Recipe: Frances Bissell’s comforting potato dauphinoise

Potatoes are the ultimate comfort food: Thinkstock/PA.

Potatoes are the ultimate comfort food: Thinkstock/PA. - Credit: PA

Frances recommends serving your Gratin Dauphinoise with a roast organic chicken or slow roasted shoulder of lamb as the ultimate comfort food

Did everyone roast a chicken recently, I wonder?

We did, and so did a lot of our friends. The ultimate comfort food, it is also a perfect partner for all those nice wines you were keeping for a special occasion, but which seem to be dwindling appreciably.

One friend opened a 2003 Pomerol Chateau Petit Village.

In Paris, Laure and Michel served their roast chicken with a Chateauneuf du Pape Les Safres Clos du Caillou 2010, as well as a dish of peas from their allotment, as “our grandmother used to make it – a few pieces of carrot, 2-3 leaf of salad, oignons, one garlic – the sun was in our plates”, wrote Laure.

For our roast Tom also brought a Pomerol out of the ‘cellar’, a 1996 Chateau Trotanoy and I made a gratin dauphinoise.

Le Figaro’s first ‘comfort cooking’ column of the lockdown in France was the inspiration, by Jean-François Piège, with a description of this rich, filling and, indeed, sublimely comforting dish. He didn’t stint on the cream and butter; neither did I.

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But what drew me to the article was a reference to L’Epi d’Or, a classic old Parisian bistrot in the heart of the 1er arrondissement, rue Jean Jacques Rousseau to be precise. Tom and I met in a street in Paris many, many years ago. Well, this is the street. We could not afford to eat there then, but visiting Paris a few months later we enjoyed the first of many meals in L’Epi d’Or.

For years it was our Friday night dinner in Paris, and after just a few visits Monsieur René would greet us almost warmly, and the formidable patronne likewise. The steak was always perfectly cooked, nicely saignant, the frites crisp, golden and plentiful, the béarnaise generously unctuous and the Beaujolais a cheerful companion. As soon as we can start travelling again, it’s at the top of our itinerary.

In the meantime, let me share a little comfort around. This recipe is perfect for a Bank Holiday, but with every day feeling like a Sunday afternoon I’m sure you can fit it into your repertoire. Perhaps slow roast a shoulder of lamb if you have already had your fill of chicken. We enjoyed the potatoes so much that the chicken, a posh organic bird, paled into insignificance. Hold the chicken, let’s have another dauphinoise, said Tom.

With farmers’ markets still open, one need not look far for ingredients for a first course and pudding. Bundles of English asparagus, green or white, to start, with a home-made mayonnaise flavoured with lemon zest and juice. Strawberries to end, in a pastry case with mascarpone or whipped cream, or try sautéed strawberries. I have never appreciated cooked strawberries, but these are just lightly flashed in a hot frying pan with butter, quickly removed to serving bowls, then a little sugar and liqueur added, with some cream, boiled up to make a caramelised sauce to pour over the fruit. But given the amount of cream in the potatoes, just use liqueur and orange juice to make your sauce. Fresh mint or basil is a nice garnish. And strawberries have me thinking of another fresh first course; strawberry gazpacho. Make it as a classic Andalusian gazpacho, but with only one part tomato to four parts strawberries, and go easy on the red pepper and cucumber.

That hint of Spain reminds me. Have you given up trying to get a supermarket delivery slot? I have, ages ago. But they are not the only game in town. Wholesalers who have temporarily lost their restaurant and hotel customers welcome your enquiries. Recently I discovered Basco Fine Foods, run by ex-chef, Javier, and ex-wine merchant, Chris, a Spanish food and wine company based in Yorkshire which will deliver in two to three days. If we can’t travel to Spain at the moment, we can still enjoy the flavours of Spain; excellent products for the store cupboard, jamon iberico bellota and cheeses, sherries and wines from small producers and beef from Galicia as well as milk-fed lamb, suckling pig and iberico pork. King’s Fine Foods in London will deliver exquisite chocolate, coffee, caviar to your door. And thank goodness for independent wine merchants; Tom Innes at Fingal Rock is open for business on-line with deliveries dispatched with the minimum delay. And Corney & Barrow’s bright red van has been seen outside our door more than once. I can’t recommend these companies highly enough for finding a way to operate so efficiently during these strange times. One supermarket initiative that deserves a mention is Morrison’s food boxes; a very good idea, well-thought out and efficiently delivered. You might not like everything in the box – there are several to choose from – but it is a good stand-by.

Gratin dauphinoise

(Serves 2, plus left-overs. Or not)

Unsalted butter

750 g to 1 kg potatoes. I used new season’s Spunta from Cyprus. Charlottes would be good.

Garlic cloves – to taste; peeled and sliced

Semi-skimmed milk – see recipe.

Double cream – see recipe

Seasoning – as well as salt and pepper, J-F P suggests a light grating of nutmeg. I forgot to add it, but did not miss it.

Heat the oven to 180 C and liberally butter an oven-proof dish. Peel and slice the potatoes, about 0.5 cm thick. Arrange a layer of potatoes in the dish with slices of garlic and dots of butter. Season lightly. Continue with another layer of potatoes, garlic and butter, and finally place a top layer of potatoes and butter, but no garlic, as this will burn. Add enough milk to come half way up the layers of potatoes and pour on the double cream with a generous hand, making sure that the whole surface has been covered.

Put in the oven for about 90 minutes. The potatoes will absorb a lot of liquid, so you may need to add more milk and cream after an hour.

By the way, no Gruyère; that’s a gratin savoyarde

©Frances Bissell 2020. All rights reserved.