When you ask most cooks what their favorite season is, most will almost certainly say summer. It is easy to see why. The bounty of light, clean tasting vegetables and fruit really is truly inspiring. Joy is also had at crafting light simple dishes to highlight these amazingly fresh ingredients.
For me though, fall coming into winter is my favorite time as a cook. Vegetables are more hearty. Root vegetables get roasted at least 3 times a week. I don’t think I go a day without eating a parsnip. The carrots growing in our yard, that I forgot about for a lot of summer are now being turned and glazed almost faster than I can pull them. Then of course we have braising. Through the summer I hardly cook any meat, but the fall/winter is the time I break into braising and roasting much, much more.
The fall/winter also brings the humble brussel sprout.
As a wee lad growing up in England the start of the brussel sprout season was something I almost had a party about. I can safely say I was certainly in the minority. In fact, I imagine I got called a weirdo by my friends a few times.
I couldn’t answer them back, my mouth was stuffed with brussels.
I can understand other peoples hatred of them however. Undercooked they are like small bullets that can be slightly bitter. Overcooked they are little balls of cabbage mush (hello school dinners..). Personally, I say bollocks to any nasty childhood memory you might have with this wonderful vegetable, and give it a go again.
I enjoy the sweet/tart thing that can go on with them. I enjoy that they can be prepared in many a diverse way – roast em, saute them, boil em, steam them. Heck, if you are ultra-trendy sous vide them. Then you can also boil them, mix them with a cheese sauce, and bake the whole bloody thing. Hello brussel sprout gratin, my new favorite way to eat this little balls of joy.
Gratin really refers to the actual ceramic dish, rather than the cooking method. Traditionally the dish is very shallow, allowing for just a thin layer of content before a wonderful crispy crust. The idea is that with every bite you should get some of the “content”, some sauce, and certainly some crispy topping. Along the way, with our appetites increasing, I have seen gratin dishes get deeper, and deeper and deeper. There is nothing wrong with that, but you do loose the delicacy of the dish when you put the content/sauce/crispy topping ratio out of balance. These days we really refer to “gratin” as a cooking method rather than a piece of ceramic.
Just about anything can be prepared au gratin. Perhaps the most well known is macaroni cheese. The best macaroni cheese should be a thin layer of pasta, with a wonderfully smooth cheese sauce, and a crispy browned topping. Again, this one got bastardized pretty badly too.
For me the heart of this dish really comes down to the sauce. For most of my gratin dishes I use mornay sauce. This is a French sauce that is really just a bechamel with some cheese added in. This can of course be taken further though. A few more ingredients and a little more time can really yield a very complex tasting sauce.
I start by making a basic roux of butter and flour. Here you can use regular all purpose flour, or if you are gluten free, sorghum flour works extremely successfully (thanks GlutenFreeGirl). Whisk some whole milk into this. Keep whisking till your arm falls off. Use the other arm. Let that fall off too. Get a friend to keep whisking.. You get the idea. If you stop whisking it gets lumpy. And lumpy sauce sucks. This yields a basic bechamel. From here we start making it more interesting. Season the bad boy with a bay leaf, salt and pepper, a little freshly grated nutmeg. Put in about 6 tablespoons of cream, and 6 of stock. The stock should be based around what you are cooking. Making a chicken gratin? Use chicken stock. For this brussel sprout gratin I simply used some of the water that I boiled the brussel sprouts in. Whisk some more. You now need to cook this sauce really slowly for about 20 minutes. The best way to do this is with a double boiler – or if you want to get all poncy French – a Bain-Marie.
The easiest way to do this at home is to put your sauce pan on top of another pan that has simmering water in it. This provides a gentle, even heat to the sauce, that will prevent burning and overcooking. For this dish, I just set the sauce pan over the pan I boiled the brussels in, still with the simmering water in.
When the sauce has reduced a bit and thickened, the bay gets taken out, and lashings of grated cheese (gruyere and paremesan in equal ratio are a good bet) goes in. Whisk again to combine, and viola – you have a great sexy little cheese sauce.
As with almost everything, a crispy topping is delightful, and here lets not disappoint. Breadcrumbs and Parmesan should seal the deal rather nicely.
Brussel Sprout Gratin (serves 2)
2 good sized handfuls of brussel sprouts. Small ones are preferred and the leaves should be tightly bunched
handful of breadcrubs
1 handful of grated gruyere cheese
1 handful of grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons of butter
all purpose or sorghum flour
1 cup of milk
6 tablespoons of heavy cream
1 bay leaf
1 nutmeg clove (don’t use pre-grated nutmeg, it has no flavor – grate as needed!)
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 450F
Start with the brussels. Remove any out leaves from each brussel that don’t look tasty. Trim a little of the stem off if long. Using a pairing knife, cut a small X into the remaining stem. This will help the stem cook through properly.
Get a large pan of salted water boiling. Boil the brussels until just tender (5 minutes or so). Plunge them into an ice bath to stop them cooking further. When cold cut each sprout into quarters, along the X lines you cut before boiling. I find that brussels hold together much better when boiled whole – this is why we boil whole, then quarter. Make sure to reserve some of the brussel sprout water.
In a small saucepan warm the milk.
In another small saucepan melt the butter. Remove from the heat and whisk in a couple of tablespoons of flour. You are looking for a smooth thick paste that just starts to form a ball. Keep adding flour a tablespoon at a time until you get this ball. Return to the heat and with a gentle stir, cook this roux for a couple of minutes.
Add in 1/4 of the milk, and whisk constantly. When that is incorporated, add the rest, and keep whisking. The sauce will start to thicken. Cook this for about 5 minutes over a gentle heat. Add in the bay leaf, a little grated nutmeg, and a good pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Whisk in the heavy cream. Take 6 tablespoons of the reserved brussel sprout water, and put this into the sauce too. Whisk some more.
Put this pan over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes – whisking every couple of minutes. Ideally do this with the bain-maire setup mentioned above. The sauce will thicken down a bit more. If it gets too thick, add a little more of the brussel water.
After 20 minutes, remove from the heat and stir in the gruyere and about 3/4 of the parmesan. Stir until fully combined.
Pour a little of the sauce into the bottom of two gratin dishes. Divide the quartered brussel sprouts between each dish. Top with remaining sauce. Too much sauce is a bad thing, but you want the brussels nicely coated.
Sprinkle the remaining parmesan over each dish. Sprinkle a little bread crumbs over each too.
Bung in the oven for 15 minutes, or until bubbling. Finish under the broiler to get that lovely crispy top.