Late winter-early spring is a lean time at the farmer’s market (wow, hearing myself say that, it is hard to believe that it is already turning toward spring!). The last of the fall harvest – winter squashes, pears, apples, onions, garlic – are getting old and a little rough looking. Spring veggies are still just a pleasant daydream. Most of what is still coming from the March fields are winter-over veggies like leeks, cabbage, cauliflower and chard. The limited variety makes it challenging to keep winter meals interesting.
This week, I opted for green chard, looking very colorful on the dull winter farm tables, all fat, juicy stems and smallish leaves. With the exception of Nice, (where the green part is used in ravioli fillings, dumplings and even in sweet tarts with raisons and pine nuts), the French consider the stems the best part of the chard plant, and use it in soups, sautés, in stews and, especially in gratins.
With 24 hours of rain expected, a warm, bubbly gratin seemed somehow just right. I served it with a pan sauteed pork flank steak, which French butchers call the “grillade”.
Creamy gratins are easy to make and very versatile. Start with a light béchamel, then decide whether to add cheese, top with breadcrumbs, add a bit of garlic, etc. The same basic recipe works with potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks and much more. The permutations are endless. Here is my basic recipe. I use Jacques Pepin’s béchamel recipe as a starting point, decreasing the amount of flour and butter to make a thinner sauce, and adding a little cream for richness. Remember, the sauce will thicken as it bakes and you want it to stay gooey.
3 T butter, unsalted
3 T flour
1.5 cups whole milk
.5 cup heavy cream
Salt, white pepper and fresh nutmeg to taste
1 cup grated cheese such as gruyère or comte
1 large bunch chard
- Wash the chard, cut into bite sized pieces, including the stems, and blanch in a lot of boiling, salted water until just tender. Drain, then shock in cold water. Wring well.
- In a saucepan, heat the butter until foamy. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking over low heat for a few minutes until the mixture looks dry. Add the milk and cream, bring to a boil stirring constantly, reduce the heat to a simmer. Continue cooking over low heat to a light sauce consistency. Season well with salt and white pepper. Add freshly grated nutmeg…it’s a classic flavor in a creamy gratin so don’t be shy.
- Stir together the chard, béchamel and half the grated cheese. Turn into a low earthenware gratin dish. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top.
- Bake in a 35o degree oven until bubbly and golden on top. If your oven has convection, turn it on for the last 10 minutes to get a nice crust. Yummy!
- Check out the bubbly gratin video below.