This light, elegant gratin is perfect for spring. The oven-baked gratin form acknowledges still-chilly spring evenings; the delicate flavor of leeks and sunchokes evokes visions of the first green shoots of spring.
Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are the tubers of a flower that looks like a small sunflower. They are dug in the spring before the plant flowers, so they are one of few vegetables that are truly in season right now. They look nothing like artichokes (in fact, they look like ginger root); they get the “artichoke” part of their name from their delicate, artichoke-like flavor.
Raw or lightly cooked, their texture is juicy and crisp, like jicama or fresh water chestnut. They are delicious peeled, sliced, and added to a salad; or throw them into a stir-fry at the end of cooking, just long enough to warm through. With more cooking, they grow softer and starchy, rather like a potato.
Sunchokes have their place in haute cuisine – the first time I tasted them was this winter, in a cream sauce under a lobster salad at the amazing restaurant Aquavit in NYC.
Though I’ve read that sunchokes are too tough for a regular peeler and you should use a paring knife, I actually found them quite easy to peel with my trusty OXO potato peeler – and a real pain with a knife.
Potato and Sunchoke Gratin with Leeks
1 medium leek
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large russet baking potato
10 medium (golf ball sized) sunchokes
1/2 cup milk (preferably 2% or whole)
2 ounces flavorful aged cheese, such as Parmesan or aged Asiago
Freshly ground pepper
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the dark green part off the leek and discard. Cut the leek in half lengthwise, then slice in 1/4 inch pieces. Put the sliced leek into a strainer and rinse to get rid of any grit. Peel the garlic and slice thinly. Saute leek and garlic in the olive oil until soft. Set aside.
Grease a shallow gratin dish. Peel the potato and slice in half lengthwise. Cut one half into very thin half-moon slices. Layer in the bottom of the dish, then salt lightly.
Peel the sunchokes, slice thinly, and layer over the potato. Spread the leek mixture over the sunchokes. Slice the second potato half and layer on top. Pour the milk over the gratin, then sprinkle with cheese and freshly ground pepper.
Cover with greased aluminum foil, place in the top third of the oven, and bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and test for doneness with a fork or small paring knife – you want the knife to pierce through evenly. (If it seems underdone, replace the foil and bake another 15 minutes.) Remove foil and bake another 15 minutes, until the top is golden brown.
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