I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that a vegetable gratin is not a one-dish recipe. There is certainly a lot of appeal in the idea that you can stack sliced raw vegetables in a casserole, pour over some cream or stock, top with cheese, and bake to perfection – without having to wash anything but your cutting board and chef’s knife.
Unfortunately, you will be waiting a very long time if you take this tack. Baking with liquid is simply not an effective way of softening raw vegetables, unless you have sliced them paper thin, scalded your liquid (which requires an extra dish already), and taken vigilant care not to layer them too thickly.
If you are not fastidious enough to commit to these steps – or want to include more than one kind of vegetable in your gratin – you must cook your vegetables before layering them in the pan. Granted, this requires a few more dishes and a few more steps than your typical casserole. But – here’s the good news – if you’re willing to pre-cook your vegetables, you are guaranteed a peerless gratin containing enough complementary textures and flavors to keep you enthralled till the last bite. Such a gratin might not be a one-dish recipe, but it’s certainly a one-dish meal.
A superlative fall vegetable gratin has four crucial components. For autumnal panache, you need a carbohydrate-rich, slightly sweet vegetable: either winter squash or a root vegetable like sweet potato, carrot or parsnip.
You need a green vegetable to give the thing a healthy kick and to keep it from getting bogged down in starchy richness. (Collards are wonderful – always hearty, never slimy – but other leafy greens are acceptable, too, as are broccoli and Brussels sprouts.)
Thirdly, you need a cooked grain.
Hear me out: Many gratins call for additional starch in the form of breadcrumbs, but breadcrumbs are not only flavorless, they also contribute no structural integrity. Grains form a solid foundation for any gratin, and they leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that what you are looking at is a main course, not a side dish.
Finally, you need a melting cheese.
Take this recipe, then, as a formula rather than a strict prescription. The idea is to cook each component in the way that brings out its best qualities – this means roasting the squash, steaming the collards, and boiling the wild rice – and then to layer them together with the cheese and to bake the gratin just long enough to give it a crisp, browned surface.
For a printable version of the recipe, click the link: