Potatoes and cheese. I mean really, can life get any better. There is just something about the humble potato cooked in a creamy cheesy sauce that screams comfort. Many people have a hard time making augratin potatoes from scratch and resort to that box stuff in the store. In fact, a friend of mine called me up the other day wondering what went wrong with hers. Somehow she ended up with a liquidy mess and despite being in the over for well over an hour, the potatoes weren’t cooked through.
I usually make the Julia Childs recipe from the Art of French Cooking with great success. The key to her recipe is to cut the potatoes very thinly, but not to wash them off before layering them. It is the starch in the potato that she relies on to thicken the milk while cooking. Then, the augratin is cooked for a long time in the oven, first covered to allow the potatoes to cook, then uncovered do the milk can thicken up and the top brown over.
When I saw a recipe for Potatoes and Feta au Gratin by Peter at Kalofagas I knew I just had to make it. I always buy have a big slab of Feta from Costco in the fridge. Usually I use about half of it, then it takes me months of contemplation of figuring out how to use the rest. As much as Eddie and I love feta, there are only two of us in the house and this is a lot of cheese to eat. So, this recipe was the perfect way to consume what I had in the fridge. The recipe itself is really simple. Peter calls for par boiling the potatoes first, then slicing and layering them in the casserole dish. This does two things: 1) reducing the total cooking time because the potatoes are half cooked before going in the oven; 2) requires you to make a béchamel sauce because the starch from the potato cannot be relied on to thicken the milk. I actually like this method. It is good for a work night when you don’t have 2 hours before dinner to put this together and get it in the oven. I was able to assemble this dish (including par boiling the potatoes) and get it into the oven in 20 minutes. Forty minutes later and it was ready.
I did adapt Peter’s recipe slightly and think it still turned out great. Since there was so much flavor in the cheese sauce I thought simplicity was better for the rest of the meal. Eddie grilled up some fish and fresh local asparagus I had picked up from the farmer’s market and we had one heck of a meal. I thought the salty sharpness from the Feta would be a prominent flavor, but it really wasn’t. The creamy béchamel sauce mellowed out its pungency. And, the incorporation of rosemary and olives really rounded out the dish. This was so good, that I ate it for breakfast the next day. And the next day.
Potatoes and Feta au Gratin, adapted from Kalofagas
4 large potatoes (I used 6 red-skinned potatoes)
3 tbs. unsalted butter
1 large onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 sprig of rosemary, plus 2 teas. finely chopped
2 cups of crumbled feta
1/3 cup chopped greek olives (*see note)
salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heated 400F oven
1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add a good amount of salt and potatoes and boil for 12-15 minutes. Drain. Bring the temperature of the potatoes down by placing in an ice bath until they are safe to handle.
2. Slice the potatoes into thin slices and reserve. I used red potatoes and there was no need to skin them.
While potatoes are cooking:
3. In a medium saucepan, add your butter over medium-high heat and then add your onions, garlic, bay leaf, half of your rosemary sprig and saute for 5 minutes until your onions have softened. (Just put the rosemary spring in whole, you will remove it later.)
4. Add your flour and stir to cook the flour for a couple of minutes. Add the milk over medium heat and stir until the Bechamel has thickened.
5. Remove your bay leaf, rosemary and garlic.
6. Add half (1 cup) of your crumbled feta. Stir until incorporated, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Keep warm and reserve.
7. Grease an approx. 9" X 13" baking dish and line the bottom with a coat of Bechamel. (I actually used a smaller pan so that the end product was thicker.)
8. Divide sliced potatoes in half. Lay down one half of the sliced potatoes in rows, overlapping each other. Keeping making rows until you use up half the potatoes.
9. Spread about 1 cup of the Bechamel over the potatoes.
10. Lay down the other half of potatoes on top.
11. Spread the rest of the Bechamel over the potatoes, scatter the remaining crumbled feta on top, followed by the chopped olives and 2 teas. chopped rosemary.
Crack some fresh black pepper over the top and bake in the middle rack of your oven for 30-40 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
Note: I had a jar of chopped olive bruscetta from Trader Joe’s in my fridge and used this instead. Key here is to use really good olives. No canned black or green olives in water. Spring for the good olives packed in oil. It will make a huge difference in the flavor.