The sauce for this potato dauphinoise with pumpkin uses a mixture of homemade vegetable stock and cream for a light, beautifully flavoured vegetarian main course or side dish. The layers of white potato and orange pumpkin look fantastic on a Christmas dinner table.
My first ever kitchen job was working as a prep cook at an organic cafe in Bordeaux, Bistro Bio, as part of a language exchange. Speaking very little French, I rarely had any idea what was going on, but I did learn something extremely valuable - something absolutely central to my present happiness and career. The joy of vegetables.
By that time I had been a vegetarian for about fifteen years, but horrifyingly, vegetables were relatively absent from my diet. I still marvel at the way my body continued to function with apparent success with so few nutrients actually going in it.
At Bistro Bio I was introduced to fresh organic vegetables, grown in the radiant sunshine of the south of France. What a revelation! I will never forget the plate of crunchy lettuce I ate as part of my (substantial) staff lunch every day. Just leaves dressed with a simple dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Having previously only experienced the sad little lettuces in British supermarkets, I just could not understand how salad could taste so good. It was a complete and utter feast. As enjoyable as eating a four-cheese pizza, a chocolate cake, but a riot of health. The unbridled joy of southern European vegetables, picked in the heat of summer at their peak of flavourful perfection.
The other dish I will never forget is this gratin. It was made as a side dish to accompany the day's ever-changing menu du jour and as such was only around once. Having tasted it once, I simply could not stop myself shovelling some in my mouth whenever I walked past it. It was starting to look extremely diminished and I was actually beginning to worry that there wouldn't be any left if someone ordered. In the end I think I was only saved by the fact that very few people ordered the special that day. Their loss.
I cannot promise this version will quite live up to that reputation as I consider sun-soaked, organic, French vegetables to truly be at the heart of this amazing flavour, but it will still be delicious! The pumpkin adds a touch of sweetness, but it is definitely not overpowering.
You can adjust the proportions of cream to vegetable stock to taste to make a creamier or lighter version. Both will be excellent. You can even make it without cream entirely, but I do think a few tablespoons adds an important dimension. This gratin also uses a novel stock-making technique I picked up from Cook's Illustrated - I use it in some capacity every time I cook winter squash or pumpkin. Make sure to add the cheese right at the end - the root vegetables need to cook for a long time to get meltingly tender and the cheese only really needs about ten minutes.
I strongly recommend using a mandoline to cut the pumpkin and potatoes. It will turn the preparation for this dish from lengthy wrestle between you, the knife and a very hard winter squash to a just-back-from-work food prep breeze. The slices will also be wafer thin and stunning uniform and will cook all the better for it. To be able to see the beautiful layers evident in the photograph, you will need to wait until the dish has completely cooled - the next day perhaps - before slicing, reheating and serving.
Potato dauphinoise with pumpkin
- 1 small c. 15cm wide pumpkin
- 4 large potatoes
- 1 tbsp homemade stock paste optional
- 100-200 ml double cream
- 300 ml water
- 2 garlic cloves crushed
- 6 fresh sage leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 10 scrapes whole nutmeg freshly grated
- 100 g strong cheese grated or sliced (I used Tornegus & Golden Cross charcoaled goat cheese)
- small handful of herbs to taste (I used thyme & oregano)
- Preheat the oven to 230c. Find a baking dish about 30 x 20cm or similar. Cut the pumpkin in half and scrape out the seeds and fibres. Put this in a saucepan with the water, garlic and sage. Microwave the rest of the squash for 2 minutes - this will help you peel it - and remove the skin. Add this to the saucepan and bring to the boil - this technique creates a flavourful, beautifully orange stock from what would have ordinarily been thrown away. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.
- While the stock is simmering, slice the pumpkin on the mandoline and set aside. When the stock is ready, strain it into another container to remove the squash remnants and sage - press them in the strainer to extract maximum flavour - and return to the saucepan. Add the homemade stock paste, if using, the cream, nutmeg and salt and pepper. Taste the stock - it should be flavourful and fairly salty as it will need to season both the potatoes and pumpkin in while it bakes. When you are happy with it, pour a little into the bottom of a baking dish to prevent the vegetables sticking, and keep the rest of it hot.
- Cut the potatoes (doing this at the last minute stops them browning). Start layering the potatoes and pumpkin, alternating, keeping the vegetables overlapping but fairly loose so the liquid will be able to penetrate. When you have finished layering, pour over the rest of the liquid making sure there is still about 1cm left at the top to allow for bubbling up. Cover with foil and put in the oven.
- Cook for about 30 minutes, to bring the cream/stock up to a gentle boil in the dish, then turn the oven down to 180c and cook gently until a knife poked through the vegetables reveals them to soft and thoroughly cooked - about two hours. Take it out of the oven, sprinkle with the cheese and herbs and grind on an generous helping of black pepper. Return to the oven for about 10 minutes until melted and toasty. Rest for about 10 minutes, then serve.