A gratin (or plain old potato bake if you prefer) is the edible equivalent of a pair of sweat pants you can wear down to the shops. It’s lazy and relaxed, yet also manages to be just smart enough for company (as opposed to pyjamas). It’s a glorious muddle of dairy and white stodge, gussied up by fine knife skills (or a sly use of a mandolin). It’s made presentable by the constraints of the dish it’s served in and the crunch of the crust which covers the top.
Yet here’s my main problem with most renditions of this comfort food classic. In order to encourage slivers of potato to morph from separate tiles of carbohydrate into a rectangle of indulgence it traditionally involves excesses of cream, butter and cheese. All of these are ingredients which make me much less inclined to wear any sort of form fitting pants in public.
In our house we call this gratin’ Cameron’s bake’. It was inspired by a suave (and svelte) fellow in our orbit. Nb, I should say upfront; I have never known him to sport sweat pants in pubic. He’s the sort of man who can peg the legs of his chinos with panache and is coordinated enough to carry on a conversation about the merits of an exhibition while pushing a bicycle through a crowd. Whenever we go to his place for supper the evening invariably starts with a variety of things artfully placed on platters. Beyond cured meats and cheese there are often carrot batons, hummous and some good quality crisps.
One day I saw him swipe a crisp through the pot of hummous.
It was a simple gesture, but it rocked my world. It was a combination I’d never contemplated. Carrots and hummous; of course they’re friends. Hummous and flat breads; absolutely. But crisps? Yet, it makes perfect sense. It’s saltiness and crunch coupled with the gentle burlap of chickpeas. I soon followed suit. It was terrific. I took a mental note, then filed the combination away in my head.
This potato gratin came to life after I was sent a mystery box of ingredients from Sainsbury’s SO Organic to play with. In the box were carrots and butter, bacon and sausages, milk and eggs. And then, there was organic hummous and a bag of organic Lady Balfour potatoes- an all rounder with a creamy texture that’s good for both baking and mashing.
Instead of being laden with heavy dairy or meekly made with stock, a slurry of organic milk and hummous offers just enough body to meld together the wafer thin slices of potato.
There’s sweetness from sly threads of caramelised onions snaking through. There’s a faint nutty-saltiness from the chickpeas and tahini in the hummous. There’s a little kick from cayenne pepper , though if you preferred something sweeter you could replace it with nutmeg. If you’re feeling lazy, skip the onions, though they do add a nice textural contrast. And finally there’s the burnished top, courtesy of a little cheese; cheddar in this case, though parmesan would also be lovely.
It’s a solid staple which calls for little more than a sharply dressed salad on the side. And perhaps some dashing company to share it with.
Potato, hummous and onion gratin
Serve with a green salad for a vegetarian supper, or as a hearty side to roast lamb, sausages, or steaks.
1 mandolin. 1 A4 size baking tray. 1 saucepan. 1 whisk.
1 red onion, cut into very thin slivers
2 tbsp butter
700 grams baking potatoes (I used Sainsbury’s SO Organic Lady Balfour), cut into 3 mm slices using a mandolin
200 gram tub of hummous
1 cup of milk
50 grams of cheese, grated (cheddar is good)
Cayenne pepper to taste
1) Preheat oven to 220 C/425 F.
2) Peel the onion, cut in half and use a mandolin to shave it into thin slivers.
Add a knob of butter into a pan and sauté until the onions are caramellised (10 minutes, minimum).
3) While this is happening, grease the bottom of a baking dish well with some of the remaining butter.
4) Use the mandolin to shave the potatoes into slices a few millimetres thick. They really do have to be this thin, otherwise the effect will be lost. Place the slices to one side.
6) Layer the potato pieces like overlapping roof tiles on the bottom of the baking dish. After one layer, strew over some of the softened onions and pour on a little of the hummous/milk. Sprinkle with a little cayenne and a little salt and pepper. Dab with a bit of extra butter if you like.
8 ) Bake for 45 minutes- 1 hour, until the cheese is brown and a knife easily slips through the centre of the gratin. The last thing you want is to be serving is undercooked potato.
9) Serve hot or warm with a sharply dressed green salad.