Friday, November 28, 2008

The day after. turkey gratin. (after Elizabeth David).

I have always loved turkey tetrazzini, the way I loved things like Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches with cream of tomato soup, something that seemed exotic to me, dished up on plastic trays in the school cafeteria. Distance and time have lent a romantic glow to those lukewarm lunches scooped without ceremony from a row of stainless-steel trays suspended over steaming water, shielded from the ravenous line of students by sheets of clear plexiglass. I have never eaten turkey tetrazzini anywhere but in the school cafeteria, and that was more than a decade ago, probably longer. There was something so seductive and comforting about it, the soft noodles, the bland yet salty turkey, the creamy white sauce that bound it all together. There might have been mushrooms, but I don't remember. I will never actually make turkey Tetrazzini, even though recipes abound. No one I know will eat it. I would have to try something else.

Then I stumbled upon a recipe from Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. I confess I have never actually tried one of her recipes. No wait, there was an experiment involving a flourless chocolate cake with almonds once, but it was not entirely successful. I am a terrible baker. But I found a recipe for turkey gratin on another blog and, of course, had to try it immediately. Well, almost immediately. There was Thanksgiving dinner to get through first. I came home last night with some leftover turkey and a little of my own spinach gratin; I spent my entire day at work waiting for the moment I could go home and start cooking. There were several modifications I had to make, simplifications that I considered necessary. First: none of that farting around with a bain-marie (double-boiler, for us Americans). While I have yet to manage a lump-free pudding (there's just something about me and cornstarch, I don't know what), and have had the occasional béchamel disaster, it is generally not difficult to make a béchamel sauce with just a saucepan. And a whisk.

Secondly, I didn't have any turkey or chicken stock. This is the downside of having Thanksgiving dinner at someone else's house: they have their own plans for the carcass. Thirdly, the recipe was sort of vague in terms of how much turkey we were dealing with, so I scaled back the amount of sauce to what I thought would be enough for the pound or so (maybe less) of turkey I had. (A mix of white and dark meat). I omitted the cream, added chopped parsley, forgot the pepper, used Gruyére instead of cheddar, and divided the meat and sauce into small individual gratin dishes instead of one bigger one. By this point I have deviated so far from the original recipe that I probably couldn't recognize the original recipe if it walked up to me and smacked me upside the head. Call this gratin the bastard step-grandchild of Elizabeth David's original Turkey Gratin.

I tend to get everything together so when I start making the sauce, I can concentrate on that instead of trying to grate the cheese and butter the dishes while keeping one eye on the stove. The sauce doesn't actually need frantic whisking, but being able to watch it is somehow reassuring. So long as the flour is completely incorporated into the butter (the roux), and the milk smoothly blended into the roux, and your heat is not too belligerent, there shouldn't be too much trouble, no need for more than the occasional swish of the whisk. Once the béchamel had thickened I added a splash of white wine and let it simmer a little more before stirring in the chopped parsley, Gruyére and some Grana Padano, then divided the meat and sauce between two dishes. My Staub rectangular ceramic cocottes are just the right size. I sprinkled one (the other will be my dinner tomorrow) with breadcrumbs and more cheese (I'll omit the breadcrumbs tomorrow, because I think they'd gone a bit stale...) and shoved it all into the oven. Actually, the toaster oven. I put the leftover spinach into another dish, sprinkled that with cheese, and put that in, too. Soon both dishes were bubbling madly, the cheese on top turning a blistery golden map.

Aside from the fact that having two creamy, cheesy dishes for dinner (no matter that one of them is, at least theoretically, mostly spinach) is a bit overwhelming, it was all fantastic. Better than the turkey tetrazzini of my memories. The sauce was creamy and smooth, spiked with the warmth of nutmeg, the cool sweetness of parsley, a hint of white wine. Perhaps another time I will try adding noodles, mushrooms even, for the nostalgia. Next year.

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