Lightened version of childhood potato gratin classic.
Today’s post is about the food.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I would be focusing on root vegetables this month, and today I’m starting with the common, much maligned white potato. Its rap sheet is long, starting with carbs, starch, and a lack of nutrients. And the potato has done nothing to redeem itself by the shady company it keeps (butter, cheese and bacon).
But do white potatoes deserve such a black eye?
Let’s start with this carb term that gets bandied about a lot. Talk about an entire class that has been completely trashed over the past few years. The truth is carbohydrates are macronutrients that are necessary for the proper function of our bodies. Our bodies use carbs to make glycogen, which is converted to glucose to provide that dose of blood sugar to the cells we need when we want to move and think; even for digestion and cellular renewal. But carbohydrates are not all created equally. There are simple carbs and complex carbs, and I look at them like a yin / yang duality.
Simple carbs wind you up tight by causing a spike in blood sugar with the rush of an energy boost that doesn’t last long – reminding me of unsustainable yin energy. These are your refined carbs like baked items containing all-purpose white flour, sugar, fruit juice, and high-fructose corn syrup. They carry an addictive quality that can cause the nearly uncontrollable sugar cravings and compulsive eating many of us fight every day, and can alter our moods. Worse, they’re increasingly associated with the sharply higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, particularly in children, as well as some forms of cancer.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are your marathon runners that provide sustainable, steady energy over the long haul – reminding me of sustainable yang energy. This group touts high-fiber foods that aid your digestion, stabilize blood sugar levels, and helps you feel satisfied longer following your meal. Potatoes fall into this group, along with fruits, other vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, so you’d think this would be their get-out-of-jail card. But nothing with food these days is simple.
The Glycemic Index (GI) ranks carbohydrates with a numerical score according to how quickly they are broken down during digestion into basic glucose. Fast breakdown equals spikes, which is believed to at least contribute to inflammation in the body. Pure glucose scores 100. Fruit roll-ups scream in at 99. The lower the rank, the longer it takes for the food to be absorbed, and the longer we feel satiated after eating. Potatoes, interestingly, differs according the preparation method. Boiled potatoes, ranked at 82, are lower than baked potatoes, which soar to 111. Truthfully, neither number is good.
But that’s not the whole story.
GI numbers don’t take serving size into consideration. The GI score could represent five cups of something, versus a serving size of only one cup. The Glycemic Load (GL), however, takes the serving size into consideration, so that’s a more accurate number to look at when evaluating carbs. Re-looking at a boiled russet potato, it’s GL settles in at 21. GL numbers from 10 – 20 are considered to have moderate impact on blood sugar. So now the white potato, if it’s boiled, doesn’t look so bad after all.
Over the last couple of years, the carb accusations have blurred white potatoes health benefits, of which there are quite a few.
- They’re packed with fiber, especially with the skin, and have about the same amount of digestible protein as 1/2 glass of milk.
- They’re loaded with potassium, about the same as a banana.
- They’re also rich in Vitamins C and B6, the latter of which is needed for cellular renewal and a healthy nervous system.
- They contain no fat, cholesterol, and minimal sodium.
With that in mind, I created this potato gratin that reduces the amount of cheese typically used, and swaps out the cream and whole milk for vegetable broth and a little 1% milk. I added some bacon lardons for my meat-loving husband, but they’re entirely optional. Next time around I’m swapping out the bacon for kale.
Skinny Potato and Fennel Gratin with Leek Confit
- 4 strips bacon (optional)
- 2 1/2 large russet potatoes
- 2 heads of fennel
- 1/4 cup Gruyere cheese
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup leek confit
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary leaves, preferably freshly dried
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt. to taste
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup 1% milk
- 2 cups vegetable broth
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Stack the bacon strips on top of each other, and slice across the width to form 1/4" little slabs called lardons. Saute in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat until crispy. Set aside and drain. Discard the grease.
Thinly slice the potatoes and fennel. I use a small mandolin and use the second thinnest setting so the slices are even in thickness, and only 1/8" thick. The thicker the slices, the longer it will take for the gratin to cook.
Form a little assembly line of the layers: grate the cheese, pull the thyme leaves from the twigs, and chop the dried rosemary. I dry my own rosemary but just buying fresh rosemary (or cutting it from a bush in my garden) and leave it out on the counter for a few days.
Place a layer of potato slices along the bottom, and top it with a layer of fennel slices. Smear 1/4 cup leek confit over the top of the fennel. Sprinkle a little of the bacon, cheeses, herbs, salt and pepper over the top. Repeat the layers three more times, but withhold a couple of tablespoons of cheese to the side.
In a small pot over medium heat, melt the butter. When the butter is melted and sizzling, whisk in the flour, one tablespoon at a time. Allow the flour/butter mixture to cook for a minute or two, occasionally whisking.
Pour the vegetable broth and milk together into a measuring cup, and slowly whisk it into the flour/butter mixture starting with about two tablespoons at a time. Once a thick sauce is formed, add the broth in a steady, but slow, stream; continuing to whisk. Bring to a gentle simmer and pour over the potato gratin layers.
Cover the gratin with foil; place the dish on a baking sheet; and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle on the last of the cheese and bake for another five to ten minutes, or until the cheese is melted.