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Deb Lindsey | The Washington Post

Gratins are the ideal winter comfort food. Cauliflower-Pasta Gratin is shown.

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Plenty of oven-baked dishes are worth romanticizing about, especially during a bracingly cold winter. Their aromas and warmth can permeate an entire home. They seem to take care of themselves, at least in those final stages of cooking. And they promise warming, savory comfort for the table.

A gratin, though, can do even more. It emerges from the oven not only fragrant and bubbling hot but with a browned, crisp crust crowning the luxurious goodness underneath. What I’ve come to appreciate most is the gratin’s ability to make something special out of ordinary ingredients, on any ordinary night. Consider a casserole of meaty borlotti beans, their juices concentrated beneath a shaggy coat of bread crumbs, or a jumble of toasted farro and ruffly savoy cabbage, baked until the center is lacy with melted cheese and the top is chewy and crisp. These dishes come together like weeknight meals, but they’re dressed up just enough to taste like something more.

That in itself seems like nourishment.

But the gratin seems to suffer from an image problem: We view it largely as a side dish, a very special, rich one, most often built of potatoes. We imagine heavy cloaks of cream, cheese or bread crumbs, if not all three. In other words, the term “gratin” conjures up something delicious, but also something rather heavy, something you ought not eat a lot of, or very often. That is less an unfair portrayal than an incomplete one.

But the only feature the gratin truly requires is a browned, crisp topping — and, to achieve it, a shallow enough baking dish with sufficient surface area. Beyond that qualification, the gratin is practically limitless, as flexible as pasta, or stew: You can convey any number of flavors with any number of ingredients, depending on what you have a taste for and what’s in your pantry.

And though none of my recipes include meat — I’m vegetarian — gratins are a great place to slip in shreds of leftovers, such as last night’s roast chicken. The gratin is, in other words, open to interpretation, gracious, perhaps even a little charitable. It is not the speediest of dishes from start to finish — leave that to a quick pasta sauce — but low-maintenance relative to its rewards.

CAULIFLOWER-PASTA GRATIN

Makes: 6 servings

Using a bechamel in place of cream is a wonderful way to achieve a creamy, luscious result that isn’t overly rich. If you’d like something cheesier, you can stir an additional ¼ to ½ cup of grated cheese — more Parmigiano-Reggiano or something different, such as Gruyere or fontina — into the finished bechamel.

MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until warmed through.

3½ cups whole milk

1 sprig rosemary

1 clove garlic, smashed or crushed

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for the pasta cooking water

1-pound head cauliflower

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup flour

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

Pinch ground mace (may substitute nutmeg)

12 ounces dried whole-wheat fusilli (may substitute other small-shaped pasta, or use farro pasta)

1½ ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (may substitute pecorino-Romano cheese)

Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand.

Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until bubbles begin to appear. Add the rosemary sprig and the garlic; remove from the heat to steep for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup, discarding the solids.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Separate/cut the cauliflower florets and core into bite-size pieces, then add to the boiling water; cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cauliflower is just tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cauliflower pieces to the baking dish, spreading them in a single layer. Reserve the cooking water in the pot; you’ll use it to cook the pasta.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for several minutes to form a smooth roux. Gradually add the steeped milk, whisking until completely incorporated. Increase the heat to medium; once the mixture is barely bubbling, whisk for about 20 minutes to form a bechamel sauce thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season with the teaspoon of salt, the black pepper and mace. Turn off the heat.

About 10 minutes into the cooking of the sauce, return the large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Drain, then add to the baking dish with the cauliflower.

Whisk the bechamel to an even smoothness, if needed; pour evenly over the cauliflower and pasta, then fold gently to incorporate.

Sprinkle evenly with cheese and with black pepper, if desired. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the gratin is bubbling, the cheese is melted and the exposed bits of pasta are browned.

Wait for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition Per serving: 420 calories, 17 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

CELERY ROOT-KALE GRATIN WITH WALNUT BREAD CRUMBS

Makes: 4 servings

This earthy, rich-tasting gratin is nice and moist, even though just a small amount of liquid is added directly to the dish. It’s important that the vegetables be juicy and a little syrupy going into the casserole, so make sure the kale is allowed to steam slightly.

If you make your own vegetable broth for this gratin, consider adding some of the peel and scraps from the celery root to enhance the vegetable’s flavor in the dish. You can also substitute butter for some of the oil called for here, for added richness.

MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until warmed through; cover with aluminum foil if the topping starts to brown too much.

2 pounds celery root (celeriac), peeled and cut into ½-to-¾-inch cubes

2 cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, sliced thinly from top to bottom

1 clove garlic, minced

1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

2 tablespoons white wine or dry cider

Leaves from 1 pound (1 bunch) lacinato or curly kale, rinsed (but not dried) and torn into bite-size pieces

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread, crusts removed

1/3 cup walnut halves or pieces

Place the celery root pieces in a large saucepan; add enough of the broth to barely cover, reserving at least ¼ cup of the broth from the original 2 cups. Cook over medium heat; once the liquid starts to bubble, cook for about 5 minutes or until the celery root is fork-tender. Turn off the heat.

Heat half of the oil in a heavy saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, stirring to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent, then stir in the garlic and thyme. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion is tender and starting to pick up color.

Stir in the wine or cider; cook for a minute or two.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the celery root to the onion mixture, stirring gently to incorporate. Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and cook for a few minutes (over medium-low heat) to meld the flavors. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Discard the remaining broth used to cook the celery root, or reserve for another use.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into the same saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat; once the oil shimmers, add the kale and half of the reserved broth. Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt, stirring to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; partially cover and cook for 3 to 10 minutes until softened, depending on the toughness/type of the kale used. Stir occasionally; reduce the heat to low if the kale seems dry, or add the remaining reserved broth.

