The first time I ever had a traditional gratin, I actually thought I was being virtuous. Look at this! I thought. A dish based entirely on vegetables! That is, until I actually took a bite, and realized the vegetables were nothing but a coagulant for what seemed like an entire carton of cream and a pound of cheese. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a bona fide cheese and cream fan, but it was even too much for me. A single bite was so thick and heavy, the only discernible flavors were fat and salt. This gratin is far from traditional and probably even pushes the definition of “gratin,” but the flavor of each vegetable (you can use whichever ones you like) comes through loud and clear. Plus, you can eat it as a main dish without a whit of guilt.
The idea to incorporate rice into a gratin came from Faith Durand’s “Not Your Mother’s Casseroles.” I admit I was skeptical at first, but it serves the same purpose of extra cheese without the excess grease. We got about 6 servings out of this.
• 3 lbs. assorted root vegetables (I used 2 sweet potatoes—the real white ones, not yams, because I had some on hand, but I would recommend yams—a rutabaga, 2 carrots, and a large parsnip): $2.91
• 1 1/2 cups grated fontina, Gruyère, or comté cheese (I used Uruguayan fontina from Grocery Outlet): $2.20
• 4 medium shallots, minced: 10 cents
• 2 garlic cloves, minced: 2 cents
• 1 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped (garden): $0
• 1/4 cup medium-grain white rice: 10 cents
• A few T of olive oil: 15 cents
• Salt and pepper: 2 cents
• Optional side salad (garden): $0
TOTAL: $5.50/6 = 92 cents
First, parboil the rice: Heat a small saucepan of water to boil, add the rice, boil for 10 minutes, drain and set aside.
Mix the shallots, garlic, thyme, and cheese together in a small bowl. When the rice has cooled down, stir that in as well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Peel and slice the vegetables to an even thickness of 1/4 inch.
A mandoline is perfect and will make short work of this. The slicing disc on a food processor may necessitate most vegetables being cut in half, so the final product won’t look as pretty, but it will also make short work of the task. (It’s what I used.) Finally, if you don’t have either, use a very sharp knife and try to be as even as possible with the slices, because you don’t want them to cook at different rates.
Toss the slices with 2 tsp kosher salt, a generous pinch of black pepper, and enough olive oil to lightly coat all slices.
Grease a 13×9 baking dish with olive oil. Arrange 1/3 of the slices neatly on the bottom. (You can do all of one kind of vegetable, or an assortment.) Spread half the cheese/rice/shallot mixture over the top. Arrange another 1/3 of slices on top. Spread with the other half of the cheese/rice/shallot/mixture. Top with a final layer of vegetables. Bake tightly covered with foil for 25 minutes. Then remove foil and bake uncovered for another 25 minutes, until all vegetables are softened.