Root for Gratins: Welcome fall vegetables with creamy, crusty casseroles

Autumn’s chilly nights and cooler days herald a return to real cooking. No longer do our dinners consist only of vast chopped salads and platters of succulent summer fruits. I welcome the oven’s warmth filling the kitchen and linger to prepare roasts, braises and sustaining stews of all sorts.

But while we may yearn for warm and sustaining eats, that doesn’t mean we need to neglect our veggies. Fortunately, autumn’s vegetables tend to be starchy and sweet – just what I’m craving at this time of year.

One of the nicest preparations for autumn vegetables is the gratin. In a gratin, layers of carb-rich ingredients alternate with layers of oozing liquids, the whole thing crowned by a crusty upper layer. The textures combine in mouthfuls of utter delight.

Gratins are excellent accompaniments for all the roasted and baked foods that you’ll be enjoying now that autumn has come. Almost any starchy fall vegetable will make an excellent gratin. Try beets, carrots, celeriac, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips and winter squash. You can combine several complementary vegetables. United by a blanket of béchamel, their flavors will blend nicely.

Gratins are easy to make and forgiving (they’ll wait in the oven even if your company shows up two hours late), but a few simple practices will vastly improve the flavor and texture of your gratins. Here are four things you can do to ensure that they come out perfectly.

Professional chefs season every component of a dish individually, especially in composed dishes such as gratins. Do you? Most gratins are made up of several layers of vegetables with a flavorful liquid or sauce poured over and penetrating the whole. Season each layer of vegetable pieces, and also season the liquid. This way, the flavor of your seasonings will impregnate the whole dish and each bite will burst with flavor.

One of the greatest temptations in gratin-making is to be overly generous with liquids and sauces. Many vegetables, even the harder ones of autumn, will exude water as they cook. Extra sauce plus vegetable liquid equals a soupy mess. Even if it doesn’t look like enough liquid, hold off.

I find it useful to partially cook the main ingredients of a gratin before assembling it. This is especially true of hard vegetables like potatoes or winter squash. If dealing with a large squash, you may want to bake the whole thing at 400 degrees for an hour to soften it before cutting it up. Preliminary blanching is also useful with watery veggies like summer squash, as partial cooking eliminates some of that excess water.

Some people make gratins in metal pans. I wouldn’t. If your gratin cooks too quickly, the top will brown and harden before the bottom is cooked and excess liquid is evaporated. Glass and ceramic dishes provide a mellow heat.

While preparing for this article, I debated over a number of different gratins: winter squash with Gruyère, Toulouse-Lautrec’s gratin of pumpkin, potatoes dauphinoise and others. In the end, I settled on this gratin of carrots. It captivated our tongues with its exquisite balance between sweet carrots and sharp Cheddar, while the curry adds a mild heat that makes every mouthful sing with flavor. It admirably contrasts the cookery of the 20th century with that of the 21st (or what we know of it). Also, it differs in style and appearance from the standard potato gratins, which everybody knows and loves.

Caleb Melchior writes, cooks, gardens and plays Debussy on the piano in Perryville.