IN THE KITCHEN : Potato Gratin: The 60% Solution


What would you say if I told you you could make a full-flavored, rich, classic potato gratin with only 60% of the calories and one-third the amount of fat? Would you think I was nuts?

You'd probably be right.

A classic potato gratin is made from basically two things: potatoes and cream. Sure, there's a little garlic rubbed around the inside of the dish. And if you do it right, there ought to be a good smear of butter both in the dish and on top of the potatoes. You can't really alter that balance without drastically affecting the final result, with its luscious velvety texture and its mouth-filling, well-browned flavors of reduced cream and potatoes.

What it comes down to is this: Making a low-fat classic potato gratin is like making a compact Cadillac. You can call it that if you like, but you're not going to fool anyone.

If you're on a diet and you've got your heart set on a classic potato gratin, the only thing to do is have fruit for breakfast, a lightly dressed salad for lunch and then treat yourself at dinner with a small portion of potato gratin (preferably with a very small portion of roast chicken breast on the side and, hmm, a red Burgundy?).

There is an alternative, however. By manipulating the ingredients and the cooking technique, you can sometimes come up with low-fat dishes that are just as satisfying as the high-fat classics, but different.

First off, face the music: You're going to have to give up the reduced heavy cream--at least for a little while. But once you've made that heart-breaking concession, you can start to cook.

In the case of the gratin, it's a matter of replacing the brown, creamy savor of the long-cooked fat with the brown, creamy savor of the roasted potatoes. They're markedly different, but they're both good. And while the original potato gratin contains about 388 calories and 26 grams of fat per serving, this one has 233 calories and 8 grams of fat.

To get the full flavor and texture of the potatoes, cook them in milk until they're quite soft (you should be able to easily smash a piece between your thumb and forefinger). By cooking the potatoes this well, you have released as much starch as possible into the milk--making it thicker and creamier--and you have let the potatoes absorb as much liquid as possible, ensuring that when they are roasted they will retain a creamy texture.

It also helps to use other flavors that will reinforce and accent the tastes you're choosing to feature. At this time of year, one of the nicest things in the market is green garlic. You can get it slender as a scallion or almost as thick as a full-grown head. Whichever, it seems sweeter and milder than the regular cloves.

And if you're cooking potatoes, there's always room for thyme. Its woodsy flavor, with what I find to be a slightly medicinal edge, is a natural counterpoint to the starchy taste of roast potatoes.

Let's make no mistake, though. While this is a very good dish, it is not a substitute for the classic, full-fat potato gratin. Rather, it is an alternative. And if you're very, very good, someday you can go back to the original.

ALTERNATIVE GRATIN OF POTATOES, GREEN GARLIC AND THYME 8 large waxy boiling potatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick 2 heads and stalks green garlic, thinly sliced 2 teaspoons salt 6 sprigs fresh thyme 4 cups 2% milk 1/4 cup butter

Combine potatoes and garlic in wide, deep saucepan. Add salt, thyme and milk to cover. Bring to boil over medium heat, cover and reduce heat, watching carefully, until potatoes are fairly soft, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Lightly butter heavy gratin dish. Starting with smallest potato pieces or those that have broken, cover bottom of dish with potatoes. Layer remainder of potatoes in overlapping pattern over top, not much more than 1 inch deep. Pour just enough milk over to moisten well and dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour or until well browned and crusty. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about: 233 calories; 420 mg sodium; 25 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.48 gram fiber.

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