Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.
To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.
Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.
BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)
Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).
Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.