Transfer to the mixing bowl and season with the pepper and remaining salt.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a shallow 2-quart baking dish at hand.

Tear the bread into chunks, dropping them into a food processor as you work. Pulse to form coarse bread crumbs, then transfer to a separate bowl. Pulse the walnuts in the food processor briefly, just until coarsely chopped, then add to the bread crumbs. Drizzle the mix with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and toss gently to coat.

Spread the celery root-kale mixture in the baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with bread-crumb-walnut mixture. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the top is deep golden and the gratin is bubbling.

Wait for 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition per serving: 340 calories, 8 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

SAVOY CABBAGE AND FARRO GRATIN WITH FONTINA

Makes: 4 servings

Savoy cabbage, with its ruffled leaves, is especially nice here because of its pretty appearance and succulent texture. But if you have difficulty finding it, regular green cabbage or even lacinato kale can be used instead. Either way, the textures will be wonderful, the melted cheese binding the tender greens and the grains, which will crisp on top into chewy, toasty bits.

MAKE AHEAD: The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until it is warmed through and sizzling.

1 cup semi-pearled farro (may substitute semi-pearled barley or rye berries)

Pinch, plus ½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 small or ½ large savoy cabbage, cored (may substitute green or firm napa cabbage or lacinato kale)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish

1 large shallot, minced

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¾ teaspoon caraway seed, toasted (see NOTE)

1 cup homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth

1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

5 ounces fontina cheese, freshly grated or shredded (may substitute raclette cheese)

Toast half of the farro in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant, shaking the pan as needed to avoid scorching. Transfer to a medium saucepan; repeat with the remaining farro.

Cover the farro with water by a few inches and add the pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low; partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender yet still a bit chewy. Drain.

Coarsely chop the cabbage.

Heat the oil in the same large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the shallot and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until translucent, stirring a few times. Add the cabbage, the ½ teaspoon salt, the pepper and the toasted caraway seed, stirring to incorporate.

Stir in 3 tablespoons of the broth; reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the cabbage has wilted yet remains moist and somewhat plump. Stir occasionally and add broth if the mixture seems dry. Remove from the heat and stir in the drained farro and thyme leaves.

Add 4 ounces of the cheese and toss gently to incorporate.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a little oil to grease a 2 ½-to-3-quart baking dish.

Spread the cabbage mixture evenly in the baking dish, then pour 2/3 cup of the broth over it. Sprinkle with the remaining ounce of cheese. Bake for 25 for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted, the cabbage is browned in spots and the gratin is bubbling. Wait for 10 minutes before serving.

NOTE: Toast the caraway seed in a small skillet over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until fragrant, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from the heat.

Nutrition Per serving: 410 calories, 18 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

BEAN AND WINTER SQUASH GRATIN

Makes: 4 servings

Fine-grained, dense squash varieties such as kabocha, Hubbard and kuri work nicely in this gratin because they roast to a wonderful creamy consistency and hold their shape particularly well. If you can’t find those types, substitute any other winter squashes, such as butternut, or pumpkin.

As the gratin rests, it will continue to absorb liquid. If you plan to serve it right after baking, you might wish to reduce the bean liquid called for slightly, from 1 cup to ¾ cup.

MAKE AHEAD: The beans need to be boiled briefly, then soaked for 1 hour; or soak them for 8 to 12 hours. The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until warmed through; cover with aluminum foil if the topping starts to brown too much.

1 cup dried borlotti (cranberry) beans (or tiger’s eye or any pinto-style bean)

Fine sea salt

1 bay leaf

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Water (optional)

3 ounces country-style white or whole-wheat bread (crusts removed)

Flesh from 1 pound winter squash, such as kabocha or Hubbard, cut into 1-inch pieces (see headnote)

1 medium yellow onion, cut into small dice

2 large carrots, scrubbed and cut into small dice

2 teaspoons dried thyme

½ teaspoon fennel seed

1 dried arbol chili pepper, seeded and crumbled (may substitute ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 clove garlic, cut in half (any green sprout removed)

Place the beans in a pot with water to cover by several inches; bring to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, cover the pot and let the beans soak for 1 hour. Alternatively, they can be left to soak in tepid water to cover by several inches for 8 to 12 hours.

Add to the beans and their soaking liquid a generous pinch of salt, the bay leaf and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add water if necessary to keep the beans submerged by 2 to 3 inches. Cook over medium-high heat; once the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The beans might take longer than 1 hour to cook, depending on their freshness. Leave them in their soaking liquid while you finish preparing the rest of the gratin.

Tear the bread into chunks and place them in a food processor; pulse into crumbs. Transfer to a bowl and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil, tossing to coat evenly.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the squash pieces with 1 tablespoon of the oil and ¼ teaspoon of fine sea salt. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, turning them once with a spatula after about 15 minutes, until lightly golden and tender.

Heat 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the oil in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots, stirring to coat; cook until tender and just beginning to turn golden, about 7 minutes. Stir in the thyme, fennel seed and dried arbol chili pepper; cook for 2 minutes, then gently fold in the squash just until incorporated.

Discard the bay leaf in the beans; drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and gently stir them into the squash mixture. Season with ¼ teaspoon salt and the black pepper.

Rub the bottom and sides of a shallow 2-quart baking dish with the cut halves of garlic; discard the garlic or reserve it for another use.

Transfer the bean-squash mixture to the baking dish. Pour ¾ to 1 cup of the reserved bean-cooking liquid evenly over the top of the dish (see headnote), and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden. Wait for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Nutrition Per serving: 420 calories, 15 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 420 mg sodium, 15 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

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Deb Lindsey | The Washington Post

Gratins are the ideal winter comfort food. Cauliflower-Pasta Gratin is shown.

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