Leek & Ham Gratin

Gratins have gone completely out of fashion. I guess it’s a kind of a 1950s Hausfrau dish and together with stuffed vegetables, it’s gone off and retired. Which is terrible, really, because a good well made gratin is a wonderful dish. Served with rice or potatoes it makes an entire meal and is just deeply satisfying to eat. If you’re not so much of a ham person, you can use smoked turkey slice, air dried beef or smoked salmon, which would work very nicely with the leek we are making today.

Eddie and I made one last night and it left us completely happy, full, but not stuffed. For good measure I’ll throw in my infallible roast potatoes. They are a bit of a dietitian’s nightmare, but a gourmet’s dream. Think duck fat and you know where this is going. Both these dishes can go into the oven sort of together, so after prepping it’s no work at all. Make it in the afternoon and It’ll take all of 45 minutes in the evening and you’ll be ready.

The secret to a good gratin is a properly cooked vegetable and a good béchamel and I can teach you how to get both right. I usually make the béchamel last minute, just before I douse my vegetables with it. It’s much easier to use when it’s hot and it really is so very fast to make. Here’s my oh so German Organisational Chart, which will tell you what order to make things in:

  • Boil the vegetable
  • Infuse the milk
  • Blanch the potatoes
  • Butter the dish
  • Wrap the vegetables
  • Strain the infused milk
  • Make the béchamel
  • Finish the dish
  • Finish the potatoes

The Vegetables:

Now what I really wanted to use was witlof, endive or chicory, which is of course the same thing with three different names, but it’s damn hard to find here in Malaysia, so I used leeks instead. You will need the Aussie or European variety, which is thicker and has a much larger white part. You could do make it with the thin local variety, but you will end up with quite a bit of ham, so it may be too strong.

In fact you can make this dish with any vegetable that is not too fibrous and that can be wrapped. Wedges or quarters of a small Chinese cabbage would do very well too and they will be much cheaper than the bloomin’ Aussie leeks. Here’ what you need to boil the leeks:

  • 2-3 thick leeks
  • water to cover
  • rough sea salt

Yes, that’s it. Nothing else is needed. Cut your leeks into 10cm/4″ pieces. You should get about 5-6 nice pieces. Count 2 pieces per person and you should be fine, unless everyone is feeling very hungry. Put the leeks in a pot deep enough to hold them in one layer and that allow the leeks to be completely covered with water. I actually used a gratin dish. Cover the leeks with water and start the boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Taste your water; the leeks will be about as salty as the water, so you know how you would like it to taste. Let that guide you, but make sure your salt has completely dissolved before you add more!

Simmer the leeks until they are very, very tender, but not falling apart. This should take about 30 minutes from the time the water has started to boil. It depends on the size and age of your leeks, so use a small knife to try pierce them after 20/25 minutes. One word of advice; don’t use a pot that’s too deep, or you’ll have trouble getting your leeks out in one piece. Leeks are slippery things, so be careful. Once they slip out of their layers, it’s impossible to put them back together again, so proceed with utmost caution. Have I said that you need to be careful?

Once the leeks are cooked, take them off the heat and leave them to cool at room temperature. This will take about an hour. You CAN use the leeks right away, but they will be much nicer after another hour in their brine.

The Béchamel:

  • 600ml full fat milk
  • ½ a small onion
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • nutmeg to taste
  • 25g butter
  • 25g plain flour, sifted
  • juice of ¼ lemon
  • salt & white pepper to taste

Cut the onion into big pieces. Put the milk into a saucepan, add the onion and bay leaves to the milk, grate a little nutmeg into the milk and bring to a boil. Once the milk starts to boil reduce the heart and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain the milk into a measuring jug. You should have almost exactly 500ml of infused milk. If it is a little less, just top it up with fresh milk.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. You should do this on relatively low heat, to prevent the flour from taking on any colour. Keep stirring to cook your roux (that’s what this is called) through its three stages; smooth, powdery, smooth. This will take about 5-10 minutes. Once done, switch to a small whisk and slowly add the milk. I like to do this bit by bit, whisking each addition of milk to a smooth paste. But that’s because I’m lazy to strain the finished sauce, so I do my best to avoid lumps right from the beginning.

This is the “powdery” stage of the roux, where the flour looks a little raw and uncooked. To get a béchamel that doesn’t taste floury without being cooked for a long period of time, cook this stage out of the roux and stir until it starts to look creamy again. It’s a simple trick and it doesn’t take very long at all. I don’t know many people who still make roux at home, which is a bit of a shame. It comes in very handy and it keeps quite well. You just stir it from time to time, until it has cooled down and the put it into a tub and keep it in the chiller. It can go straight from the chiller into soups or sauces that need thickening a little.

All you need to do now is adjust the seasoning of your béchamel. I actually add an additional little knob of butter to the finished sauce, but you don’t have to do that if you want to keep things healthier. I also like to add a squeeze of lemon to it before I salt it. Be careful and salt it slowly. The butter and the fat in the milk take a little longer to absorb the salt, so if you salt too fast, you may end up with a salty sauce. At first it will seem okay, but when you taste it again 15 minutes later, it’s gone salty. So go slow. remember also that you have ham in this dish, so a light salting will go a long way.

Poireaux au Gratin

enough for 2-3 people

  • 6 pieces of soft, simmered leeks
  • 6 slices of Parma ham (or Serrano ham, or smoked salmon, or whatever rocks your boat)
  • 500ml béchamel
  • a handful of grated cheese (I’m using cheddar and parmesan, about 50/50)
  • freshly grated nutmeg

Just follow the instructions in the slideshow above. Heat your oven to 180ºC and bake on a high shelf for about 30 minutes. If you follow my instructions for the béchamel, you will get a smooth sauce of just the right consistency. I hate stodgy, thick béchamel, so I always make mine much lighter than most people.

It’s a delicious mess.

The Super Potato

Any gratin, in fact any dish at all is always greatly improved by the addition of the Super Potato It’s such a good thing that I have written a post just for the Super Potato, so check it out right here: The Super Potato

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