(Bonne Femme front left, Gratin Dauphinois back right)
In the UK, we tend to boil, mash, roast or make chips from spuds but not do much else. Trust the French to make them more interesting! Two of the easiest preparations, both pretty similar, are Gratin Dauphinois and Pommes de terres bonne femme. The first is vegetarian (not vegan) but is chock-full of cream (I did say it was French) so isn’t one for everyday, and the second is healthy with a good blast of chicken stock so isn’t suitable for veggies. Both work best with waxy potatoes, or at least not especially floury ones, and this kind of recipe is why waxy potatoes are much more common in Francophone countries than in the UK. Both dishes need at least two layers of sliced potatoes but preferably not more than four, since the browned and crisped outsides are the best bit, and they are both great accompaniments to a steak or other simple cutlet and serve two.
Generously butter the inside of an oven-safe container, approximately 5 inches wide by 8 inches long (or equivalent area) and at least two inches deep. I use an enamelled cast iron dish, as this gets very hot itself and helps to cook the underside of the potatoes and crisp them up, but a ceramic dish is fine provided it can handle high temperatures. Set the oven temperature at gas mark 8, 450°F or 232°C.
Slice two medium sized potatoes thinly and put a layer to cover the bottom of the dish. Grind some fresh pepper and nutmeg and sprinkle with a little salt, a little chopped garlic and pour some double cream thinly. Add another layer of potato and cover again with salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic. Repeat until all the potato is used and finish with a topping of cream.
Put the dish in the oven for 35 minutes. The potatoes should come out with a deep golden brown colour. When sliced open, the cream inside will have formed a semi-solid ‘cheese’, caking the slices of potato together. Serve in wedges. Because this is so rich, it really helps to have a leafy salad with a tangy vinaigrette on the side to cut through the richness. If you wanted to serve just the potatoes and salad alone, add a little cheese on the top of each layer of potatoes before putting them in the oven in order to make a main course out of it.
Pommes de terres bonne femme
This means “goodwife’s potatoes” and illustrates the virtues of making simple ingredients very good indeed. Given how easy this is to make, it really tastes special and is a regular in our house.
As above, grease the inside of the container. As this is using chicken stock, chicken fat would be an appropriate fat to use, but butter or oil would also be fine. Slice two potatoes and also a shallot or half an onion. Lay the potato slices in the dish and then a layer of onions and some salt and pepper. Continue until all the potato is used and top up with chicken stock, allowing a quarter inch clearance at the top. Put into a hot oven and cook, this time for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes have a deep brown colour and most of the liquid has evaporated – there should still be a little, thickened liquid at the end of cooking. If the potatoes are still swimming in stock, put them back in the oven for another five to ten minutes to let the liquid cook down.