Dad, I want to cook you something special for your birthday. What do you want? And his answer, always the same: something made au gratin.
Yesterday was my dad’s birthday. He is a handyman, who built our wood burning oven for pizza and bread just by watching videos on YouTube. He introduced me to the music of Queen and Santana when I was still a child and lent me the first SLR camera when I started shooting food for the blog. He drove me to Ikea and spent a few hours with me in between dishes, glasses and cups, showing the patience of a saint, when I moved into my own apartment.
My father, an archer, a gardener, a pizza maker, an electrician, a coffee lover, a computer and photography geek, a builder and a fixer, a Santiago pilgrim and an explorer. When I was a child, he would decorate my birthday cakes with icing and chocolate and he would take me out to eat pizza and then to the cinema when the school report card arrived. When we used to spent our summer holidays by the coast, we would take me fishing in the early mornings. Today he tries to keep up with all my requests and projects that show up, suddenly and unexpectedly: the vegetable garden, the fruit orchard, and soon a chicken coop.
As mum always says, dad eats to live, he does not live to eat. Despite this, he loves chocolate, cookies especially made for him, and everything baked au gratin: fennel with béchamel and parmesan, pumpkin, artichoke and potatoes, pasta, fish fillets… everything is fine, as long as it is covered in breadcrumbs and grated Parmigiano, drizzled with olive oil and baked until crisp and golden.
So to celebrate his birthday, I baked a potato and artichoke gratin. Buon compleanno babbo!
Potato and artichoke gratin
Last week in our podcast we talked about Tuscan bread, and about the many uses of stale bread: panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, acquacotta, but also a bread pudding cake, or the lemon scented filling of a roast chicken.
Then, there is this potato and artichoke gratin, a recipe that grandma found on a cookery book from Basilicata, the land of nonno Biagio, my paternal grandfather.
As usual, nonna turned the recipe into her own version, twitching the ingredients and the cooking method and bending it to our tastes. She added dried oregano, she substituted a Southern cheese with our local aged Pecorino Toscano, she baked it for longer, until golden and crisp. Now this is nonna Marcella’s potato and artichoke gratin, a side dish that stays with us throughout winter and spring, until the first summer vegetables do not rush through the kitchen door, bringing with them the smell of sun and basil.
The most important ingredient here is the stale bread, to crumble with your hands or to blend coarsely. Avoid sandy store-bought breadcrumbs, which would make this gratin too dry. Choose the cheese you prefer – a spicy provolone, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano or the Tuscan pecorino – as long as it is aged and savoury. Mediterranean ingredients such as garlic, dried oregano and mint give this gratin its unique aroma.
As for the artichokes, use the fresh ones if you can find them, and clean them following the method shown in this video. Otherwise, use frozen ones, but remember to blanch the potatoes in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes, as the artichokes will cook faster if frozen.
The potato and artichoke wedges cook well covered with breadcrumbs and grated pecorino cheese, which have been soaked in water and olive oil and infused with Mediterranean aromas. When I take the gratin pan out of the oven, I can not help but smile: it is the smell of home, of days perched in between winter and spring, the comfort of a dish made with simple ingredients which, together, become a soulful meal.
- 5 medium potatoes
- 5 artichokes
- 1 lemon
- 200 g (½ lb) of stale bread
- 100 g (1 cup - 3 ½ oz) of grated aged pecorino cheese
- 1 clove of garlic minced
- ½ tablespoon of dried oregano
- Some fresh mint leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil
Heat oven to 190°C (375°F).
Peel the potatoes and cut them into regular wedges: it is important that the wedges have more or less the same size, so they will cook evenly.
Clean the artichokes, removing the hardest outer leaves. Quarter them, or cut them into wedges, so that they have the same size as the potatoes, rub them with lemon and place them in a bowl of cold water. Check this video to see how to clean artichokes.
Now prepare the breadcrumb gratin: crumble the bread in a bowl and add the grated pecorino cheese, the minced garlic, the dried oregano and some mint leaves, roughly chopped with your hands. Taste and adjust with salt, if needed.
Grease with a drizzle of olive oil a 22 cm (9 inch) round baking pan.
Arrange half the artichokes and potatoes on the bottom, alternating them. Sprinkle with half the breadcrumbs, then pour over half a glass of water to soften the breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Come on, be generous with that olive oil.
Arrange the remaining artichokes and potatoes over the breadcrumbs, alternating them again.
Sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs, soak it again with half a glass of water and finish with a generous drizzle of olive oil.
Bake for about 50-55 minutes, until artichokes and potatoes are cooked through (check with a knife), and the gratin is golden and crisp on top. Serve hot or warm.
Serve this potato and artichoke gratin with…
I’ve often served this potato and artichoke gratin as a main course, along with a rich and colourful vegetable side, such as a wintery fennel salad or this spring Renaissance salad. Today, though, I wanted to include it as a side dish in a menu completely dedicated to my dad, to virtually celebrate his birthday. As a first course, a butternut squash mac&cheese, obviously with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs and grated Parmigiano to serve it au gratin, as a main squids stuffed with stale bread and pine nuts, another recipes which features stale bread, just like today’s gratin, and to finish those cookies that I had created to match my dad’s passion for a well brewed espresso, made with hazelnuts, barley flour and cocoa.
- Butternut squash mac&cheese. I really enjoyed reinventing a classic dish of the Italian cuisine, la pasta ai quattro formaggi, our national version of the American mac&cheese. I melted in a creamy sauce all the leftover cheese in the fridge, including a precious to me British blue Stilton from Harrods. Along with the cheese, I added a fruity Mantua pumpkin, with a thin and soft greenish skin and a not too sweet fragrant flesh.
- Stuffed squids with bread and pine nuts. Choose the smallest squids and stuff them patiently with a few simple ingredients: stale bread soaked in milk, parsley, stir-fried tentacles and a handful of pine nuts to give flavour and a different texture. The sea taste is persistent, softened by bread and milk. Pine nuts add a surprising resinous taste: everything comes together to remind you the balsamic air of a maritime pine forest, a lunches by the sea in the shade of hundred year old trees.
- Hazelnut, barley and cocoa cookies.This is a cookie meant to double the pleasure of the coffee and to break the silent pause with a crunching noise. We usually sit in the kitchen with the coffee cup in front of us, staring blankly at dad who’s eyeing you up and down to understand how the coffee was, whether it is convenient to grind it finer or to apply more pressure. The coffee, though, is supposed to remain the main character, so you need just a simple not too sweet cookie to enhance the roasted coffee notes: hazelnut, cocoa and barley flour, nothing else is required.
- The bitter end, an enjoyable article written by Thom Eagle on radicchio. By the time the last of the Christmas leftovers have sulked their way out of the fridge, the parsley sauce repurposed as sandwich spread, the brandy butter melted absentmindedly into coffee, even my considerable appetite for rich blandness is sated, and I find myself turning back towards dishes that, rather than swaddling us from the wind outside, instead reflect it: fresh and clear and bitter.
- Antonella has made my farro and ricotta tart. Here you can find her recipe, with beautiful photos.
- I talked about pecorino today. Do you know how many different types of pecorino you can find in Italy? Have a look at this article written by Eleonora Baldwin for Dievole: Italian Cheese, 20 reasons to love cheese in every region.