion layer. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the cream from the potatoes and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, a healthy pinch of pepper, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and half the basil.

Scatter the rest of the caramelized onions over the potatoes and tomatoes.

Arrange another layer of potatoes and tomatoes on top; make this layer pretty, because it will be the top of your gratin. Pour the remaining cream  (from the potatoes) and remaining tablespoon olive oil over the potatoes and tomatoes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, a pinch of pepper, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and the remaining basil. Press the vegetables down with your fingers. The cream and oil will come up through the layers and coat the vegetables evenly.

Cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Bake about 2 hours, until the potatoes are tender when pierced. Remove the gratin from the oven and uncover it, being careful of the steam.

Turn the oven up to 450 F and return the gratin, uncovered, to the oven. Cook another 25 to 30 minutes, until the juices have thickened and the top is nice and golden (as in gratineed).

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