potato and caramelized onion stacks
Growing up, I ate a lot of scalloped potatoes. I mean, a lot. It’s one of those dishes that is perfect for farm life because it’s quick and easy and puts the abundance of potatoes lying around to good use. Plus it was always a fun thing to prepare. Perhaps I was tricked into thinking so, but I remember making those layers of potato and onion with such attention to detail that you’d think I was showing it in an exhibition later. “Life in Potatoes? Yes, it’s right through there in Gallery C.”
Fast forward to a lovely and well-reviewed French restaurant in Montreal, Quebec. There I sit with Mat, having just lost a game of “Who ordered it better?” (the entrée round), and anticipating the arrival of my steak de cheval (which I felt confident would take the plat principale round!) It was, of course, delicious. I was laughing to myself thinking how far the mighty vegetarian had fallen when I noticed the side dish. Sure, the color was a bit off and it was in the shape of a perfect square, but still… “Excuse me, what do you call this?” Our waitress approaches, skillfully refilling water and removing our empty bread and butter plate with swift discretion. She peers at where I am pointing, hesitating as if uncertain of what I am really asking. “Ça? C’est le gratin.” She lingered just a moment longer, perhaps waiting for me to say, “Oh no, sorry, not that. I mean this other much more exotic and expensive item on my plate.” But I had returned to staring at the humble side with captivated eyes. “…Gratin”
Besides it’s presentation and the addition of sweet potatoes (yum!), I was looking at none other than scalloped potatoes. It was like running into the shy kid you’d known in High School who had always avoided attention, preferring to hide behind glasses and clothes that were too big for him, and blinking from shock at the gorgeous, self-confident individual with perfect clothes and perfect teeth in front of you. “Scalloped? Scalloped Potatoes? Is that you?!” “Yes, it’s me! Oh, but I go by Gratin now.”
The thing I love about potatoes is that in their very essence, they are one of the humblest ingredients to work with. And yet the variety of ways to prepare them is astonishing! So with a modern twist on an old, shy classic, I give you my one-bite gratin.
6 baby potatoes
1/2 small red onion
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp brown sugar
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 tbs parmesan
6 tsp heavy (35%) cream
3 tsp butter
salt and pepper to taste
6 tbs sour cream or thick yogurt
1 sprig fresh thyme, extra
(makes 12 bites)
If your oven requires pre-heating, set it to 170°C (340°F).
Using a mandolin, a peeler, or a knife in a steady hand, thinly slice your baby potatoes. You can place them in a dish with cold water and set aside while you work on your onions. Thinly slice your onion. In a small pan, heat a little splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add your onions, balsamic, brown sugar and thyme leaves. Cook until onions are sticky and caramelized.
Dry off your potato slices. In a 12-hole mini-muffin tin, (I used a silicone tin; easier for popping them out!) distribute parmesan (1/2 tbs per hole). Now start stacking! You know the routine: potatoes, dot of butter, onions and cream. There were three layers of potatoes, 2 of onion in mine. But just go ahead and stack however you want. On each potato layer, I seasoned with just a smidgen of salt and pepper. Remember it is all going into one bite, so we don’t want to over-salt it. (Well, maybe you do. But think of your guests.)
I covered the tops with the stubby pieces of potato ends that I then discarded (into my mouth) after cooking so that the top wouldn’t be over-cooked. The finished product is creamy on the inside but crispy on the bottom and sides. The parmesan base especially is so yummy and… well just make them. You’ll see!
My stacks took an hour to cook to where I wanted them. But obviously everyone’s ovens are different, so that is a guideline only. Once cooked to your liking, remove from the oven and turn off the heat. They should pop out easily thanks to that parmesan base. Transfer to paper towel to soak up any grease. Spoon your sour cream/yogurt over top and sprinkle with some extra thyme. Place on a serving tray and bring out to your eager eaters!
And when one of your guests excitedly asks you, “Ooh, what’s this?”, you can respond, “Ça? C’est le gratin!”